How did Waldorf education begin?

In the chaos of post World War One Germany, Steiner questioned the senselessness of war and the need for new social forms. He concluded that to meet the needs of the future, individuals needed to be educated differently. Emil Molt, owner of the Waldorf Astoria factory and his wife Berta wanted to provide an education for the children in the families of their employees in the factory, and turned to their friend Rudolf Steiner to build a curriculum that would address the future with a new form of raising children to think differently. They wanted the new generation to have an open mindset which would have the capacity to find constructive ways to end conflict than the wasteful and destructive World War they had just survived.

Who was Rudolf Steiner?

Steiner was an Austrian philosopher, scientist and artist who lived from 1861 – 1925. His interests were not only in education, but in a wide range of fields such as medicine, agriculture, nutrition, social renewal and the environment. One of his beliefs was that humanity needs to work in cooperation with nature. He sounded many warning bells about issues such as sustainability and depletion of human and natural resources which are of wide concern today.

What is unique about Steiner Education?

Waldorf schools are based on a consistent philosophy and understanding of the nature of children and how they grow and learn.  Waldorf schools seek to educate the whole child, integrating academics with emotional and spiritual growth and physical skills.

The Arts play a big part at all levels as do movement and craft. Self-expression, self-discipline and the wholeness of life are the key elements teachers weave into every lesson.  Schools often describe the whole child orientation as head, heart and hands.
Waldorf teachers aim to foster a genuine love of learning within each child. Through the skilful interweaving of arts and activities, students naturally develop their own internal motivation to learn.

Some distinctive features of Waldorf education include the following:

  • Children learn as much as possible through direct personal experience and interaction with people, materials, subjects and ideas.  In this way children become more personally engaged in whatever they are learning.
  • Kindergarten sets the stage for later academic learning. Specific types of play, story-telling and artistic activities cultivate the skills that will make academic learning more interesting and effective in later years.
    Learning in a Waldorf school is a non-competitive activity. Testing and grading are not used to motivate study.
What are the differences between Steiner and Montessori Schools?

The Differences between Steiner and Montessori in Early Childhood

by Barbara Shell

This comparison of Steiner and Montessori educational philosophies is based on my personal experience as a teacher in both Montessori and Steiner school systems.

Although the young child is viewed with great respect and reverence in both philosophies, there are several areas of contrast between Steiner and Montessori, including their approach to play, fantasy, toys, social development, structure and order, and intellectualism.

Play, fantasy and toys

In Montessori, there is a feeling that young children have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and therefore fantasy should be postponed until the child is firmly grounded in reality. The tasks and activities the children do are reality oriented. Montessori said that it is a mistake for children to amuse themselves with toys, that children are not really interested in toys for long without the real intellectual interest of associating them with sizes and numbers. In Montessori, each manipulative material is focused toward a specific learning concept and has a step-­by-­‐step procedure for being used. Math counting rods, for example, are not to be transformed into castle walls.

In the Steiner philosophy, play is viewed as the work of the young child. The magic of fantasy, which is so alive in every young child, is an integral part of how the teacher works with the child. The teacher incorporates storytelling and fantasy into the curriculum.

In Steiner, we feel that it is essential to realise the value of toys to help children to re-­enact experiences from life as they actually happen. The less finished and the more suggestive a toy may be, the greater its educational value, for it really enlivens the imaginative life of the child. So toys in the Steiner kindergarten may be rounds of wood cut from birch logs, seashells, lengths of coloured silk or cotton for costuming or house building, soft cloth dolls with a minimum of detail in faces or clothing, etc., allowing for open-­‐ended imaginative play. Steiner’s emphasis on play in early childhood is well expressed by Joseph Chilton Pearce, in his book Magical Child, when he writes “The great rule is: play on the surface and the work takes place beneath. For the child, the time is always now; the place, here; the action, me. He has no capacity to entertain adult notions of fantasy world and real world. He knows only one world, and that is the very real one in which and with which he plays. His is not playing at life. Play is life.”

As Piaget expressed it, “Play is a reality which the child is disposed to believe in when by himself, just as reality is a game at which he is willing to play with the adult and anyone else who believes in it…. thus we have to say of the child’s play that it constitutes an autonomous reality, but with the understanding that the “true” reality to which it is opposed is considerably less “true” for the child than for us.”

