Waldorf education was born out of the worldview of its founder, Rudolf Steiner. This philosophical foundation, known as “anthroposophy,” postulates that the education of the child accompanies and nurtures the process of “incarnation,” allowing the child to interweave its spirit and soul with a physical body. The kindergarten years are a critical foundation for this process, hence the central role of the N/K teachers in the Waldorf school setting.
The educational method that was
eventually to be called “Waldorf education,” for the school was
founded in response to the request of a group of workers in a cigarette
factory in Stuttgart, Germany, and the method’s progenitor was the
Austrian scientist, philosopher and social thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).
education was born in the midst of social unrest and uncertainty not
unlike that found in our own time. In the year 1919, Germany was
awakening to the painful realities resulting from its defeat in World
War I. All was in conflict; the Right battled the Left, workers
struggled with their employers, and the younger generation refused to
follow the impotent paternalism of the past. In Stuttgart, a group
of workers in the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory recognized that
the errors of the past were doomed to be repeated unless the harsh and
lifeless methods of Prussian pedagogy were abandoned and replaced with
a schooling that truly suited the needs of their children. Emil
Molt, the factory’s prescient owner, asked Rudolf Steiner to develop
a school based on a picture of the child as a being of body, soul and
spirit, in which teachers would teach out of love and respect for their
the course of a full and intense summer, Rudolf Steiner assembled a
group of men and women who were to become the founding faculty of the
“Free School.” (The word “free” implied that the school
was beholden neither to the Church nor to the State, not
that it was permissive). The curriculum and methodology that Steiner
laid down at the time were based on a developmental approach to the
child, and challenged the teacher to develop and deepen her understanding
of the nature of childhood as a prerequisite for teaching. The
Waldorf curriculum was meant to be a melding of art and science, out
of which the child’s natural sense of reverence would arise.
Under the warm and active tutelage of their teachers, children would
be provided with a creative alternative to the passive and pressured
school experience so tragically typical of our time.
of the individuals Rudolf Steiner gathered had any prior training in
the education of young children, and, while several had advanced degrees
in specialized fields, they were destined to teach other subjects, about
which they knew very little. Steiner’s approach was revolutionary
at the time, and in many respects remains so. Waldorf teachers
would be effective, he argued, not because of what they already knew
and had already achieved, but because of what they were becoming.
The Waldorf teacher’s striving to develop as a free and self-reliant
individual, her enthusiasm for life-long learning and her determination
to search for the hidden threads that wove separate subjects and disciplines
into a rich and vital tapestry — these were the characteristics that
qualified a person to guide a group of young people into the future.
What follows is a sketch of this methodology, with a special stress
placed on the way in which Waldorf education meets the needs and longings
of the children of today.
Waldorf philosophy and methodology is itself part of a more comprehensive
world-picture known as Anthroposophy. A central idea underlying
the Waldorf approach to education is that of the “four-fold human
being.” What follows is a simplified outline of Steiner’s
part of the human being which is perceived by the senses is what Steiner
calls the Physical Body. At death, or through the severance
of any part of that body from the whole (the cutting of the hair, the
loss of a limb) the physical body will revert to the same chemical components
as are to be found in the “lifeless,” mineral world; hence
the physical body can also be called the mineral body.
stage higher than the physical body is the Etheric Body.
Although invisible to our ordinary senses, the effects of this body
are evident in all that sustains our life processes: Steiner also terms
this member of our being the life body.
The etheric body bears within itself the “memory” of our
form (“body of formative forces” is a third term used in describing
it) and, in its interplay with our physical nature, carries our predisposition
to health or illness. The immune system recognized by modern medicine
is one of the “effects” of the etheric body that manifest
in the physical world.
Astral Body is even more subtle in nature than the etheric body.
It is this member which is often termed the “soul” or “soul
body”; Steiner also identifies it as the body of wishes and
desires. The etheric body gives us life, but it is the astral body
which gives us sentience (however dreamlike it may be) and the capacity
to move towards those objects or images we desire. Whether what
we desire is as simple as food and shelter or as grandiose as world
domination, the astral body is active.
which allows the human being to experience his individual nature is
termed by Steiner the “I” or Ego.
This ego is at once the most individualized and the most universal
aspect of our being. Hence everyone can call himself “I”
but we can call no one else by that name. This ego “wears”
the three other bodies like so many veils, expressing itself through
them all yet remaining ineffably unique. It is this “I”
which constitutes our spiritual
nature, eternal and divine in essence.
