Discover Waldorf Education: From Playing to Thinking

How the Waldorf Kindergarten Provides a Foundation for Scientific Understanding



The emphasis on guided play — and the de-emphasis on intellectual activity — in the Waldorf kindergarten often leads to the misconception that the children aren’t “learning” anything. This article explores the profound interrelationship of kindergarten play to scientific understanding in later years.

How 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? 
is needed, but at first we need only the “clairvoyant”
faculties that we are always using without being aware that we are using 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.”  All of these judgments are based on
perceptions of the activities of the child’s etheric body, whether we know it or

            What is
essential here is that we are dealing with activities, with 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 are naturally drawn, as architects, 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. 

            In 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.

paradigm of “education” developed by Generation One[1]
is intellectual and didactic.  In this model, the teacher, and, especially in
the last few years, the parent as well, is always supposed to be imparting
information to the child.  Much of this imparting is actually “correcting,”
adjusting the child’s imperfect understanding of the world in the light
of modern knowledge, and particularly modern scientific knowledge.  This
approach is so pervasive as to be almost invisible.  How few toys are left that
do not profess to be “educational toys”?  How much software is sold for young
consumers that is not advertised as “educational software”?  Parents are
encouraged to create environments for even the youngest child in which letters
and numbers, abstract geometrical shapes (in mobiles or puzzles) and dolls
depicting endangered species of animals will “educate” the child even when an
adult is not in the room.  The spectre of Generation One, the worship of the
one-sided Intellect who whispers that “Knowledge is Power,” haunts the
kindergarten classroom, the theme park and even the nursery.

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, fircones 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 the

             Of 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 vey 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
count soft dolls of wool and cotton as “software”).  For eyes accustomed to the
Generation One 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:

 …the children will each find their own way in their own time. Some, drawn
to the adults and whatever they are doing, will want to do it too, or to help;
whilst others, possibly the very youngest, will be happy to watch silently,
taking in every detail, every movement. Other children will know exactly what
they want to do: build huge suspension bridges with planks, logs and bits of
woolen rope, or make a house for themselves, using clothes horses and colored
play-cloths. It may take a while for the children to sort themselves out and
find their playmates. Sometimes a little unobtrusive adult-guidance is needed
to bring this about, but as much as possible the adults carry on with their
own work, yet, at the same time being aware of everything going on in the

 The “play-cloth,”
mentioned often by Comeras, is the “archetypal plaything” of the Waldorf
kindergarten.  This is a large cloth of cotton (or cotton gauze, or sometimes
silk) which has been dyed with natural plant colors.  Compared to a plastic
action figure, it is soft and devoid of form; compared to an “educational”
pull-toy, it is immobile, has no parts, and so specific function.  The
play-cloth is as close to a non-thing as a child can come; it is almost nothing;
but, as Faust tells Mephistopheles, “Within that Nothing I will find my All!” 
Even Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, in discussing choices made by “spirited” children
among the predominantly plastic educational toys available in a completely
conventional setting, observes that 

. . .
. most spirited kids like toys that allow them to use their imagination. Items
such as little toy people, blocks, Legos, Fisher-Price play houses, musical
and story tapes, and dress-up clothes are favorites. These are all toys that
can be used in many different ways. There isn’t one correct answer. Most
spirited kids won’t look twice at toys that have one “right” way to play with
them. This includes puzzles, many board games, cards, and peg boards. If your
spirited children enjoy puzzles, watch how they actually use them. In most
cases the pieces are being employed as pretend food, space ships, and other
inventive creations![4]

Following a lecture given to an audience of parents unfamiliar with Waldorf
educational ideas, I visited the home of a family I’ll call the Smiths.  As we
sat and talked, little Cynthia Smith, a vital and awake two-and-a-half year-old
who has already opened her front gate and taken walks (on her own) quite some
distance from home, was exploring an even stranger world — that of educational
toys.  She had come upon a toy composed of several sections of plastic pipe. 
Each section had a “male” and “female” end, as they say.  Cynthia had taken the
sections apart and was now attempting to put them back together.  For some time,
she tried to place two male ends together, undoubtedly perceiving that since
they looked alike, they must “belong” together.  She tried, and tried, and tried
again, but the sections fell apart.  Finally she matched a male end to a female
end and the sections slid smoothly together.  Repeating what she had just
learned, Cynthia was able to reassemble the whole pipe; once that task was done,
she moved on to something else.