Social Development

In the Montessori classroom, much of the young child’s work is focused on individual learning tasks, performed separately. Each child works independently on a small rug, doing a different task from the other children. Only the teacher, as facilitator, may intervene if the child requests help. Socialisation takes place in not bothering other children working, in helping a younger child learn to do a new task, or in waiting one’s turn if the child wants an activity already in use.

The Steiner philosophy stresses that the child gradually learns to be a social being, and that the development of the
young child in the social realm is as important as anything else we do. The teacher has the role of orchestrating how this happens – through modelling good social behaviour with children, through joining together in movement activities, singing or games to develop group consciousness, and by helping children to humanistically work through disagreements.

Structure and order

Madame Montessori described the classroom as a place where children are free to move about at will, where the day is not divided between work periods and rest or play periods. The children are free to choose their own activities in the classroom. This protection of the child’s choice is a key element in the Montessori method.

In contrast, Steiner sees the child thriving in a rhythmical atmosphere – knowing what he/she can count on from day to day and week to week. There are times for coming together and working as a whole group, times for playing individually or with friends, times for directed activity like crafts or baking or painting, and times for creative play (such as acting a story out through movement, doing finger games, watching a puppet show). The Steiner teacher works with the year’s seasonal rhythms and themes, weaving artistic activities, stories, songs and verses to enliven and capture the children’s interest and imaginations.

A child longs for rhythm and order in his world. Both Steiner and Montessori recognise this, and both feel the physical setting needs an underlying order to help the child feel secure. But the two philosophies interpret it in quite different ways: the Montessori classroom emphasises reality, to free a child from his fantasies. The Steiner classroom enhances the child’s world of fantasy and imagination to stimulate the child’s play.

Intellectual development

Montessori sees the child as having an absorbent mind, ready to soak up knowledge and experience like a sponge. The theory is that, by supplying a child with ever more challenging intellectual tasks from an early age, you will end up with an educated child.

Steiner does not believe this is the healthiest way to approach the education of young children. Rather than introducing an early intellectual focus, Steiner instead seeks to nourish and to keep alive the young child’s healthy imagination and creative thinking powers.

The child’s intellectual potential lies within, and it unfolds slowly, like petals of a maturing flower, as the child moves from one developmental stage to the next. In Steiner early childhood classrooms, we do not seek to produce premature flowers of intellectual learning, much as these flowers might find appreciation. We rather forego such immediate satisfaction, and focus our attentions upon each child’s ultimate good, and upon the protection of his/her childhood, with the goal of a healthy, well-­‐rounded adult in the future.


learning is brought to the child at a developmentally appropriate stage of their lives and as a result, Steiner School graduates have been proven to achieve higher results at university than their peers.

STEINER: Grunelius, Elizabeth M., Early Childhood Education and the Steiner School
Plan; Spring Valley, N.Y.:Steiner School Monographs 1983. Piening, Ekkehard and
Nick Lyons, ed., Educating as an Art New York: The Rudolf Steiner School Press, 1979.
MONTESSORI: Gitter, Lena L., The Montessori Way Seattle: Special Child
Publications, Inc. 1970. Lillard, Paula Polk, Montessori: A Modern Approach New
York: Schocken Books, 1973. Montessori, Maria, The Absorbent Mind New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979.
OTHERS: Pearce, Joseph Chilton, Magical Child New York: Bantam Books, 1977.
Piaget, Jean, Play, Dreams & Imitation in Childhood New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1962
This article was edited with special thanks to Jim Schaeffer and Lisa White.

Why do Steiner schools discourage television for younger children?

The value of television viewing and computer use for young children is being questioned by many people who are aware of the needs of young children.  Apart from the questionable content and the reliance of the sense of sight in isolation from the other senses, primary school-aged children need movement and play for healthy growth.  Every minute spent before a screen is a minute lost in creative activity.

Steiner Schools foster the children’s imaginative capabilities. For this reason, the bulk of our teaching is through stories of one kind or another and the children have to call on their imagination to fill out the stories. Television and computer images are ready-made and work against what we strive to achieve at school.

Why don’t Steiner Primary Schools have computers?

Steiner primary schools generally do not support the use of computers in educating young children.  Computers as part of the high school curriculum.  Material learned through computers arrives purely as information. Knowledge gained through direct personal experience and integrated into a broader understanding of life and the world is considered more vital than technology based on educational needs.

Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds for Better and Worse by Jane Healy examines the subject in greater detail.

Do Steiner schools teach religion?

