“Our highest endeavour must be to develop individuals who are able out of their own initiative to impart purpose and direction to their lives”.
Steiner schools have a unique and distinctive approach to educating children, aiming to enable each stage of growth to be fully and vividly enjoyed and experienced. They provide a balanced approach to the modern school curriculum. The academic, artistic and social aspects, or ‘head, heart & hands’, are treated as complementary facets of a single program of learning, allowing each to throw light on the others.
This is implemented by using art as a practice, language to develop the feelings, by nourishing the children with the rich heritage of wise folk tales, histories, fairy stories, poems, music and games that are part of our world civilisation. This creates the cultural atmosphere in which the children are taught reading, writing, arithmetic, nature study, geography, science, languages, music and other subjects.
Steiner designed a curriculum that is responsive to the developmental phases of childhood and the nurturing of the child’s imagination in a school environment. Steiner thought that schools should cater to the needs of the child rather than the demands of the government or economic forces, so he developed schools that encourage creativity and freethinking. His teaching seeks to recognise the individuality of the child and through a balanced education, allows them to go into the world with confidence.
“The need for imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of responsibility – these are the three forces which are the very nerve of education.”
The unique quality of human beings is our capacity for conscious thought. Steiner schooling strives to support the development of well rounded human beings who are able to feel deeply and broadly, to think penetratingly and clearly, and then to act rightly out of conscious and free choice.
The best overall statement on what is unique about Steiner education is to be found in the stated goals of the schooling: The Steiner Educator
Steiner defined ‘three golden rules’ for teachers:
- “to receive the child in gratitude from the world they come from;
- to educate the child with love;
- and to lead the child into the true freedom which belongs to man.”
The reverence and respect felt by Steiner teachers for the special qualities of each stage of childhood shapes the school environment, the way children are spoken to, the materials used, the activities undertaken and the approach to learning at each developmental stage.
Teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine love of learning within each child. By freely using art, craft, music and language in conjunction with the teaching of academics, learning becomes a living, creative process. The academic subjects are enriched and enlivened in a way that meets the developmental stages of the children, offering both sensory and intellectual nourishment.
Steiner educators believe that children should not be rushed into adult consciousness but allowed to savor their childhood. To assist the young people to learn to know and love the world in childhood, to begin to develop good judgment in adolescence, to freely take responsibility for life’s journey in adulthood; these are our tasks as teachers and parents.
Kinder and Prep
During the first seven years children are physically forming and live very much in their imagination. This great capacity to enter into imaginative pictures and stories is a good place to begin the process of learning. Free, creative play is considered the best preparation for self-realising adult life.
The teacher endeavors to create an environment that gives children time to play and encourages them to exercise their imagination and learn to conjure up ideas from within themselves. Simple homely tasks and artistic activities to experience are balanced with story telling, singing games and generous play times. A rich supply of natural materials provides scope for imagination in play, which refined toys often deny the child.
Activities offered for the four to six year olds are based on the house and garden. These include sweeping, gardening, cooking, building cubbies, looking after animals, singing, listening to stories, helping to prepare the meal table, cutting fruit, painting, clay modeling and drawing. Children learn to enjoy building, using the natural materials in the room to make their own constructions and patterns. Practical experience helps the child develop confidence and capabilities.
Steiner education seeks to nurture the senses through water colour painting and singing, beeswax and clay modeling. The teacher works consistently to provide rhythm and structure to the day, week, year and whole curriculum, to harmonise with the child’s natural rhythms.
Teaching Methods Class 1 – 6
One of the special features of Steiner education is that, when the new Class 1 is formed, the teacher commits him or herself to the care of those children for 6 years. The benefits of this commitment become obvious as the relationship between the teacher, the children and their families grows. The teacher and the children set out on the educational journey together, and the teacher is as involved in the creative learning process as the children are.
A central part of this teacher’s task is to intimately understand the needs of each child, and to nurture the development of a real spirit of sharing and community within the class. In a loving, structured environment, with the encouragement of their classmates and teachers, the children develop and appreciate their strengths and work at their difficulties. The social and moral learning that takes place in childhood is as important as the academic aspect.
In the younger grades, all subjects are introduced through artistic mediums. This promotes abilities such as creative and flexible thinking, imagining ideas and problems from different perspectives and layering one thought upon another as part of a process of problem solving. Children can attain greater levels of achievement in all subjects through this method, than from dry lecturing and rote learning.
Mastery of oral communication is integral to all learning. Hearing, re-telling, acting and illustrating stories enriches the child’s imaginative life and grasp of language. The ability to generate ideas, communicate them and bring them to fruition is essential to future success in adult life.
