Since its inception, the public school system in America (particularly) has focused on the intellectual development of children and young adults at the expense of their emotional and spiritual lives. Kids are taught – with varying degrees of success – the skills and knowledge that they will presumably need as adults; but at the same time, they are denied the deeper awareness of self that would help them to put those skills and that knowledge to good use in the world. How valuable is our specialized training if we lack a sense of direction and purpose? This deficiency within Western education is something that Rudolph Steiner sought to redress when he opened the first Waldorf school.
The curriculum in a Waldorf school seeks to follow the natural growth processes that all children go through. From the stories and playtime activities to the academic subjects that are presented, everything is chosen to be in harmony with the children’s developmental stages. For example, reading is introduced at a later age than in public schools, because Waldorf educators don’t want to rush intellectual development (and focus) when children are still dwelling in their healthy imaginative life.
Teachers endeavor to educate “the whole child”; that is, one’s mind, body, emotional body and spirit, together. Tasks like eurhythmy and handwork, which seem to have little educational value, actually prove their worth in the integration of mind and body. Following the assumption that children primarily learn from doing, from imitation, Waldorf education engages young ones in experiences that involve their bodies, as opposed to strict memorization work that exercises the intellect only. In this way, the curriculum differs from that of traditional schools where academics are pushed very early on.
A natural outgrowth of Waldorf schools’ regard for the stages of life is their respect for seasonal cycles and the rhythms daily life. This is reinforced by school rituals like the candle walks at the onset of autumn and the celebration of St. Nicholas during the winter solstice. Whereas Western thinking can be predominantly forward and linear – progress! – Waldorf philosophy uses nature and the seasons as a model, recognizing the ebb and flow of all things in human life. This is reflected in the curriculum with subject blocks that are emphasized for a period of time before they give way to new matter. Always the priority is providing a well-rounded education, with attention paid to all aspects of the child.
Waldorf education affords kids a unique opportunity to build a strong rapport with their teachers. Each teacher begins with a first grade class and stays with these same students until graduation (usually eighth grade. Some cities have Waldorf High Schools, but students move on to new teachers in such cases). This allows teachers to grow familiar with students and their particular temperaments and gifts to an extent that no teacher in a public school could do when given a window of only one year. Kids also greatly benefit from this consistency from grade to grade. The teacher-student bond that is fostered in Waldorf schools is one of the best-loved aspects of the education for parents who’re seeking an alternative to the overcrowded classrooms in public schools where teachers have little opportunity for personal attention.