The Waldorf or Steiner approach to early childhood education is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who attempted to find a link between science and spirituality and who founded anthroposophy. 

The first school based on the Holistic Theory of Development by Steiner was opened in 1919 in the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette factory in Stuttgart to provide an education to the children of employees. The name Waldorf has stuck and now both names refer equally to schools and early childhood services which adopt the Steiner approach. 

The original Waldorf School in Stuttgart began with 253 children in eight grades. It soon grew to be the largest private school in Germany, with more than 1,000 students, through high school. When Hitler came to power in 1933, there were seven Waldorf Schools in Germany, all of which were closed by the National-Socialist government. The Stuttgart school reopened in 1945 under the auspices of the American Occupation Forces in southern Germany. In the early twenty-first century, there are more than 180 Waldorf schools in Germany. The first school in the English-speaking world opened in England in 1925. In 1928, the Rudolf Steiner School opened in New York City. There are 152 Waldorf schools in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and there are 11 Waldorf teacher training centers. They are represented by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA).

Steiner's Pedagogical Approach

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The distinguishing feature in Steiner's educational philosophy is that it is based on a perception of the human being as threefold, comprising body, soul, and spirit. In Steiner's view, the human bodily organism, in the mature adult, is built up of four interactive members, of which only the physical/mineral body is directly perceptible to the physical senses. The three supersensible members manifest in and through the physical organism and are directly perceptible to spiritual perception and cognition. Sustaining the life and growth of the physical body is the human "etheric" or "life" body, a characteristic held in common with the plant kingdom. Penetrating the physical and etheric bodies is the "astral" body, instrument of consciousness and emotion, which is shared with the animal kingdom. Penetrating physical, etheric, and astral organisms is the human ego, unique to the human species. The human soul, which mediates between the human spirit and the bodily organism, is endowed with the capacities of thinking, feeling, and will. It is the task of education, from birth to adulthood, to exercise and nurture the human bodily instruments and the soul, to become as responsive, as flexible, and as readily available to the individual human ego as possible. The true fruits of education in childhood come to full expression in the later years of human life.

The developmental process underlying Steiner's education is the result of the unfolding of the three supersensible members from birth to the "coming of age" at twenty-one. This process proceeds in three stages of approximately seven years each. During the first phase, from birth to about the seventh year, the etheric or life body gradually penetrates the physical organism, culminating in the change of teeth. The astral, or "soul" body, penetrates the physical/etheric organism approximately from seven to fourteen years, culminating in the reproductive, sexual changes at puberty. And the ego gradually penetrates the physical, etheric, and astral organisms at about twenty-one. Psychologically, this latter culmination manifests in the individual's ability, not only to know, but to know that she/he knows. Consciousness is transformed into self-consciousness.

The educational insights arising through this developmental process are characterized in Steiner's pedagogy in the following way: During the first phase (0–7) the child's basic cognitive faculty is imitation. With the change of teeth, a significant portion of the etheric-formative forces that have shaped the child's organism are released and become available to the child as the awakening faculty of imagination. With the physical changes at puberty, a significant portion of the astral forces is freed from the organism and is now available as intellectual cognition and emotional response. During adolescence, the "personality" gradually yields to the "individuality." Language reflects this. Per-sonare means to "sound through." As in Greek drama, in which the god speaks through the mask, personality is the "mask" through which the individual sounds. The individuality is that in the human being which cannot be further divided, is "indivisible."

This developmental picture gives rise to Steiner's pedagogical approach in practice. The key to preschool education is imitation, not intellectualization. In these years it is primarily through the imitative will that education occurs. The key to elementary education is learning through imagination–through story, myth, art, narrative, and biography–and doing. In these years, human feeling is the primary focus. And the time to exercise and challenge the intellectual intelligence, human thinking, is primarily in adolescence.

In the first seven years, the educative focus is on 

·       Physical development including the final differentiation of individual organs, the coordination of the limb system and development of the senses and nervous system. 

·       Learning through imitation of what is heard, felt and experienced, as the major impetus for development. 

·       Developing will, or the ability to follow a decision or action to completion, which enables children to solve problems, use imagination and develop creative play and is required to later achieve literacy, numeracy, creative thinking and self-actualisation in adulthood. 

From seven to fourteen years of age, children are able to create mental pictures and interpret the world through feeling (while with the onset of puberty around fourteen, they are thought to develop a capacity for abstract thinking). 

Main features of the Steiner approach

Strong relationships

Steiner Waldorf education gives utmost importance to the relationship between the students and their teacher. It’s of as great value as the material and curriculum content that’s why Steiner education is looping the class teacher to allow them develop strong bonds with their students for a couple of years.

