Waldorf is a holistic educational model that strives to teach the whole child… not just their head, but their heart and soul too. Known for its unique aesthetic and focus on storytelling, Waldorf is appealing and exciting but can also feel overwhelming. Here, homeschool mama Kirstee Raki explains how you too can gift your children a Waldorf-inspired education by understanding a few key principles.
By Kirstee Raki | This Whole Home
The Big Idea
“Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.” (Rudolf Steiner)
Let’s start with a little helpful background: Waldorf education was born in the early 20th century, the brainchild of an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. He based his model on anthroposophy, his philosophy of the nature of human beings. Waldorf education draws on anthroposphy's ideas of child development and focuses on bringing particular topics to children at an ideal age to support their growth into creative, happy, and healthy people.
It's education for mind, body, and soul.
Some Core Principles to Consider
The very first place people get stuck with Waldorf is trying to wrap their minds around the idea of anthroposophy. But this doesn't have to be a deal breaker. I have written in-depth on how to approach Waldorf without anthroposophy. I am not an anthroposophist myself, but we have successfully homeschooled with a Waldorf-inspired approach for several years now.
What is important though, is to understand and know how to apply a few key principles. Whether you are following Waldorf to a tee or just looking to borrow a little inspiration, these are the ideas to focus your attention on:
- Humans are more than just their thoughts. We are body and spirit too.
- Children develop in roughly seven year cycles and learning should be approached differently in each cycle.
- Different topics and skills should be taught at particular ages to complement your child's development. These are taught to the child in main lessons.
- Teaching should be creative and artistic, and teachers (in this case parents) should be free to teach the way they like while keeping the developmental curriculum in mind.
- You should focus on giving your child experiences before teaching them the concepts.
Notice how none of these principles have anything to do with the way your home looks, the toys you buy or the art materials you are using. While those things can enhance your child's learning and support a Waldorf education at home, they aren't the Waldorf education themselves.
Feel free to immerse yourself in the pretty Waldorf lifestyle, but don't worry if it's not in your budget or doesn't match your sense of style. You can certainly 'do' Waldorf on a K-Mart budget!
The Seven Year Cycles of Childhood
A four-year-old and an eight-year-old are very different creatures. They don't speak the same way, act the same way or learn the same way. So it doesn't make sense to teach them in the same way.
This is why, in Waldorf, children are taught differently depending on their age. Childhood can be divided up into roughly seven year cycles, each with their own style of teaching and learning.
In the first seven years of life, children learn through imitation. There is no focus on academics at this age. Instead, children learn through watching their parents and participating in the day-to-day life of the home. Your role is to present yourself as someone worthy of being imitated.
- Develop a rhythm to your days so your child knows what to expect and begins to understand time.
- Tell lots of stories and sing songs to lay the foundations for future literacy and numeracy learning.
- Have your child participate in household chores including cooking, gardening and tidying up.
In the second seven year cycle, from roughly ages 7-14, children learn through guidance. Your role in this cycle is to be the authority, the person who knows and is able to guide your child to their own knowing.
- Prepare lessons ahead so you are a confident guide.
- Tell stories rather than read them.
- Show your child what to do instead of just telling them.
The Main Lesson
When it comes to lessons, Waldorf has a unique way of structuring the days and weeks. The first few of hours each day are devoted to a main lesson, which focuses on one topic rather than one subject. Main lessons on the same broader topics are taught every day for several weeks. This is called a block. You can combine subject areas in a main lesson, or you can focus on one particular subject area.
Main lessons should include elements which teach to head, heart, and hands. This means there should be movement included, as well as academic learning and an artistic element as well.
- Use this handy guide to know what to teach when.
- Introduce new concepts through storytelling.
- Provide lots of hands on learning in your main lesson.
Creative Teaching is NOT The Same As Art Teaching
A lot of people are drawn to Waldorf education because they like the focus on art. And there is a lot of art in Waldorf! But it's really important to realise that while Steiner instructed teachers to teach artistically, he didn't tell them to turn everything into an art lesson. Teaching artistically means teaching creatively.
Look for new ways to teach concepts. Ask yourself if adding a drawing element to the lesson will help cement the learning or if are you adding it just because you think you need an art element! Could a song help teach the concept more effectively? Would creating a short skit be the best way to explore the topic?
There are lots of ways to be creative and teach head, heart, and hands. Definitely include art in your week, and hopefully include an artistic element in most days, but don't try to turn every lesson into an art lesson.
Experience Comes Before Concepts
Think back to your own school days. Most often when it came time to learn something new, your teacher would explain a concept, work through some samples, then give you a set to work on yourself. This was the same whether you were learning a new grammar rule, a mathematical formula or a scientific theory. Waldorf does things differently.
In Waldorf, experiences are brought to a child before concepts. This is as true for high school science as it is for first grade maths and everything in between.
- For science, you may set up a demonstration, have your child recreate it and then explain the theory behind it.
- For music, teach your child to play by copying you before you even mention the names of the notes, let alone start teaching them to read the music.
- In math, tell a story, and use the characters from the story as inspiration for a hands on method for calculation. Have the child use the manipulatives over and over and allow them to discover the underlying concept for themselves. Once they have made their discovery, you can explain the rules and have them practice without the manipulatives and story.
You can see the idea of “experience first” in the way reading is taught as well. Children first experience language as young children through listening and then copying sounds and words. Once they enter first grade, you tell them stories… usually traditional fairy tales. From these stories, you take images and use them to illustrate the letters. For example a swan from The Ugly Duckling may illustrate the letter ‘s'. Typically a mountain shows the shape of the letter 'm'.
Your child will copy your drawing, then copy the letter alone. Your child copies the letters and then copies the words. Choose short phrases to copy that can be recited again and again, giving sound to the shapes. Through memorising the sounds children eventually learn to read alone. The experience of language comes before learning and applying the concepts.
- Lay a firm foundation with lots of songs and nursery rhymes.
- Include lots of choral reading of tongue twisters and rhymes.
- Include hands on learning by having your child make the letters with beeswax.
- Include form drawing in your lessons to help your child with the necessary motor skills for writing.
Steps & Resources
I'm not a Waldorf-trained teacher. I'm just a mama who couldn't afford to send her kids to a Steiner school, so I studied like mad to make it a reality in our home. You can do the same if you want to!
Not everyone who chooses Waldorf-inspired homeschooling stays true to all of the guidelines. You should feel free to do what works in your home. Some people even combine Waldorf and Montessori, Waldorf and Unschooling or Waldorf and Charlotte Mason. Personally, I fall into the last camp and combine Waldorf and Charlotte Mason. It works!
Waldorf is a teacher-parent intensive style of education. Ongoing learning for you—the parent—is super important with this style of teaching, so invest in yourself! Here are a few of my favourite resources that I think may be really helpful to you:
The Tasks and Content of the Steiner-Waldorf Curriculum
Painting and Drawing in Waldorf Schools
Creative Form Drawing
Colouring with Block Crayons
Have questions? Have we missed something? Let us know in the comments below so we can keep this article a helpful free resource.
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Kirstee is mum to two from QLD, collector of chickens, a terrible housekeeper, a no-nonsense country-style cook, lover of mason jars, passable vegetable gardener, holistic homeschool educator, to-do list fanatic and bush wanderer. She blogs at thiswholehome.com and shares advice and encouragement on implementing a holistic model of education in your home, as well as practical tips to stay sane as a homeschool mama. Instagram @this.whole.home.