This year marks the 100th Anniversary of Waldorf Education. The first school was opened in Stuttgart, Germany for the children of the Waldorf-Astoria Company. The founder, Rudolf Steiner, was a prominent philosopher and the founder of Anthroposophy. The movement, although not very popular with mainstream people, has thrived and grown in these past one hundred years. There are now approximately one thousand Waldorf Schools in the world.
If you haven’t heard of Waldorf Education, you’re not alone. Even though it’s not completely uncommon, the majority of the public still haven’t seen a school in their area. It’s still considered to be quite rare and elite. The pedagogy, or educational theory, itself is based on Anthroposophy, a religion invented by Steiner after a series of clairvoyant visions. The basic premise is that humans can acquire higher knowledge and spirituality through mental capabilities independent from the physical world. Sounds complicated, and it is. But what about the education system? Why did it survive for the past one hundred years?
One possibility is the school is like a cult. The very ardent followers are like busy bees when it comes to establishing and running Waldorf schools. Parents and teachers alike spend countless hours preparing childhood for the students of these schools. Nothing can be spontaneous, nothing is left to chance. In this way, you ensure the continuation of the purest form of Steiner pedagogy. There is no room for dissent. In this way, Steiner’s followers ensure the next generation of students.
Waldorf Education has many characteristics you won’t find in public schools. Like with any education system, there are positive attributes and negative attributes. The trick is figuring out if the positives out weight the negatives in your family’s unique situation.
When you enter a Waldorf campus, you will find the surroundings very calming and beautiful. Everything is arranged in a purposeful way and this is done the same in every Waldorf school in every country in the world. The colors, paintings and decorations are synonymous with what it means to be a Steiner school. Somewhere down the line, Steiner decided which colors provoked which feelings and behaviors in children and which decorum would be most suitable.
This first impression is partly responsible for drawing parents in. It’s a beautifully thought out space and when we see if for the first time, we nod our heads in agreement. What better place for a child could exist? None.
Another attribute that Waldorf schools are famous for (and why they are often discovered by parents searching for something different) is the laid-back atmosphere. Children are not pressured to learn like they might be in a public school. In fact, all intellectual pursuits are delayed until the children show signs of readiness. The surest way is to check if they have lost their first teeth. According to Waldorf, this signifies that children are ready to learn letters and numbers. This can mean a child is held in the kindergarten until age 7. For some children, this can be a wonderful relief.
There is an emphasis on the arts. In the kindergarten this includes modelling with beeswax, drawing, painting with watercolors and Eurythmia, a form of therapeutic dance that no Steiner school would be without. The children are introduced to sewing and knitting in the last year of kindergarten. Once they graduate to elementary school, kids are already trained in the ways of Waldorf. They continue on with watercolor, knitting, sewing, music, foreign languages (especially German), Eurythmia, and many other beautiful things, including theater.
Time in nature is a very important aspect to Waldorf education. This is almost always seen as a positive, unless someone doesn’t like being outside in all sorts of weather. Rain, snow, blistering sun, doesn’t matter. In kindergarten, children usually spend at least one full day in the forest. As they get older, the time is less, but there is plenty of recreation time for the older children. There are many interesting chances to be out in nature. A day in the forest for kindergarten, first and second grade, a week on a farm for the third and fourth grades, and even a week skiing for the fifth through eighth, depending on location. As children get older, they do more and more intellectual things, but they might still take trips as a class.
One of the most distinct differences between Waldorf and other types of education is the fact that the children will stay with the same teacher for eight years. This is most often seen as a positive, although there are definitely arguments to the contrary. The children go with the teacher in the first year of elementary and remain together as a class for those eight years. The teacher is like a parent to the children. This can be a beautiful relationship for both teacher and child. The benefits of this are that the children have another parental figure and they can create a very strong bond. This type of guidance and love is important for children.
Many wonderful, caring and loving people are Waldorf teachers. If a child is lucky enough to be placed with a great teacher, then that can make all the difference in their school career. Most Waldorf teachers are super people, they devote countless hours to the schools and to their students, going above and beyond a normal teacher’s role. Many are open to the world and to change and are able to see beyond the walls of the classroom. There are a lot of lucky children in Waldorf schools.
As with anything in life, there are negative aspects of Waldorf education. First and foremost is the restrictive pedagogy. Steiner said that children should study certain things at certain ages and they pretty much follow this like it’s biblical. Well, it is a sort of religion, so that’s understandable. The problem is that these things may have become outdated or are repetitive or boring or just plain constricting for the children.
