Voluntary Services | Emergency Pedagogy
+49 (0)721 20111-0
Waldorf Worldwide | WOW-Day | Sponsorships
+49 (0)30 617026 30
Home: Freunde Waldorf

The Foundations of Waldorf Education

(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 18-23, Note the Copyright!)

The human being as seen by the spiritual science of anthroposophy

Waldorf Education is one fruit of the spiritual science of anthroposophy as depicted by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in very many books and lectures. Emil Molt, Director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, invited Steiner in 1919 to formulate ideas for a school for his workers’ children based on the fundamentals of anthroposophy. As a result, the first “Waldorf” school was founded in September of the same year. In preparation Steiner gave basic seminars for the first group of teachers in which he explained the anthroposophical idea of the human being and gave suggestions as to didactic method. In subsequent years he enlarged on these seminars in various ways in lectures and courses given in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and Britain. Some elements of that new school have meanwhile been adopted by mainstream education in various countries, e.g. the renunciation of marking systems for purposes of selection, the introduction of arts and crafts as educational tools, coeducation. Other elements, such as instruction in Latin, Greek and shorthand, were required subjects at the time and, as part of the curriculum, conformed with official regulations then in force in Germany. Much in the Waldorf curriculum has changed since those days. But the anthroposophical understanding of the human being remains the essential core of the education.

In the following we shall begin by giving an outline of this.

Steiner gave an aphoristic definition of what he meant by “anthroposophy” in the “leading thoughts” he formulated in 1924: “Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge which intends to lead what is spiritual in the human being to what is spiritual in the universe.”

This sentence contains three core statements:
•There is a spiritual element in every human being.
• The visible world around us is founded on something invisible which it is up to us to discover and research.
• Anthroposophy is not a faith; it is an encouragement to tread a path of knowledge which is at the same time a path of self-development, a path which energizes the individual’s own spiritual powers.

Anthroposophy is thus a stimulus to follow this path of research in all the many and varied aspects of life. Education aims to help each individual develop independence step by step, so it follows that in this attitude of research Waldorf Education cannot be dogmatic since it can only arise where it is individually applied in situations of immediate encounter. In his fundamental essay “Independent Education and the Threefold Social Order” Steiner put this concisely:

“Whatever is to be taught and whatever education is to be practised must arise solely out of an understanding of the growing human being and his or her individual capacities. Genuine anthropology should provide the foundation for education and teaching.” (“The Essentials of Education”, 5 lectures, Stuttgart, 8–11 Apr 1924, GA 308)

As teachers it is our task above all to encourage what is hidden at the core of every human being: the individual capable of exercising independence. It is also our task to make sure that this can develop in a healthy way. To be able to do this we must be familiar with the developmental conditions which apply, since each unique individual brought to the earth from the prenatal realm manifests differently at different stages, thus necessitating different modes of approach.

Development of the human being from birth to maturity

At the beginning of life children are entirely embedded in the processes which build up the body. They are also fully dependent on their human and sensory environment. They start out on their earthly path by expressing in everything they do: “I do not want to remain as I am! I want to be like the grown-ups!”

Bodily growth itself expresses the fact that development towards maturity is not linear, for each phase is accompanied by its own possibilities and crises. The change of teeth and puberty are two marked events which hint at interruptions and turning points and thus divide the life of the child roughly into three parts each of which has its own specific subdivisions:

• The first phase: infancy up to the change of teeth.
•The second phase: from the change of teeth to puberty, i.e. the schoolchild proper.
• The third phase: from puberty to maturity, i.e. secondary school and young adulthood.

It would be wrong to see this as a rigid scheme, however. Any theory of fixed phases is quite rightly unacceptable in current educational science since such a theory contradicts living reality. On the other hand every physical change expresses a step forward in soul/spiritual development, as Jean Piaget has shown. (Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder, 1969, “The psychology of the child.” New York: Basic Books, original work published 1966. Jean Piaget, “The Essential Piaget”, published by Jason Aronson, 1995.) We can only bring up children in the right way if we know what constitution is specific to a particular age. So apart from studying anthropology and psychology it is essential and indispensable to exercise unprejudiced observation.