child psychologist would probably proclaim Cynthia’s discovery to be a
“developmental step,” or “a watershed in growth;” one school of psychology 
might even assert that she had gained some understandingonly one way in which to combine those sections of
pipe, Cynthia had also accepted a contraction in her realm of possibilities, a
cramping of her creative potential.  One pipe-fitting does not make for a prison
cell, of course, and Cynthia soon found her way to a formless and yielding pile
of leaves in which she played happily by the hour.  Yet toy after toy,
“educational experience” after educational experience slowly but surely teaches
the malleable soul of the child, so filled with possibilities, that life
is but a series of one-way streets which never converge and have no destination. of human
sexuality through her interaction with those male and female endings.  But in
learning that there is

play-cloths and other objects found in the Waldorf kindergarten are deliberately
“incomplete” in nature.  A lot of room is left for the child’s active
imagination to “finish” the plaything, but that process of completion is never
dictated by the object itself.  The etheric forces of the child, engaged in
ceaselessly imbuing the child with life, are mobile enough to imbue any object
to which the child turns her attention with “life” as well.  If the object
broadly suggests a human or animal form — and we need think only of the
venerable rag dolls and wooden hobby horses of childhood past (they are still to
be found in the Waldorf kindergarten!) the child is well able to give the
plaything a voice, a personality, moods and appetites.

kindergarten teacher who had been trained in both the Montessori and Waldorf
methods took a leave from teaching in order to raise her own family.  After
several years she started a home playgroup for children of nursery and
kindergarten age.  Since she still had the supplies and accoutrements gathered
during her years of practicing both methods, she set up two rooms in her house
as a “Waldorf Room” and a “Montessori Room.”  She learned that whenever a
newcomer joined the playgroup, the experienced children would point to the
Waldorf Room and say, “That’s the room where you’re allowed to pretend,” and
then point to the Montessori Room and say, “And that’s the room where you’re

that are already formed to provide an exact semblance of physical life, e.g.,
dolls that are “anatomically correct” (a beloved educational tool), whose eyes
open and close, whose innards contain synthesized “cries” and “voices,” or
“action figures” whose hard limbs are encased in futuristic armor, etc., leave
the child with little or nothing to add.  Play with such toys is merely
physical, for the life-forces have no outlet when confronted with a finished
product.  Boredom sets in easily, and the only solution appears to be buying yet
another toy to add to the collection.  The kindergartener is already
learning how to become a consumer, rather than a creator. 

            In the
past, children played with their toys; today, we might say that the toys do the
playing, and the child watches.  Television, of course, heightens this
experience.  Within the tube, people (or their cartoon equivalents) are running,
dancing, juggling, flying, swimming and, of course, wielding very powerful
weapons.  Outside the tube the child is sitting, or reclining, moving only his
eyes.  Children are fast losing their instinctive sense for play.  Learning how
to play must become an essential element in the life of the kindergarten.
Charlotte Comeras describes the children’s activities:

 We use the word creative, but really, what they are doing for a large part of
the time is recreating. They play house, cooking, cleaning, taking care of
babies, or they make a shop with everything carefully laid out for the
customers to come and buy. Children visit friends in other houses and sit
drinking cups of tea and they will all leave their houses to ride on a bus or
train that is just about to leave the station. All these things are part of
their daily lives and now they re-enact what they have seen the grown-ups
doing and thereby enter into the activities in their own way.