Steiner’s anthroposophical world-view, the whole world is a macrocosmic
reflection of the human microcosm. From this perspective, each
of man’s four bodies finds its echo in an “element” of nature.
Thus, the physical body is of the nature of earth, the etheric body
of the nature of water, the astral body of the nature of air and the
ego is akin to fire. In terms of the “kingdoms of nature,”
we share our physical body with the mineral kingdom, our etheric body
with the plant world, and our astral body with the animals. The
ego is shared with no other kingdom: only the human being carries this
“divine spark” into earthly life.
ego ceaselessly works upon the three other bodies to spiritualize and
perfect them. Its work will eventually result in the creation
of new members of the human being. The ego’s work upon the astral
body will lead to the creation of the Spirit Self; its work upon the
etheric body will result in the Life Spirit, and its spiritualization
of the physical body will bring about the Spirit Man. Hence the
ego stands as the “teacher” of the bodies of man, raising
the lower into the higher by virtue of its eternal nature. In
this respect the activity of the ego is the prototype of all human education.
his numerous lectures to teachers, Rudolf Steiner elaborated upon the
picture of the four-fold human being by emphasizing its chronological
development. Although we are four-fold beings from the moment
we are born, each of our bodies fully expresses itself, i.e., “incarnates”
at a different point in our life. From birth until age seven (or
about the time of the second dentition) our physical body is most active,
and the child’s consciousness is bound up with processes of assimilation
and growth, as the etheric body works upon the physical body from without.
From seven to fourteen, the etheric body increasingly assumes the same
contours as the physical body; it now dampens down its organic activity
and its forces are metamorphosed into the newly-arising forces of memory.
From fourteen to twenty-one, the astral body becomes dominant.
The life of desire grows strong, as does the life of ideals; the ability
to reason is born amidst the turmoil of the life of emotions.
At twenty-one the ego is truly “born” within us. From
this point on, education becomes increasingly a matter of self-education.
The life-long process of becoming “adult” and fully human
these simplified descriptions seem to rigid, it should be stressed that
in the fullness of his work Rudolf Steiner repeatedly approached his
four-fold picture from a multitude of perspectives and always stressed
the mobility and transformative quality of the higher bodies of man.
Only modes of thought which are in themselves mobile and fresh can comprehend
the continually metamorphosing nature of the four-fold human being.
A look at the Waldorf kindergarten can provide an example of how Steiner’s
fourfold vision may be brought into action.
do we educate the child in accordance with principles that ask us to
honor and work with the soul and spiritual nature of the youngster?
Must teachers be clairvoyant in order to be certain that they are teaching
in the proper way? We may, indeed, need only the “clairvoyant”
faculties that we are already using without being aware that we possess
them. For example, a mother can always tell when her child is
not feeling well; with some experience, she can usually tell in what
way the child is not feeling well. And every teacher knows
the “glow” radiated by a child who is healthy and, as we say, “full
of life.” The teacher’s faculty does not arise as naturally
its equivalent faculty in the mother, but must be cultivated and brought
to a stage of conscious awareness on the part of the teacher.
All of these judgments are based on perceptions of what Rudolf Steiner
termed the child’s etheric body.
is essential here is that we are dealing with activities
and processes, rather than with “products.” To understand
the etheric body is to begin to understand those forces usually termed
“creative” in the world and in the human being. Our etheric
body is active in a way that our physical body is not. We go through
life as physical beings in an inert, “cause and effect” manner.
The etheric body works to reverse those effects suffered by the physical
body in the course of daily life; it is a body of renewal and regeneration.
In relation to the physical body we could also say that the etheric
body works as an architect and sculptor. One need only watch children
at play in the sandbox or at the seashore to see this sculptural-architectural
power unconsciously at work. In later years some individuals find
themselves gifted with a surplus of etheric forces, and feel naturally
drawn, as architects, for example, to form majestic “bodies” in
which thousands of people can worship or live, or, as sculptors, to
continue to replicate their bodily form in endless permutations.
its capacity as the “body of formative forces” the etheric body
holds the memory of the form of our physical body, so that we
retain a recognizable physical identity throughout our life. In
spite of aging and the vicissitudes of life, fingerprints and blood
types and certain facets of our body chemistry remain the same, a “signature”
of the form-creating and form-maintaining activity of the etheric body.