In turning to a consideration of the specific qualities that prevail at different ages we must first point to Steiner’s discovery of three different function systems in the human being: The motor functions belong to what has been termed the realm of the limbs and metabolism. Every movement is a bodily expression of the will. The rhythmical system - breathing and circulation - is the bodily expression of a human being who experiences and feels; fear, joy, pain and so on affect breathing and pulse. The system of nerves and senses, the consciousness pole as such, has its centre in the region of the head (brain). It corresponds with the activity of knowing. A human being is only healthy when all three systems work together and form a whole. We can all experience the benefits of a brisk walk after concentrated work at the computer which exercises only the head. If we want to concentrate our thoughts after a substantial meal we have to overcome a good deal of resistance. We are healthy when none of the three systems permanently suppresses the others.

It is possible to relate these three systems sequentially to the three phases mentioned above. Before the change of teeth children as beings of emotional “will” live primarily in their movements. Even their senses, their speech and thinking, are linked to movement and are thus for the most part bound up with the body. This is illustrated by the way in which four-year-olds, for example, immediately want to transpose anything they see or hear into movements of their own. This is how they learn to speak and also how they begin to play. It is impossible to imagine children prior to the change of teeth sitting with arms folded waiting for a meal to begin. Perception immediately triggers a will activity of the limbs. Inner and outer movement are still entirely intermingled.

Then, once the teeth have changed, inner movement begins to extricate itself from outer movement. A space of inner experience begins to form, which indicates that the rhythmical system is emancipating itself from the system of the limbs. This is also the age when the harmonious 1:4 ratio of breath to pulse begins to establish itself. Finally, when puberty is reached thinking begins to assert its independence. Human beings wake up in the exercise of their critical faculty, their voice deepens, their limbs grow heavy. It is as though the youngsters have finally arrived on the earth and are searching to find their individual personality. Needless to say, this involves a good many symptoms of transition as earlier experiences re-echo and future conditions are anticipated. The principal is that children wake up first in their limbs, then in the middle system connected with feelings and experiences, and finally in their head, the seat of critical thinking.

Since the human being forms a totality there are inner links between moving, speaking and thinking. These links have been largely confirmed by the immense progress made in brain research during the final decades of the twentieth century. An original and very readable summary can be found in Frank R. Wilson’s “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture”, New York: Pantheon, 1998.

At every phase the human being is a totality which differs from the earlier and later stages of development in the way the three systems relate to one another and thus to the subject undergoing the development.

By and large we can say that moving, speaking and thinking are intimately bound up together in the small child; they are stimulated by the environment as it is perceived by the senses and absorbed and developed by means of imitation. As the child grows older he or she becomes increasingly capable of utilizing these three main functions independently of one another.

Implications for teaching

The principal conclusion to be drawn from this view of human development is that all these realms need to be cultivated in ways that are suitable for the age of the children. This is expressed firstly in the wide range of subjects taught at Waldorf Schools. Movement subjects such as gym, PE and eurythmy (the movement art inaugurated by Rudolf Steiner), handwork, gardening and crafts, painting, music and choral speaking are as much a part of the timetable as maths and foreign languages. Taking the above-described process of emancipation into account, it becomes obvious that children making meaningful use of their hands and arms and their movement potential as a whole are also creating the basis for a differentiated use of language and a differentiated capacity to form judgements. For all ages the question to be asked is: How can we arrange our lessons to enable children to initiate their own activity in the realm they are “at” in terms of individual capability and development. This question derives from our fundamental attitude of taking them seriously as unique beings who bear within them the potential to determine their own path later on regardless of the stage they may have reached.

