Waldorf education is based on the work of Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The first Waldorf School, founded in Germany in 1919, arose from Steiner's studies in a new branch of philosophy he called Anthroposophy (a Greek word meaning "human wisdom"), which is best described as the knowledge of man. It is a diverse discipline that seeks a fuller understanding of the inner nature of the human soul and spirit and its enormously expansive potential for further development.
Steiner, an astonishingly versatile scholar who edited the works of Goethe and founded the fields of Bio-dynamic Gardening and Anthroposophical Medicine, was asked in 1919 by Emil Molt, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, to design an educational system based upon this unique vision, for the children of the workers of his factory.
At the heart of Waldorf education is Steiner’s understanding of the 3 major stages of development in the life of the child, occurring in seven-year cycles. During the period from birth about age 7, the child learns through imitation and movement, which Steiner called the development of the will. Around the time the child loses his baby teeth about age 7, he enters a stage of feeling, in which he learns through the imagination and artistic expression. Once he reaches puberty at about age 14, he reaches the thinking stage, when abstract concepts and intellectual thought become his main way of learning.
Waldorf Kindergartens create an environment rich in opportunities for imitation and imaginative play. Classroom decor intends to help nourish children's instinctual reverence for nature. Simple toys such as dolls, puppets and blocks are made of natural materials, such as wool, wood, cotton cloth, acorns, leaves, etc. These as well as un-designed lengths of cloth for costumes and dressing up engage the child’s imagination. Finger plays and circle games incorporate elements of rhythm; repetition and movement through verses, songs and stories are used to inspire imitation and movement. Fairy tales nourish the child’s inner, imaginative life. To evoke their aliveness, stories are told, rather than read, and are often repeated for 2-3 weeks at a time to allow the children to enter deeply into the story’s world and images.
Children generally do not start Waldorf Kindergarten before age 3-4, as Steiner believed children are best served by being home with their mothers up to this age. He considered the period of childhood up to seven to be sacred. Thus, play, movement, and fantasy are the most important activities in a Waldorf kindergarten.
Because Waldorf education strives to balance academic learning with artistic and practical activities, children may learn knitting, gardening, movement, and other skills along with academic material. "Early childhood is an incredibly rich time of growth and learning, but the process of learning is far more important than the content of learning at this stage of life," says Joan Almon, coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood and editor of the book, What is a Waldorf Kindergarten?
Reading, writing and arithmetic are not introduced until the next stage, at around age seven, so as not to take children away from the last year or two of the magical dream-like state of childhood. This period of fantasy play is not considered frivolous; rather, a wide, rich imaginative life is considered the foundation for language skills and abstract thinking in the next stage of development.
The Waldorf Education is the 3rd largest Education Movement after Government Schooling and Christian Schools in the World. Further more, early childhood education in general has benefited from the wisdom and insight of Rudolf Steiner’s work over time, and continues to evolve as many independent and publicly funded schools continue to employ his methods today. By recognizing the needs of young children and implementing strategies to effectively guide their curiosity, these educators have developed many different, but highly effective methods in early childhood education.
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