For the young child
there is no separation between work and play — all play is work and all work is
play…We see how strong is the necessity, in each child’s own being, to imitate
what they experience around them and thereby find their relationship to the
world. Through this recreative play, they start to gain a healthy orientation to
life, and through this process of learning, and understanding their environment,
they can feel more secure and at home in it.[5]

             One of the
more popular attractions on the Waldorf kindergarten playground is the seesaw or
teeter-totter (many kindergartens have an indoor equivalent for rainy days, as
well).  This is an eminently social plaything; each child depends on her
companion, at the other end, to shift the balance sufficiently so that she can
rise or descend.  Now and then a mischievous child will discover that, by
leaning back when he is on the ground he can keep his counterpart up in the air,
or that by crawling along the plank towards its center-point, he can make it
very difficult for his friend to lift him up.  Such a playground experience
offers many lessons about the “give-and-take” of social situations, in the
kindergarten and beyond.  These are lessons which go more deeply than the
best-intentioned teacher’s imprecations to “please share with your friends,
please wait for others to go first, please be considerate of those around you!” 
The teeter-totter works on the non-verbal, pre-intellectual “visceral” level
which is the most active component of the kindergartener’s nature; through her
will, the child embodies a relationship to the world which will only
later awaken in her feeling life and still later in her conscious life of

Several years later, many of the same children return to the kindergarten
playground with their seventh grade teacher.  She allows them to play freely for
a few minutes, and then has them gather around the seesaw.  Now she directs them
to observe carefully what happens as two seventh-graders, equal in size, sit at
opposite ends of the plank and move each other up and down.  Two youngsters then
sit at one end: can they be lifted by one child?  What has to change for this to
happen?  Is anything altered when youngsters sit at different places on the
plank?  The next day, a stump and a long four-by-eight plank are used to create
a much larger seesaw with a moveable center point, and on the third day groups
of seventh graders are working in the classroom with calibrated “New York
balances” to reproduce their outdoor experiments with accurate measurements and
corroboration from their classmates.  Now the algebra that they have recently
learned is put into service and they learn the Law of the Lever:

 Effort times Effort Arm Distance equals Weight times Weight Arm Distance



children’s kindergarten experiences on the somatic level of will have percolated
through the life of their feelings for seven or eight years and are now ready to
“bubble up” in the form of thoughts in seventh grade.  The highly abstract
equation which expresses the Law of the Lever is nothing but an abstraction for
all too many of today’s American children who have had little experience
interacting through active play.  For a child who spent two or three years in a
Waldorf kindergarten, E(ED)=W(WD) is nothing less than the expression of a rich
store of memories that live on in the youngster’s etheric/physical nature. 
Indeed, we might say that the child who plays creatively in those formative
first seven years of life will have the potential for a far more “inner”
and living grasp of the laws of physics than a child who was little more than a
passive observer in that period of life.

importance of play as an element in scientific understanding – indeed, as an
essential part of scientific discovery – is powerfully illustrated by an
incident in the life of the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman.  In
his autobiographical collection, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” he
describes a period in his life when he found himself at an impasse concerning
his research work:

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used
doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do
whatever I felt like doing – it didn’t have to do with whether it was
important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was
interesting and amusing for me to play with. . . . I’d invent things and play
with things for my own entertainment.

So I
got this new attitude. Now that I

am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, . . . I’m going to play with
physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in
the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the
red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to
me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. . . .

[Feynman then describes the extensive research in which he engaged in order to
understand the wobbling phenomenon.]

It was
effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a
bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There
was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams
and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling
around with the wobbling plate.[6]

The neurologist Oliver Sacks has enumerated the rich variety of experiences that
can be had by the child or adult in swimming, as the human will encounters the
classical “element” of water:     