It is this particular aspect of the etheric body which goes through
an important transformation after the first seven-year period in life.
As the etheric body is released from its intensive and ceaseless work
upon the formation of the physical body; as that body’s growth (when
compared, for example, to its growth in the womb, or in the first three
years of life) slows down, etheric forces are “freed” to be utilized
as our power of memory.
Steiner’s description of the etheric formative forces at this time
in the child’s life is intriguing. The very same forces that
“member” us, that place our heart and lungs and liver in relation
to one another, that “organ”ize us into a decidedly human form,
are now released to re-member, and to “organize” our life
of memory. We could say that the forces of memory are at their
most powerful in the first seven years of life, but Steiner is
at pains to stress that they are not meant to be accessed for the purposes
of memorization. In these first years of life, these forces are
meant to serve the child’s growth, pure and simple. It is certainly
possible to divert these forces in order to teach a young child to memorize
the alphabet, or to memorize a simple reading vocabulary, or to memorize
times tables. Once diverted, however, these etheric forces no
longer serve their primary mission, and the membering and organization
of the child’s body — the foundation for its health and vitality
in later years — will be less perfect than if those forces had been
allowed to go their own way. It is its recognition of the sacredness
of these health-giving, creative forces that live in the child that
gives the Waldorf Kindergarten its unique character.
It is a setting that provides a clear alternative to the intellectual
approach that withdraws the child’s etheric forces from their rightful
field of activity. This latter approach has proven itself to be inimical
to the child’s reverence for life; indeed, it is inimical to life
atmosphere of the Waldorf Kindergarten appears, at first, to be devoid
of any of “educational” accoutrements. The kindergarten teacher
Charlotte Comeras describes a typical Waldorf setting:
room is warm and homelike and the teacher is busy doing one of the many
tasks involved in the life of the Kindergarten. If there is another
adult in the room, he or she also will be occupied with something or
other — maybe carding wool to make a puppet, or mending a torn play-cloth.
Around the room are baskets filled with pieces of wood, fir cones or
large pebbles from the beach. Others are piled high with play-cloths
or pieces of muslin in beautiful soft colors, all neatly folded and
waiting to become whatever the children need them to be: the roof or
wall of the house, the sea, pasture for sheep to graze, a shawl for
a baby or a veil for a queen. The possibilities are limitless. On a
shelf stand many puppets: a prince, a farmer and his wife, a child,
a wise old woman…They can bring a castle to life or make a farm, re-enact
a scene of human activity or be used to tell a story. These are just
a few of the many things that the children will see when they come into
no less significance than what is in the kindergarten room is what is
not in the kindergarten room: there are no “educational toys,”
(there are very few objects that could be construed as “toys” at
all), there are no books, no posters, no bulletin boards, no computers.
There is none of the hardware issued by the Industrial-Educational Complex,
and there is no software (unless we want to characterize soft dolls
of wool and cotton as “software”). For eyes accustomed to
the accepted model of mainstream education, there is nothing recognizably
“educative” about such a space; pedagogically speaking, it would
appear to be something of a Black Hole. It is no wonder that a
respected independent school headmaster, serving on an accreditation
committee that was visiting Green Meadow Waldorf School in New York
State, remarked after his initial visit to the kindergarten, “This
room is like something out of the nineteenth century!”
the assertively educational objects and spaces that fill a mainstream
kindergarten room, the environs of a Waldorf kindergarten take on meaning
only when there are children present who can imbue them with
meaning. Through her natural imitative capacities – the “signature”
of the etheric body – the child learns by watching and doing.
The importance of the kindergarten teacher as a model cannot be underestimated.
As she cleans and cooks, mixes paints or carefully lays out crayons
for drawing, her gestures and attitudes are embraced by the children’s
etheric bodies and work formatively, inculcating habits that will last
a lifetime. The development of habits through imitation is the
educational method of the Waldorf kindergarten.
Returning to the independent school
headmaster I quoted earlier, I will note what he said on the last
day of his visit:
I first saw the Waldorf kindergarten room, I thought to myself, “This
room is like something out of the nineteenth century!” But after
spending a week on your campus, watching the little children play and
watching the older kids learn, I realize now that this school is providing
education for the twenty-first