Education prior to the change of teeth

In the early years of life children first learn through their own movements and the use of their senses to form and take hold of their own body. The will to learn which they have brought with them from the prenatal realm expresses itself in a tremendous urge to move and be busy. Their movement organization is activated by every impression they receive through their senses. The term we use to describe the link between sensual experience and will activity is “imitation”. For the children, learning at this stage is thus a matter of experiencing their new world through their senses and then using play as their means of absorbing those experiences. Current brain research has repeatedly shown that this activity directly influences the development of the body. It is the sense impressions which help to develop both the functioning of the sense organs and thus also the maturing processes in the brain. (Herman Haken, Maria Haken-Krell. “Erfolgsgeheimnisse der Wahrnehmung”, Berlin 1994; The secrets of perception, German only). Steiner formulated this as follows in 1907:

“Just as the muscles in the hand grow strong when they do work suited to them, so are the brain and the other organs set on the right course if they receive suitable impressions from their surroundings.” (Rudolf Steiner, “The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Education”, Anthroposophic Press, 1996)

This leads us to ask ourselves: How can we give children an environment that enables them to have primary sensual experiences of this kind? How can we protect them against sensual overload? What are we offering them that is worth imitating? Since children are in large measure dependent on their sensual and human environment it is up to those who educate them both to protect them and to act as models worthy of imitation. Anything simple and natural, including what they are given by way of toys, provides far better stimulus for their own inner activity than does a technically perfect environment.

Schoolchildren in the younger classes

Here the question is: How can we stimulate schoolchildren in ways that will enable them to build on and expand their own realm of soul experience described above? How can we establish a learning process that addresses the heart?

The process of learning to write and read provides a good example: “If we teach children in ways which one-sidedly address only their intellect and call on them merely to acquire skills in an abstract way, their life of will and feeling will atrophy. On the other hand if children learn in a way that involves their whole being, then they will develop every aspect of their nature. In the way children draw and even in their simple paintings they unfold in their whole being an interest in what they are doing. So try to develop the shapes of the letters out of forms which take account of the children’s artistic sense.” (Rudolf Steiner, “The Essentials of Education”, Anthroposophic Press, 1997) It is a fact that writing did indeed develop out of pictures and magical symbols. (Cf. Kárely Földes-Papp, “Vom Felsbild zum Alphabet”, Stuttgart 1966; “From Petroglyph to Writing”, German only.)

Being active in experience and living in experiences of pictures coupled with a rich variety of memory training are prerequisites for the intellectual understanding which will develop in the older classes. Pictures relate to experience as concepts relate to knowledge. Thus, for example through the content of stories and legends right up to historical and biographical descriptions, children build up an inner treasure-house that will form the foundation of conceptual concerns and aspects as they grow older.

At the pre-pubescent stage their faculty of critical thinking begins to awaken. So now they need suitable stimuli for the gradual development of their own ability to form judgements. Here we have the transition from learning through memory to understanding through concepts. Jean Piaget has given us an impressive description of this transition. (J. Piaget, “The Essential Piaget”, published by Jason Aronson, 1995.) Causality is best comprehended through examples of non-animate nature. Physics is a new subject to be introduced in Class 6. The teaching method follows the natural process of understanding: from observation of observable phenomena to comprehension in thinking. The aim is not the acquisition of fixed definitions but the retention of a living variety. The process begins with observation and ends with conceptual understanding. The aim is not to educate the children in a culture of answers but to maintain their interest by cultivating a questioning attitude. At every stage it is important for them to relate emotionally with the subject since this strengthens their motivation for learning.

Young individuals after puberty

How can youngsters discover their personal identity once puberty is over? They can be helped by undertaking independent projects as well as by embarking on periods of practical work in agriculture or in social or commercial situations which allow them to grasp wider contexts and experience social interaction. Their “I” develops through experiencing “you” and the world. Scientific and cultural questions promote orientation in their search for their own set of values. What they learn in the upper school builds basically on what they learnt in the lower and middle school as they delve more deeply into the subject matter through a questioning attitude with an increasingly scientific slant. Independently of national requirements, many Waldorf Schools run their own school-leaving examinations in the form of collaborative artistic schemes and individual graduation projects. These testify to the pupils’ ability to work responsibly on a self-chosen theme and present it appropriately within a prescribed period of time.

