What Is The Waldorf School Method?
The system of private schools is based on a philosophy that prioritizes the arts and the imagination.
Being in a Waldorf early-education classroom — with its pale-pink walls and an altar-like table filled with objects from nature — is “like being in a watercolour world,” a Times reporter wrote in 1977. And plus ça change: Although each school operates independently, that rosy pre-kindergarten palette remains quite common today, said Beverly Amico, the Waldorf executive director of advancement in North America. In fact, several recurring threads tend to surface in the Waldorf pedagogical quilt. Over the years, the system of schools has gained fame and notoriety alike for its often technology-eschewing, movement-encouraging ways. Waldorf School Method’s adherents emphasise that a focus on relationships, the arts, the imagination and nature educates the whole child: “the head, the heart and the hands.”
Waldorf School Method
The private school began in Europe with the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In the spring of 1919, Emil Molt, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, asked Steiner to open a school for his employees’ children. That fall, the Independent Waldorf School opened. In 1928, the Waldorf school branched out to New York City, where it still exists today as the Rudolf Steiner School. Today, according to Amico, there are 125 Waldorf schools in the United States and more than 3,000 worldwide, from pre-K programs through high school.
Born in Austria in 1861, Steiner coined a theory called “anthroposophy,” a sort of spiritual philosophy that Amico explained via email as “the common principle that binds us.” She said it has “nothing to do with perpetuating a certain method, curriculum or tradition, but with developing reverence for the goodness, in the other and in the world around us … which brings with it purpose and meaning to life.” Steiner believed in reincarnation and karma, and that children were born in order to fulfil a particular destiny. His ideas are not followed strictly today. Amico said, “While anthroposophy is the foundation of Waldorf education and how we view the development of the human being, it informs teaching but is not taught in the curriculum.”
Some of Steiner’s beliefs were much more controversial. The website The Cut reported that Steiner once wrote that white people led a “thinking” life whereas black people led an “instinctive/sexually charged” life. (Amico has called those writings “painful,” saying, “As an association, we have no relation to that statement.”) He also believed he was clairvoyant, that diseases were influenced by an “astral body” and that childhood illness strengthened the immune system. Some Waldorf schools have been in the news recently because of their low vaccination rates and a lawsuit by anti-vaccine parents, though Amico said that there has not been a confirmed case of measles at a Waldorf school and that “there is nothing about our approach to education that aligns with the anti-vaccination movement.”
Favouring Nature Over Technology
Controversies aside, in a modern early-educational Waldorf classroom the emphasis remains on the arts, nature and imagination. Students might spend time in “forest school,” rake leaves in the garden or make sculptures from beeswax. They listen to stories but do no formal reading or writing training. In most early-ed classrooms, technology is discouraged both at school and at home. In the words of one parent, Michael Shaun Conaway of Boulder, Colo., kids “who have been in this rich life of story go to sleep with it,” and have it inform their dreams.
Stephanie Rynas, the Waldorf executive director of operations and member resources in North America, said that classes might be mixed-age during the early years—perhaps a pre-K of 3- and 4-year-olds, or a kindergarten of 5- and 6-year-olds. A typical class has 18-20 kids, Rynas said.
In early childhood grades, a class might have a lead teacher and an assistant. In higher grades, the same teacher might stay with a class from first through eighth grades. “The goal is to have that relationship deepen with the teacher through multiple years,” said Rynas.
Learning Through The “Art Of Movement”
Until children are around age 7, Steiner theorized, they aren’t ready for more formal reading and writing lessons. Then, they start learning language more methodically. Often, these lessons are informed by “eurythmy,” a dance-language hybrid created by Steiner.
Eurythmy is “movement, usually accompanied by piano, in a big room,” said Nancy Hoose, a kindergarten teacher at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School in New Paltz, N.Y. “With a lot of the movement comes sound,” for example, vowels. “It’s very therapeutic for the students.” Amico described it as “an art of movement: It attempts to make visible the tone and feeling of music and speech.”
Steiner encouraged a focus on play, not academics, in children’s early years. And the school’s methods — most early-grade classrooms don’t have desks; teachers might sing to students to guide them from playtime to lunch — have found fans in surprising corners. Some Silicon Valley moguls are sending their children to Waldorf schools, embracing the idea of a tech-free life for their kids. Hoose observed her daughter in a public pre-kindergarten where, she said, she was told to sit still and listen to a teacher speak for 40 minutes. When she found a Waldorf school in Woodstock, N.Y., she said, she “felt like we’d landed in heaven.” It was in a bucolic setting, prioritizing what she said was “natural, beautiful and healthy for the child.”
“Developing A Complete Human Being”
Hoose describes the lead teacher as “a huge ego in the room,” and defined that person’s presence as almost “priest- or priestess-like.” Physical closeness with students is considered fine in her classroom, for example, foot rubs during nap time — which takes place on sheepskin and lambskin throws. In addition to lots of playtime, Hoose said her students might make an apple crisp together or do “handwork,” domestic projects such as washing the lunch dishes, preparing a meal or knitting. There is a lot of “love, caring and reverence” in the classroom, she said. (Though Amico agreed with the latter characterisation, she said, “I absolutely wouldn’t call it priest or priestess-like,” adding that the teacher “is the classroom authority and a parent is the authority in the home.” As for physical touching, that varies by the school.)
“It is about developing a complete human being,” said Jason Child, a music teacher at a North Carolina Waldorf school. “It’s not about meeting goals society feels would make the child a more productive member of society.”
Many Waldorf classrooms skip recorded music in favour of having children play in ensembles — perhaps on wooden flutes, for example — and Child, who teaches ages 6 to 18, “really enjoys” that when children arrive in his classroom from kindergarten, they have already had exposure to music. He said when he was a public school teacher, “the responsibility was to help them be a little bit musical if possible.” Now, he said, he’s fine-tuning kids’ existing musicality.
Lisa Babinet, who taught at college prep schools for 20 years before teaching at a Waldorf in Silicon Valley, was “floored” by her new students. She said they asked her questions about mathematics that she “had never thought about before. They were deep thinkers.”
Waldorf tuition ranges significantly throughout the country, depending on location and whether your student is enrolled part-time or full time. At Live Oak Waldorf School in rural California, for example, tuition for a five-day pre-K program is about $7,980 per year, whereas at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, pre-K costs $34,400. The length of the school day varies but is typically 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 pm. for a half-day, and until 3 p.m. for a full day. The schools have a financial aid and tuition assistance program supported by “a huge budget,” Amico said, that draws kids whose families have “a broad range of income levels.” As for higher education, Amico cited a recent survey of graduates, not yet publicly available, that quoted 98 percent as having attended college, and 90 percent attending one of their top three choices.
Is the Waldorf school for everyone? Babinet, who is also a parent of two Waldorf graduates, had two caveats: “Students with really severe learning differences, if they’re not thriving, it does not make sense.” And she said the small environment might be “challenging” for some kids and “fabulous” for others. But the schools’ methods please many. “It’s not that the student needs to be filled up, but held in such a way that they can gravitate towards themselves,” Conaway said. “What a gift.”
“What Is the Waldorf School Method?” by Alex Van Buren © 2020 The New York Times Company
Alex Van Buren is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Brooklyn.
This story was originally published on 19 April 2020 in NYT Parenting.