Steiner died in 1925, that’s a long time ago in modern-day standards. Try to think about all the things that have changed in that time. And then try to imagine the schools have NOT changed one iota. This can be problematic. For some children, especially those not raised in Anthroposophic homes, it can be limiting. There is so much input out there in the world and then the children come to a place that’s like stepping back in time one hundred years. For those children that crave knowledge and sensory inputs, this can be very difficult.
While the atmosphere can be one of love and respect, it might also have some tinges of superiority. The Steiner followers might feel like they are more advanced spiritually because they were able to grasp Anthroposophy. Not everyone wants to be a part of that movement. Some people are simply attracted to the school because public schools weren’t working out for one reason or another. Some people love the nature aspect, the wooden toys, the slow pace, they didn’t want to follow Steiner’s teachings. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to come to terms with the school if you don’t buy into Steiner’s ideas of esoteric Christianity. You might find yourself wondering why you are spending thousands of dollars a year on something you don’t even believe in.
Sending your children to a Waldorf school can feel like a full-time job. Even if you love the idea of community and working together to create a great experience for the children, you might soon find yourself completely deflated. In many schools, you must work in the kitchen, clean the classrooms or prepare the parties for the children. And this can be especially problematic if other parents with a lot of money simply pay someone else to do it, as this creates animosity in the parents that cannot afford to do that.
Some parents, upon taking their children out of the local Waldorf, or when the child graduates and heads to university, figure out that their children are worlds behind their peers that went to other schools. The Waldorf pedagogy states that children are not ready for serious intellectual pursuits until the age of fourteen. If a parent takes a kid out and puts them in public school, they are going to be behind. How far is up to the home life. If they are used to intellectual things at home, they might have a chance. Otherwise, parents might find their children too far behind intellectually to ever really catch up. Same goes for those children finishing the eighth grade with no Waldorf high school around. They are thrown into a system they know nothing about. When children go from high school to college, many times they will have to take two extra years of high school in order to be fully prepared for the mainstream education system.
Waldorf schools are like fortresses of protection for the children. This can be lovely but can also be very damaging. They might have no knowledge of what goes on out in the bigger society. They are kept in the dark about mainstream society, including television, films, plastic toys and computer games. These children can be so restricted and controlled they can end up hating the very community they are or were a part of. Many people who were educated in Waldorf schools end up turning against it and sending their own children elsewhere. Many of the children end up rebelling against it and acting out, and even in extreme cases are so filled with self-hatred, there may be no way to fix them.
Eight years with one teacher can be an amazing experience. The children can get to know the teacher and their classmates as if they are family. But it can also be difficult in the case of a child that doesn’t like the teacher, or vice versa. There can be problems that arise and aren’t fixable, such as the child has a learning style that the teacher cannot accommodate, in which case the child just has to ride out the experience and hope for the best.
If a child doesn’t conform to the community, they can be ostracized. It is not unheard of that certain children are not able to reconcile themselves with the pedagogy for any number of reasons. The teachers and college (the people that run the schools) can vote to remove a child that doesn’t fit in. Many children go along with things freely. Some children are visibly unhappy but must remain because the parents are followers of Steiner. And then there are the children that disturb the fabric of the pedagogy and these are the children that usually must go. If you don’t believe it, look up “Waldorf survivors” or “Waldorf support group” and you see many instances. The families also suffer when these things happen, so unfortunately, the children aren’t the only victims.
Karma is considered one of the most important classroom tools and the best part is the teacher doesn’t have to do anything special to take advantage of it. Steiner believed that we are all working on our individual karma so anything that happens to us is exactly what we deserve. There is no exception when it comes to the children. A child gets bullied? They deserved it. A child falls out of a tree, it’s their karma. A child bullies another child? That’s perfectly fine because that child is obviously superior, otherwise they would be the victim. The problem with this is, by not intervening, the teachers are giving the child with the good karma a bad karma! The whole idea is absurd and unfortunately Waldorf schools are known for bullying.
The Truth Is
If parents are considering a local Waldorf school for their children, they should be sure to research the pedagogy and Anthroposophy well. The cult-like atmosphere might not sit right with many. Each family is unique as is every child, which should be taken into consideration. As with anything, there are positives and negatives. The trick is finding out which one is which concerning individual children and even individual parents. If something doesn’t feel right in your gut, it probably isn’t.
About The Author…
Erin is a travel-loving friendly introvert that lives in Europe. She has an undergraduate degree in Russian Studies from Grand Valley State University and a Master of Arts in Russian Literature and Language from SUNY at Albany. Originally from Michigan, she now spends most of her year in Switzerland. She loves art, history, art history, music, cats, vegan food, and speaking out about injustices. She has three adorable children and one feisty feline. Erin joined the team at The Quiet Nonsense to get reacquainted with technology and gain editing and writing experience. Someday she would like to start her own blog or do professional editing.