Reading and writing are taught from class 1. The child first learns to write using the shape of the letters to suggest meaning, ie. M for mountain, V for valley, W for waves. In addition, they may walk the shape on the floor in the classroom and draw pictures that include the shape. This allows a deeper connection with, and an understanding of the letters, rather than just memorising the abstract shapes. The children write words and read their own writing before working with printed literature.
An understanding of numbers is built on the basis of concrete, real-life tasks – such as dividing a cake to share, estimating, measuring and through counting aloud, chanting of tables, musical rhythms and skipping games. These learning experiences are real and meaningful. The children may also learn games such as chess, which enhance thinking and mathematical ability.
The aim throughout the classes is to share the finest literature with the students, which is appropriate to their age. The stories told by the teacher change as the child develops, correlating the era of human history with the developmental stages of the child. For 6-7 year olds the teacher may draw mainly on folk and fairy tales, moving on at age 8 to fables and legends, to Old Testament stories at age 8-9. Norse stories and sagas are presented at age 10, Greek myths and legends at age 11 and the Roman period at age 12.
The Main Lesson
The Main Lesson is one of the basic elements of the Steiner curriculum. It involves the thorough working of the main subjects (such as geography, science, history, mathematics or literature), taught in main lesson blocks of about two hours per day, over several weeks. It is always conducted in the morning, when the children are fresh and is followed by a change of activity.
The topics are approached through a variety of means, including stories, painting, recitation, a physical group project or a game, until the children have made some connection to it with every part of themselves. It is then set aside to ‘digest’ and a further topic is taken up. This pattern is natural to children, as anyone who has observed the success of ‘crazes’ in a playground will know. The result is a thorough and satisfying assimilation of knowledge, thus maintaining the child’s enthusiasm for learning.
There are no textbooks as such in the primary school years. All children have ‘main lesson books’, which are their workbooks that they create during the year. They essentially produce their own ‘textbooks’, which record their experiences and what they’ve learned. Upper grades use textbooks to supplement their main lesson work.
Music is a very important form of expression and brings balance to the day. Exercises for training the musical ear are practiced, providing a solid base for subsequent musical accomplishment. Singing and choral work are developed throughout the school years. Children learn the recorder from class 1 through to class 6. Individual tuition of a stringed instrument and music notation is taught from class 3, and by class 4 children participate in orchestral work.
Art & Craft
Art and craft are an integral part of the curriculum and are used as a way of engaging the children in the current topic from every angle. This complements and enhances the intellectual aspects of the class work. Learning through the arts promotes multiple skills and abilities and nurtures the development of cognitive, social and personal competencies. For example, in a class 4 history main-lesson the children may learn Nordic dancing, construct a Nordic ship and paint a Nordic shield.
Art includes recitation and drama, wet-on-wet painting, form drawing, beeswax and clay modeling, and handcrafts such as sewing, knitting, weaving, woodwork and carving.
The primary school child experiences life as a world of pictures and feelings. This promotes a rich inner structure enabling the later development of conceptual thinking. The practice of art educates the feelings and calls for skill, form and style.
Children who learn to make practical things in an artistic way, for the benefit of others as well as themselves, will be able to form their lives and their relationships in a social and artistic way when they are older, thereby enriching their lives. The training through art in school is not for the purpose of producing artists but in order to educate young people for the art of living, based on disciplined exercise. The type of exercise and the time it is introduced are the important factors.
“Joy and happiness in living, love for all existence, a power and energy for work, such are among the lifelong results of a right cultivation of the feeling for beauty and art”.
Religion & Festivals
Classes in religious doctrine are not part of the curriculum. The Steiner curriculum is non-denominational and respects the individual beliefs of families. Students of any ethnic or religious background are welcomed.
Steiner schools do have a spiritual orientation based on a generally Christian perspective. Spiritual guidance is aimed at awakening the child’s natural reverence for the wonder and beauty of life.
Festivals originated in ancient cultures yet have been adapted over time. Seasonal festivals serve to connect humanity with the rhythms of nature and the cosmos. The major Christian festivals are celebrated as well as the summer and winter solstices, and other festivals relevant to the locality. This provides an opportunity for participation of the whole school community. There is joy in the preparation, the anticipation and the celebration itself. The activities, songs and rhymes used in class also relate to the seasons.
One or more foreign languages are introduced in Prep, mostly through singing, rhymes and games. Teaching continues in an oral format for the first few years, with emphasis on songs, recitations and practical situations. For example, preparing a French recipe in a cookery session conducted in French.
In classes 5 and 6, classical languages such as Greek and Latin may be introduced.
Eurythmy is a dance-like art form, which involves the expression of sound through movement: specific movements correspond to particular notes or sounds. It enhances coordination, strengthens the ability to listen and reinforces social connections.