Children of all religious backgrounds attend Steiner Schools schools. Religion is not taught in a Steiner School, however, attention is given to the spiritual dimension which is aimed at awakening the child’s reverence for nature, humanity, and the beauty of life.

How are personality conflicts between students and teachers handled?

In a Steiner School, the primary school class teacher ideally stays with the class for their 6 year primary school journey. In this model, the teacher is able to develop been able to establish a relationship with the child from the moment they begin their primary school journey.  Understanding the child’s needs and temperament is central to the teacher’s role and training. When problems of incompatibility do occur, the teacher and the family, work together with the support of school mentors, to determine and undertake whatever corrective action would be in the best interests of the child and of the class.

What is Anthroposophy?

The term “Anthroposophy’ comes from the Greek “anthropos-sophia” or “human wisdom”. Steiner expanded an exacting scientific method by which one could do research for her/himself into the spiritual worlds. The investigation, known also as Spiritual Science is an obvious complement to the Natural Sciences we have come to accept. Through study and practiced observation, one awakens to his/her own inner nature and the spiritual realities of outer nature and the cosmos. The awareness of those relationships brings a greater reverence for all of life.

Steiner and many individuals since, who share his basic views, have applied this knowledge in various practical and cultural ways in communities around the world. Most notably, Steiner schools have made significant impact on the world. Curative education, for mentally and emotionally handicapped adults and children, has established a deep understanding and work with people who have this difficult destiny. Bio-dynamic farming and gardening greatly expand the range of techniques available to organic agriculture. Anthroposophical medicine and pharmacy, although less widely known in Australia, are subjects of growing interest.

What role do parents play in Steiner School?

Since a Steiner education concerns a child’s whole life, communication between parents and teachers is frequent and important. Parents participate in special events and festivals and help on committees which support the school, such as the Parents and Friends Association.

How do children from Waldorf schools fare when they transfer to state schools?

In general, children who transfer from Class 6 to a mainstream High School thrive in their new environment. Transfers in the lower grades can be problematic because of the differences in curriculum and the pace of learning.

How does Steiner Education meet children who are academically stronger or weaker?

Seiner schools hesitate to categorise children, particularly in terms such as “slow” or “gifted”. A given child’s weakness in one area, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, will usually be balanced by strengths in another area. It is the teacher’s job to try to bring the child’s whole being into balance.

A child having difficulty with the material might be given extra help by the teacher or by parents; tutoring might also be arranged. Correspondingly, a child who picked up the material quickly might be given harder problems of the same sort to work on, or might be asked to help a child who was having trouble.

What do Alumni have to say about Steiner Education?

In 2018, Steiner Education Australia embarked on a comprehensive research project to help both SEA and local schools better understand their core audiences, and provide a foundation for building stronger relationships with government and educational services partners.

There were 3,055 respondents, including principals, teachers, board members, staff, parents, students and alumni, from 54 metropolitan and regional schools across the country.

Alumni results give insight into the enduring effects of a Steiner education and reinforcement of some of our core educational objectives:

  • An overwhelming 89% agree that ‘what I learnt is highly appropriate to later life’.
  • 95% agree that ‘attending a Steiner school has been an asset in my life’.
  • 94% of alumni would recommend a Steiner school education.
How do Steiner Schools Perform in Naplan?

It is a requirement for all Australian schools to offer NAPLAN. However, the broad national testing is out of step with the timing of delivery of the Steiner curriculum.⠀

NAPLAN measures numeracy and literacy skills which are ahead of our teachings in Year 3, but by Year 5 Steiner educated children are performing better than their mainstream counterparts.⠀

A key difference in comparison to many mainstream schools is the emotional effect NAPLAN has on students. Steiner schools uphold a natural process of unfolding, a long term educational view for each student. There is therefore no pressure to perform.⠀

Key highlights of Steiner students NAPLAN results include:⠀

  • In reading, in Years 5, 7 and 9 Steiner students perform significantly better than their mainstream counterparts.
  • In writing, by Year 9 many Steiner students are performing in the top three NAPLAN bands, a higher achievement than their mainstream counterparts.
  • In spelling, at all years, Steiner students perform comparably to their mainstream counterparts.
  • In grammar and punctuation, at all years, Steiner students perform better than their mainstream counterparts, with many Steiner students by year 9 performing in the highest three NAPLAN bands.
  • In numeracy, by Years 7 and 9 Steiner students perform better than their mainstream counterparts, catching up with them from the primary years and then exceeding their performance

Results taken from Steiner Education Australia data.