Scotus, in the thirteenth century, spoke of “condelectari sibi,” the
will finding delight in its own exercise…There is an essential rightness about
swimming, as about all such flowing, and, so to speak, musical
activities. And then there is the wonder of buoyancy, of being suspended in
the thick, transparent medium that supports and embraces us. One can move in
water, play with it, in a way that has no analogue in the air. One can explore
its dynamics, its flow, this way and that; one can move one’s hands like
propellers or direct them like little rudders; one can become a little
hydroplane or submarine, investigating the physics of flow with one’s own

passive attitude encouraged by toys that do everything for the child, but
nothing with him, is further exacerbated by the prevailing urban and suburban
modern lifestyle in which there is no longer time for chores to be learned and
performed.  As time seems to accelerate and socio-economic pressures lead to
two-career families, the many hours a week that it would take to teach a child
to help prepare a soup or wash the dishes are given over to homework, or
“recreation” in front of the TV or stereo.  As mechanical and electronic
“servants” appear to bear most of the burden of cooking and cleaning, the young
child has no human model to imitate in relation to the simplest tasks of life. 
The archetypal movements and rhythms that underlie such activities as sweeping,
stirring, kneading and washing, gestures which have formed the bodies and wills
of human beings for countless generations, are rapidly disappearing in the lives
of American children.  The Millennial Child, who carries such powerful will
impulses, is provided with little that can tame and form and heal them.

this reason the Waldorf kindergarten fosters an atmosphere akin to that of the
“home and hearth” that is fast disappearing from American family life.  Every
day of the week is devoted to a different cooking or baking task (Monday is
“Bread-Baking Day,” Tuesday is “Vegetable Soup-Cooking Day,” etc.) taken up by
the teachers.  For the most part, children are not asked to help; the teachers
know that as they begin to slice the vegetables or knead the dough the
children’s curiosity, imitativeness and, above all, their playful love of
work, will lead to ask if they can help.  And so they learn to slice vegetables
evenly, to see, and smell, and taste their transformation as they are stirred
and boiled up — and seven or eight years later, as they study the phenomena of
organic chemistry, the powerful sensory experiences of kindergarten will arise
and foster the adolescent’s ability to grasp them on a conceptual level. 

first educating the will through providing the child with experiences of playing
and doing, the Waldorf kindergarten gives the Millennial Child the physical and
etheric foundation for her future development.  By respecting the work of the
etheric “life” forces upon the physical body, the kindergarten teacher assures
that all that the child learns in these years will be alive and will have a
relation to “real life.”  It is not a matter of “teaching morality” to
young children, but rather helping the child to imitatively develop habits which
awaken her to the powerful forces of will that she possesses as a birthright. 
By recognizing that in this first seven-year period the child is predominantly a
being of will, we can understand that the kindergarten she attends is not
only responsible for nurturing her health, but for cultivating her future
relationship to her own deeds
.  Thus creative play and the cultivation of
meaningful habits can become the foundation for moral action in later years.

             It is
ironic that many observers of the Waldorf kindergarten, such as the
headmaster referred to above, initially perceive it as a “sheltered”
situation.  To a degree, this is true: during the school day, Waldorf
kindergartners are protected from the media, electronic devices, synthetic
noises and processed foods.  On the other hand, unlike most urban and suburban
preschoolers, Waldorf kindergarteners are exposed to a great deal as well: the
realities of food preparation, the wind, the rain, warmth and cold, brambles and
briars (on their daily walks); in some settings, they encounter sheep and goats,
chickens and ponies, birds and fish, in all their raw reality, uncaged and
unlabelled.  (Encountering animals who are unaccompanied by explanatory labels
or animated software may not be “educational,” but such meetings are memorable
and very real.)  So which child is the “sheltered” one, and which is the
child really meeting life?  Returning to the independent school
headmaster I quoted earlier, I will note what he said on the last day of
his visit:   

When 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 century![8]


One” is a term coined by the author to denote the researchers and writers
active in the first third of this century, whose world view was oriented
exclusively along the lines of thinking.

Comeras, “Creative Play in the Kindergarten,  Child and Man,
July, 1991, Vol. 25, No. 2, 10.


Sheedy Kurcinka, Raising Your Spirited Child, (New York: 1991), 266.


Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (New York: 1985),

Sacks, “Water Babies,” The New Yorker,  May 26, 1997, 45.

conversation, member of NYSAIS Accreditation Visiting Committee for Green
Meadow Waldorf School, 1988.

For related articles and more information on Waldorf education, visit