This is the sense in which education at Waldorf Schools seeks to help growing youngsters in ways that are in keeping with their own developmental needs. During the pre-school period the emphasis is on developing the senses and providing play that is appropriate for the development both of the body and of the imagination. The primary and middle school years focus on stimulating individual learning and the formation of an inner treasure-house of experience and memory. And for youngsters after puberty the main emphasis is on the comprehension of wider contexts and the development of individual, social and specialist competence. Expressed simply this could be described both in detail and more widely as leading from “doing” via “experiencing” to “knowing”.

The guiding principle of Waldorf Education is the conviction that children’s learning and development is underpinned by two factors: on the one hand the will to learn which they bring with them and which arises out of their very being, and on the other the stimulus they receive from their human environment which gives direction to that will to learn. No human being will ever achieve uprightness unless stimulated to do so through being surrounded by others who are upright in their standing and walking; and no human being growing up in an environment where language is not heard will ever learn to speak. Meanwhile, as children grow up changes come about in the way they relate to following an example on the one hand and having the will to learn on the other. In early childhood their very existence consists in looking up to the adult world and being stimulated by it; then, as school-children, they look for a psychological example to follow while as young adults they base their actions on spiritual and cultural values. More than on anything else, all this is founded on the urge to apply their own energies to fulfilling their potential or, one might say, to becoming “who they are”.

Erziehung durch Kunst

Art as an educational tool has a special place in Waldorf Schools. Artistic activity challenges the imagination and brings out creativity while developing a sensitivity for qualitative differences. On the one hand it always makes use of a sense-perceptible medium (colour, shape, sound either in music or speech, and so on). On the other, as an expression of a non-sensual formative will, it leads beyond what is merely sense-perceptible. Artistic activity is therefore the best mediator between the physical and the spiritual aspects of the human being while also occupying a middle position between the child’s play and the adult’s work: “The ideal for which teaching and practical work in the classroom aims is to awaken in children a seriousness towards learning which equals the seriousness towards playing that filled their being during the period when the whole psychological content of their life was to play. When this is understood in the realm of teaching and practical work in the classroom art will be seen in the right light there and it will be applied to the right extent.” (R. Steiner, “Pädagogik und Kunst” in “Der Goetheanumgedanke”, GA 36, p.290; “Education and Art”, German only.) Just as conceptual understanding emerges from the activity of inner picturing, so can intelligence be promoted by artistic activity: “When people have grasped how strongly intellectual capacities can be brought out through the use of art in educating children they will grant art its appropriate place in the early years of school.” (R. Steiner, “The Essentials of Education”, Anthroposophic Press, 1996.)

In his letters on the aesthetic education of man Friedrich Schiller put this point quite radically: “There is no way of making a person rational other than by first making him aesthetic.”

When the first Waldorf School was founded art was entirely marginal in mainstream education. Over the past few decades, however, Steiner’s views have been abundantly borne out in a number of quarters. The best researched and documented field is that of music in education as a way of promoting intelligence and above all social skills. (E. W. Weber, “Musik macht Schule”, Essen 1993; “Music is Education”, German only.) In his well-known book “Emotional Intelligence” (New York, 1995) the American author Daniel Goleman shows how important a thorough education of the emotional sphere is in today’s violent society. Effective elements in the formation of emotional intelligence are the promotion of perceptive skills and a sense of style and quality, and also of the individual’s wish to express him or herself. These are elements which are developed through artistic activity, whereby the emphasis varies depending on the age of the children. The scientist Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich wrote in an essay: “An aesthetic education as an education of perceptive and experiential skills is a crucial factor for the attainment of a perceptive responsibility and a responsible perceptivity towards one’s immediate surroundings and the environment as a whole. Had our powers of aesthetic judgement not atrophied as the result of a degeneration in our perceptive and experiential faculties, the current scale of brutal destruction caused by our industrial system would never have come about.” (K. M. Meyer-Abich “Dreissig Thesen zur praktischen Naturphilosophie” in “Ethik der Wissenschaften”, Munich 1986, p.105; “Thirty theses towards a practical natural philosophy”, German only.) On the basis of years of research Howard Gardner demonstrated in his book “Multiple Intelligences” that it is not possible to manage with the traditional concept of intelligence as determined by the intelligence quotient, and that such intelligence does not, in fact, accord with the types of intelligence actually needed in life. For him what is expressed in music or in the way we treat our own body is just as much a matter of intelligence as the ability to handle oneself or other people. Furthermore, these two skills, self-competence and social competence, are key qualifications required by today’s world of work. (H. Gardner, “Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice.” NY: Basic Books, 1992.)

