Nothing defines September quite like back-to-school. And when it comes to finding the right educational fit for your kid, nothing gets all the hands up in a room quite like learning through play—and no philosophy does it better than Waldorf. To get a sense of what a Waldorf education is and ways to incorporate Waldorf principles into your home (spoiler alert: you’re so gonna wanna) we asked Sarah Baldwin, a seasoned Waldorf early childhood teacher and the owner of Bella Luna Toys.
For a person entirely new to Waldorf, what is the philosophy and basic principles behind it?
Waldorf education is based on the ideas of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who founded the first Waldorf School in Germany in the early 1900s. Steiner believed that imaginative play in early childhood was the key to creative thinking later in life, so in the early years (nursery and kindergarten) the emphasis is on the imagination and play. Academic lessons (reading and math) are not formally introduced until first grade, but in the early years children are gaining language skills through hearing fairy tales and other stories, and through memorizing verses songs and poems during circle time. They are learning early math skills through practical, real-life activities, like counting and measuring while baking.
The curriculum was carefully designed to meet children where they are at in different stages of their development. Subjects studied in each grade are based on Steiner’s insights into the phases of childhood to meet a child’s thinking and feeling life at each stage in an imaginative, naturally unfolding way.
What should parents expect from a Waldorf education?
Rudolf Steiner emphasized that the goal of Waldorf education is to create free-thinking adults. Waldorf educators view the child as a whole human being: head, heart, and hands. A Waldorf teacher’s goal is to educate the whole child, appealing to his feeling life (heart), and teaching practical skills such as handwork and woodworking (hands).
Waldorf educators realize that all children are born with innate human capacities: to make music, to move, to perform, to make art, and to create things with one’s hands. These capacities are what make us fully human. Therefore, all children in a Waldorf school learn handwork, create their own “main lesson books,” study drawing and painting, sing, learn to play musical instruments, learn one or two foreign languages, play physical games and sports, and perform every year in a class play. Because children in a Waldorf school explore and participate in all these different activities, they grow up with a feeling of confidence that they can learn to do anything.
There is much structure, guidance, and tools provided in the early years, with increasing freedom in high school for a student to form her own opinions and to question authority, with the ultimate goal of producing free and creative individuals in adulthood who will contribute new ideas to the world in a meaningful way.
Our first intro into Waldorf was through a doll, considered a Waldorf doll. What defines a toy as Waldorf?
Because the goal in the early years is to develop a child’s imagination and creativity, the kinds of toys found in a Waldorf kindergarten are made of simple, natural materials, without a lot of detail, and open-ended—meaning they can be played with in a variety of ways.
For example, natural slices of wood can become plates for a tea party, pretend money, or made into a table for a fairy tea party. A simple wooden block can become a telephone, a play hammer or drill, or a play car.
Silk scarves can become a cape, a fairy skirt, or a pirate’s bandana. They can also be used to create scenes or puppet plays: a blue silk becomes a lake, a green silk becomes a field of grass.
Sounds so beautifully simple! What would you recommend for playroom staples?
If one is seeking to create a Waldorf-inspired playroom, I would recommend the following as staples:
- A wooden play kitchen
- A child-sized wooden table and chairs
- Wooden unit blocks
- Tree branch blocks
- A basket of play silks
- A pair of Waldorf play stands
- Baskets of smooth river stones and shells
- Handmade Waldorf dolls
- A Waldorf rocker board (my favorite Waldorf toy, which can be played with in so many ways!)
How can parents begin to introduce and incorporate Waldorf principles into the home?
A hallmark of Waldorf education, especially in the early years, is rhythm. We talk about “the rhythm of the day,” “the rhythm of the week,” and “the rhythm of the year.”
One way families can incorporate Waldorf in the home is by bringing more rhythm to your days. This could mean regular times for daily activities like waking up, meal time, time for chores, bath time, bedtime, and so on.
Having a consistent rhythm where one activity follows another provides children with security and eases anxiety caused by unpredictability. It can go a long way toward more a more peaceful and less stressful household.
A weekly rhythm could also mean having the same meals on certain days of the week. For instance, Monday could be taco night, Tuesday spaghetti, and so on. This not only leads to fewer objections at the dinner table but also makes weekly meal planning and shopping easier for the family.
In Waldorf education, we try to instill a sense of reverence and gratitude in the child. At home, this could mean lighting a candle before meals and sharing a blessing or verse before eating. If a family is not religious, this could be as simple as thanking the sun and the rain and the farmer for providing us with food.
When should parents begin to incorporate Waldorf principles into their homes?
The more one learns about Waldorf philosophy, the more one realizes that it is as much a lifestyle as an educational method. From birth, parents can strive to provide their baby with a calm, peaceful and loving environment, avoiding chaos, loud noises, and visual overstimulation. We want babies and toddlers to feel that the world is a good and loving place to allow them to develop feeling secure and safe. We want them to know that the adults in their life are kind and loving, and will take care of their needs.
Be present for your baby and attentive to her needs, surround her with beauty and materials that are soft and comforting to her sense of touch (like silk, cotton flannel, and wool), sing to her and talk to her.
Give your baby plenty of “floor time” to develop his physical body and motor skills. Resist the urge to put your baby in devices such as swings or walkers, that force babies into an upright position before their muscles are strong enough to allow them to be upright on their own.
Finally, enjoy these precious days with your baby! Though the days can feel long and trying during the first 12 months, parents of older children know too well how quickly those early years fly by.
Thank you so much for your wisdom, Sarah! Any parting words?
“Receive the children in reverence; educate them in love; let them go forth in freedom.” ~Rudolf Steiner