The teacher moves with the class in the lower school grades every year. In a Steiner school, children have one teacher from first to eighth grade. This practice enables the teacher to know their students’ strengths, interests, challenges and character.

They would also know well each students’ parents and can work hand in hand with them in the children’s learning journey. As with music, physical education and the arts, subject teachers also work closely with students over time. 

Holistic approach to development

The goal of a steiner school is to cultivate intellectual freedom and moral responsibility among their students so they become adults who promote human values and bring a positive difference in society. Waldorf schools have a holistic approach to education acknowledging that children need to hone and look after three major aspects of themselves– heads, hearts and hands.

In the early years of learning in a Steiner school, students learn core subjects like math, science, literature and history through creative methods that inspire them to listen and participate.


Rudolf Steiner felt challenged by the European education system and developed an alternative method where children’s imagination and creativity will be encouraged and their social and emotional needs will be nurtured.

Rudolf Steiner encouraged teachers to look for creative ways to develop the academic skills of children and to infuse art in the curriculum to better inculcate the core and concept of the subjects. Teachers also strive to help students develop their social skills and a sense of community that thrives on working together for the common good. 


Steiner education uses a play-based approach in catering to the young learners’ needs. In a play-based program, children learn through exploration, experimentation, discovery, and problem-solving.

Learning is initiated by the child and supported by the teacher. They motivate children to learn through play. Children can develop social, emotional, physical, and creative skills through play.

Through play, teachers guide children as they learn the skills of cooperation, sharing, negotiating, and conflict resolution through social interactions.

Rhythm, repetition and reverence

Rhythm, repetition, and reverence are the three R’s of Waldorf Early Childhood Education.


Rhythm brings a sense of peace nd natural order to a child’s world. Having a healthy rhythm is essential for children so they won’t be left wondering, anticipating, or questioning what is next. In this way, they can seamlessly switch between activities. Rhythm is different from routine, it does not become stale, it is alive and dynamic.


A sense of security and well-being is positively impacted when children are able to predict what will happen during each part of their day. They learn and retain information better when repetition is in place.


Seeing each activity as worthy of honor, a young child learns through experience to revere each process and activity. As a result, they develop a sense of reverence for their family, community, and world. During this process, a young child learns how to be a steward of the environment.

Experiences in nature

Narure and natural materials are very important compnents to Waldorf education. In fact they have a very well-thought out outdoor curriculum. Some school would have forest and farm studies, school-based gardens, environmental work, and extensive outdoor play to help a child become a human being connected to the natural world.

The limitations of Steiner’s approach

Some families want to integrate technology into their children’s early years of learning. If you’re a parent who wants to start your kids young in being exposed to tech and other gadgets, Steiner education might not be for you.

The use of technology, electronic media, gadgets and tools is not allowed until a child reaches at least fifth grade. Some Steiner schools would even have parents sign an agreement that is binding to ban the use of tech for students.

Waldorf education students are only given permission to watch movies and TV shows when they reach sixth grade and even then watch time is limited. They’re not allowed to play video games and use the Internet until they reach high school.

Some families are also more comfortable with the traditioanl approach to core subjects. They want to follow the typical learning process for reading, writing and mathematics. If you’re the kind of parent who’s leaning towards such a direction, Waldorf education might not be for you and your child.

Difference between Steiner and Montessori’s method.

Waldorf education: ‘Head, heart and hands’

Steiner Waldorf early childhood education is different from mainstream schools, formal education comes in the latter years. Following the Steiner philosophy, they believe that young children learn with their head, heart and hands.

The Steiner approach focuses on integrating lots of creativity in their curriculum. Steiner schools educate children with a creative and artistic approach. Steiner Waldorf Schools’ class teachers inspire a child’s creative thinking and deep learning through storytelling, visual arts, poetry, speech, games and crafts.

Steiner Waldorf schools allow children to spend a lot of their play-based learning time outdoors to enable children to engage in activities involving physical movement, social interaction, self initiated play, and emotional development.

Steiner Waldorf Education encourages preschool and kindergarten students to have imaginative play and pretend, they are provided with toys, art materials and games.

Montessori school: ‘Follow the child’

The Montessori approach is student-centric. Teachers follow the child, they keenly observe the learners to understand their interests, strengths, and potential. The teacher enables children to choose their activities and learn on their own pace.

Teachers rarely give lectures to the class, children have the freedom to move around, work on their individuals tasks. Concrete learning is a very important component in a Montessori primary school. When they reach secondary education or middle school they move to more abstract learning.

Montessori has very minimal pretend play and it’s usually not encouraged even in preschool. They lean more towards task-oriented work or practical skills over imaginative play.

Instead of pretend kitchens our doll houses, a Montessori school would have a real kitchen, actual child-sized furniture, real food and cooking utensils. They provide practical materials that are used in daily life.