Eurythmy is introduced in kindergarten and continues throughout school.
Computers & Technology
Computer skills of all types are becoming more necessary in today’s world. However, we do not believe it is appropriate or relevant for children to become involved with them from a young age. Electronic media is not used in the classroom.
In Steiner schools computers are not generally introduced until secondary school. However, it may be appropriate to introduce them toward the end of the primary years if many children will be entering mainstream secondary school.
Baldwin, Rahima: You Are Your Child’s First Teacher. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, 1989.
Barnes, Henry: An Introduction to Waldorf Education. Mercury Press, Chestnut Ridge, NY, 1985.
Childs, Gilbert: Steiner Education in Theory and Practice. Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1991.
Davy, Gudrun: Lifeways: Working with Family Questions. Hawthorne Press, Gloucestershire, 1983.
Finser, Torin: School as a Journey. Anthroposophic Press, New York, 1994.
Gorman, Margaret: Confessions of a Waldorf Parent. Rudolf Steiner College Publications, Fair Oaks, CA, 1990.
Harwood, A. C.: Life of a Child. Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1979.
Querido, René: Creativity in Education: The Waldorf Approach. Dakin, San Francisco, 1982.
Spock, Marjorie: Teaching as a Lively Art. Anthroposophic Press, New York, 1978.
Steiner, Rudolf: Kingdom of Childhood. Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1982.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do children fare when transferring from a Steiner class to a mainstream class?
Generally, transitions are not difficult. The most common transition is from primary to secondary school, and usually takes place without significant difficulties. This education releases capacities, keeps the mind and imagination fresh, and awakens life interests. These qualities the children take with them and mark them out as good students.
Transitions in the lower grades, particularly between the first and third grades, can potentially be more of a problem because of the differences in the timing of the introduction of academic work and approach to the curriculum. These issues can be discussed with the class teacher on an individual basis.
What if there are difficulties between the class teacher and the student?
This is a very common concern among parents when they first hear about the ‘Class Teacher’ method. However, in practice, the situation seems to arise very rarely, especially so when the teacher has been able to establish a relationship with the class right from the first grade. Incompatibility with a child is infrequent, as understanding the child’s needs and temperament is central to the teacher’s role and training. When problems of this sort do occur, the faculty as a whole works with the teacher and the family to determine and undertake whatever corrective action would be in the best interests of the child and of the class.
How does the Steiner approach challenge the children who enter first grade already knowing how to read? What will such children learn, won’t they be bored? How can we encourage a balanced development?
In working toward a balanced development, it is necessary to consider more than intellectual achievements. What is the child like emotionally? Are they happy being a child? Do they relate well with other children, or almost exclusively with adults? Are they comfortable in their body and well coordinated?
The approach to writing and reading involves the child’s mind, body and feelings, which provides a meaningful connection with the work that maintains the interest, involvement and delight of even the most intellectual of children.
Imaginative play and the arts can have a healing influence on the child’s life forces. Images from fairytales are deeply nurturing to the unconscious elements of the young child.
Early intellectual awakening can result in a weakening of the child’s vital forces, manifesting in frequent colds or other illnesses. The dreamy state of childhood is an essential element in the healthy formation of the physical body during the first seven years. Because the job of the intellect is to analyze and exercise critical judgment, very bright children may have difficulty relating emotionally with other children, a problem which can intensify as the child becomes older.
If parents want a child’s power of imagination to be nourished and cultivated, if they have faith that learning to read a little later than a neighbour or relative expects is fine, the child will retain the openness necessary to enjoy and benefit from the Steiner approach.
How does a play-oriented approach to the early years of schooling prepare children for the high-tech world in which we live? What about computer literacy? I want my child to have a competitive edge, not be behind the times.
There is no demonstrated advantage for a child starting to use computers at the age of five over a child who begins at age twelve or fourteen. Computers, as word processors and vehicles for logical thinking through programming, are suited to the realm of the adolescent, not the preschool age child! Computers as toys are inappropriate, because they present a two-dimensional abstraction of the world to the young child, who should be moving and playing and acquiring a broad base of experiences of the physical world and the realm of imaginative play. The visual image on the computer screen is especially hard on the developing eyes of the young child.
Most of the educational programs for young children try to teach concepts at too young an age. The child needs to be addressed through movement and imitation. The fantasy and play of the young child transform into the artistic imagination of the primary school child, the questioning of the teenager and the rational thinking of the young adult. We should have confidence that fantasy and imagination, which are natural to the young child, form a better foundation for later creative thinking than early learning. Creative thinking is more needed in our highly technological world than five-year-olds who can push buttons on a computer.