What is a Waldorf School?

Rudolf Steiner
Public Domain


The term "Waldorf School" might not mean much to people outside of the educational realm, but many schools adopt the teachings, philosophy, and approach to learning. A Waldorf School will embrace a pedagogy that places a high value on imagination in the process of learning, which uses a holistic approach to student development. These schools focus not just on intellectual development, but also artistic skills. It is important to note that Waldorf Schools are not the same as Montessori Schools, as each carries unique characteristics to their approach to learning and growth. 

Founder of the Waldorf School

The Waldorf Education model, sometimes also referred to as the Steiner Education model, is based on the philosophies of its founder, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian writer and philosopher, who developed a philosophy known as anthroposophy. This philosophy believes that in order to understand the workings of the universe, people must first have an understanding of humanity.

Steiner was born in Kraljevec, located in what was then Croatia, on February 27, 1861. He was a prolific writer who penned over 330 works. Steiner based his educational philosophies off the notion that there are three major stages of child development and focuses on the needs of each stage individually in the teachings within the Waldorf Education model. 

When did the first Waldorf School open?

The first Waldorf School opened in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. It was opened in response to a request from Emil Molt, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in the same location. The goal was to open a school that would benefit the children of the factory's employees. The school grew quickly though, and it didn't take long for families not connected to the factory to begin sending their children. Once Steiner, the founder, spoke at a conference at Oxford University in 1922, his philosophies became more widely known and celebrated. The first Waldorf School in the US opened in New York City in 1928, and in the 1930s, schools with similar philosophies soon existed in eight different countries.

What ages do Waldorf Schools serve?

Waldorf schools, which focus on the three stages of child development, cover infant education through matriculation from high school. The emphasis of the first stage, which focuses on the primary grades or early childhood education, is on practical and hands-on activities, and creative play. The second stage, which is elementary education, focuses on artistic expression and the social capabilities of the children. The third and final phase, which is secondary education, has students spending more time delving into critical reasoning and empathic understanding of classroom material. In general, in a Waldorf Education model, as the child matures, the process of scientific inquiry and discovery becomes a greater focus as time goes on, with the highest level of comprehension coming in upper school studies.

What is it like to be a student at a Waldorf School?

Waldorf teachers move with their students through the primary grades creating a sense of stability and security. The goal of this model of consistency allows teachers to get to know their students very well. They understand how the individuals within the class learn and how they respond to the world around them.

Music and art are central components of Waldorf education. Learning how to express thought and emotion is taught through art and music. Children are taught not only how to play various instruments but also how to write music. Another unique feature of Waldorf schools is the use of eurythmy. Eurythmy is an art of movement devised by Rudolf Steiner. He described eurythmy as the art of the soul.

How do Waldorf Schools Compare to More Traditional Primary Schools?

The main difference between Waldorf and traditional primary education is Waldorf's use of anthroposophy as the philosophical backdrop for everything which is taught, and, indeed, the manner in which it is taught. Children are encouraged to use their imaginations as part of their process of discovery and learning. In a traditional school, the child will be given objects and toys to play with. The Steiner method expects the child to create her own toys and other objects.

Another essential difference is that Waldorf teachers do not grade your child's work. The teacher will evaluate your child's progress and discuss areas of concern with you at regular parent-teacher conferences. This focuses more on a child's potential and growth, rather than on the accomplishments that happen by a particular moment in time. This differs from a more traditional model with graded assignments and assessments. 

How many Waldorf Schools exist today?

There are more than 1,000 independent Waldorf Schools in the world today, the majority of which focus on the first stage of child development. These schools can be found in approximately 60 different countries around the world. The Waldorf Education model has become most popular in European countries, having even influenced many of the public schools. Some European Waldorf Schools even receive state funding. 

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Kennedy, Robert. "What is a Waldorf School?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-waldorf-school-2774757. Kennedy, Robert. (2020, August 26). What is a Waldorf School? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-waldorf-school-2774757 Kennedy, Robert. "What is a Waldorf School?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-waldorf-school-2774757 (accessed June 8, 2023).