Steiner-Waldorf schools are present worldwide, in all five continents across the globe. Each Steiner school has its own character, but they share a common foundation in their understanding of child development based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner.
At the heart of Steiner-Waldorf schooling lies the belief that children develop most holistically when allowed to grow and flourish free of stress and pressure. Personal and academic growth is encouraged at each child’s natural rate, a fluid continuum from birth to adulthood. Where there is a clear and formal curriculum, there are not the stringent testing measures, such as SAT S, that form the focal point of mainstream education. The aim of a Steiner education is to aid each child to discover his or her own gifts and strengths, to work through
weaknesses, and to realise his or her unique potential and purpose.
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in what was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is now Croatia. He died in 1925 in Switzerland. He was an intriguing man, a philosopher and visionary, who drew profound connections between various strands of life that now inform much of the 21st century’s holistic movement. He developed biodynamic agriculture, one of the first forms of modern organic farming. He worked to develop homes for children and adults with developmental disabilities; his Campshill communities remain important centres in this arena. Medicine, architecture, finance and education were all underpinned by a philosophy he named anthroposophy. It embraces a profound understanding of the human as a physical, psychological and spiritual being following the path to freedom.
In 1919, Steiner was asked to set up a school for the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Thus was formed the first Steiner school (or Steiner-Waldorf, as the movement is officially known). It was based on very carefully formulated principles of child development, and these remain the central tenets of Steiner schooling. Within Steiner education, anthroposophy is not taught to the children. Rather it is studied by the teachers in order to further their own development and to aid their understanding of the children in their care.
THREE PHASES OF STEINER EDUCATION
There are three phases within Steiner education, the first of these being ‘early childhood’, developed from birth to kindergarten age, within Parent & Child groups. This is a very gentle stage of nurturing where excessive stimulation and bombardment of sensory information are avoided. Young children are encouraged to move slowly and safely with their parents into a wider world, with a calm transition from home, into a homelike environment where natural materials abound, and the rhythms of the natural world are softly marked through festival, song and story. Free play is encouraged with simple toys and materials sourced from nature, strengthening each child’s resourcefulness and feeding their individual needs for exploration and discovery.
This approach is developed in the safe environment of Kindergarten, where formal reading and writing skills are not taught, but the bedrock of linguistic skills and language acquisition is strengthened through oral language development, using songs, poems, movement games and the daily story – often told from memory. This engenders a love of words and language that is transformed at a later age into a love of reading. Learning to read at a later age is in line with most mainstream European schools, where children do not learn to read until the age of 6 or 7.
Along with reading, writing and number work, two foreign languages are introduced from the age of 7; these are initially taught aurally through song and rhyme, later moving into written and grammatical form. Rather than using set textbooks, each child creates his or her own coursework in illustrated book form.
Developing a child’s emotional life is regarded as an important part of Steiner education, and children are encouraged to grow in readiness for abstract and conceptual thought. Teachers support them in growing thoughtfully, with a clear sense of a responsibility to the wider community. At this stage, cooperation is encouraged over competition, with children allowed to grasp a skill or concept when he or she is ready to do so. Although sport and physical activity form an important part of the day, competition is only introduced in upper grades. Sports days take the form of fun games such as egg-and-spoon race, bobbing for apples, and obstacle races.
The learning process in a Steiner school is always rooted first in practice, then in theory. A class of 12-year olds learning about chalk, for example, may build their own lime kiln using locally gathered materials, mine the chalk, and fire the kiln late into the night whilst eating pizza from the bread oven built by them three years earlier. They may then dismantle the kiln to collect the quick lime, add water to make slaked lime, and only then look at the chemical equations. In secondary school, a class will first build a simple computer before learning how to use one.
Between the ages of 11 and 14, the majority of children move on into mainstream education – most to state schools where they transition happily, academically and socially at ease. There is, however, a small provision within the UK for secondary education. This is the third phase of Steiner education. At this stage there are specialist teachers for each subject, and there is a much more dominant academic focus. Again, an integral part of the curriculum at this stage is aimed at helping students develop an understanding of their own strengths and purpose, and to foster a deep understanding of ethical principles. At the end of secondary education, children are equipped to go into the world with formal qualifications, ready for university or work.
LINKS WITH THE NATURAL WORLD AND SPIRITUALITY
A connection with the natural world is a central part of Steiner education, and the turning of the year is marked with festivals that celebrate the seasons. Planting, sowing, growing and reaping are all part of a child’s year, hens are kept, willow is grown and used for crafts and building. Nature walks and woodland activities are important to the curriculum.
In this sense the curriculum is infused with spirituality. In a wider sense, a Steiner school will usually draw on the religious traditions and festivals of its native area, or draw upon the traditions of the particular children within it. And as Steiner schools are often multicultural, this creates a rich learning experience for all children in the school.
Steiner education’s unique integration of the arts into traditional content has been cited as a model for other schools, as has its emphasis on peace and tolerance. Children thrive in this form of schooling and they generally leave school bright, confident, well-qualified and articulate, with a strong sense of social engagement and commitment to a wider community. Alumni include a Professor of Oceanography, a silver-medallist sculler in the World Championships, a motorcycle craftsman, a former director of the German Federal Bank, physicists, Olympic athletes, a champion golfer, architects, MPs, journalists, composers, musicians, actors and writers.