Waldorf Schools represent the first school model in which attempts are made, indeed have already been made for decades, to put such perceptions into practice.

Education as an art

Rudolf Steiner never tired of regarding the actual process of education as an artistic process in which the teachers are the artists. How to shape a lesson (subject matter, age of the children, composition of the class, time, place, situation etc.) is an artistic matter which calls for creative skills and presence of mind. Is the lesson, the whole day, a whole block period shaped in a way that properly encourages the children to use their own inner activity? The teacher needs an artistic sense with which to accompany the children as they develop since no systematic assessment can take proper account of changes in individual progress. Without this artistic element, Waldorf Education would deteriorate into dogmatism or sectarianism. At every turn the teacher must be able to see what has come about thus far and what can potentially come about in the future. The teacher’s artistry depends on a sensitive perceptiveness, a richness of ideas and a sense for what is unique. Respect for the being who is trying to develop towards freedom leads to renunciation of generally accepted educational methods such as the too early use of technical media which tend to paralyse children’s own activity and experience and thus tempt them to become passive consumers. It is much more meaningful to ask, for example: Rather than expose children too early to computers, what must I strengthen in them so that they can later on deal responsibly with such equipment? A person’s own activity and imagination is far better stimulated by what is externally imperfect since the will to strive for perfection is inherent in the human being’s make-up. This applies as much to toys as to the exercise books made by the children themselves, for any perfect medium leaves no room for their own imagination.

All that has been written above will have made it obvious that a Waldorf School can only flourish as a place for living if it is established in a meaningful way in the midst of its social, cultural and local environment. Such schools do not conform to any norm; their life unfolds in consequence of individual initiatives, so each is different from all the others.

The teacher as an individual

Education as a process calls for fruitful encounters. A teacher’s capability depends on how good he or she is at bringing about and guiding encounters and thus relationships.

Encountering a child involves meeting with someone of a particular age who belongs to a specific social environment and lives at a time which manifests certain definite characteristics. All these aspects have one goal: to help a unique being to manifest everything which he or she is at that age, in that environment and at that time. This calls on the teacher to be connected in a living way with all these aspects, i.e. he or she must endeavour to understand and keep up with the times, have a feel for social processes and an eye for what children need at different ages, and above all exercise great respect for the inviolable free being who is secreted within every child. Teachers can only do all this if they also constantly educate themselves.

At the end of the foundation course which Rudolf Steiner gave in 1919 for the teachers who were about to become the first faculty of the first Waldorf School he therefore called on them to educate themselves by being:

• individuals full of initiative both in small and large matters;
• individuals who are interested in every aspect of worldly and human existence;
• individuals who are never prepared to compromise the truth;
• individuals who do not lose their zest for life or turn sour.

Asked whether a mode of education that is over 80 years old can still be up to date we are therefore able reply: It is just as up to date and contemporary as are the teachers who daily renew it by endeavouring to apply their own contemporary spiritual attitudes to the task of making encounter fruitful.


Dr. Heinz Zimmermann
b.1937 in Basle, Switzerland. Studied Germanics, History and Ancient Philology at Basle University leading to doctorate. In 1965-66 worked at the Goethe-Institut in Finland. Assistant and reader in German Linguistics at Basle University. Taught at Basle Rudolf Steiner School for 25 years, and at the Rudolf Steiner Seminar for Teachers at Dornach, Switzerland. Since 1988 a member of the Executive Council of the General Anthroposophical Society at Dornach, Switzerland. Since 1989 Leader of the Education Section and from 1992 to 1999 Leader of the Section for the Spiritual Striving of Youth at the Goetheanum at Dornach.

Empower & donate now
Empower & donate now