Waldorf Education: Timely & Timeless
Founded in the early 20th century, Waldorf Education is on the cusp of celebrating 100 years. The education is based on the insights and teachings of the world-renowned artist, and scientist, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). According to Steiner's philosophy, the human being is a threefold being of spirit, soul and body, whose capacities unfold in three developmental stages on the path to adulthood: early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence.
In April of 1919, Germany, defeated in war, was teetering on the brink of economic, social and political chaos. Steiner spoke about the need for social renewal, for a new way of organizing society and its political and cultural life. He was asked if he would establish and lead a school based on these ideas. Steiner agreed, but set four conditions, each of which went against the common practice of the day: 1) that the school be open to all children; 2) that it be coeducational; 3) that it be a unified 12-year school; 4) that the teachers, those individuals actually in contact with the children, have primary control of the school, with minimum interference from the state or from economic sources.
Today, there are more than 1,090 Waldorf/Steiner schools in 64 countries. In North America, Waldorf Education was established in 1928 with the founding of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan; there are now over 250 schools. In Connecticut, the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School, located in Newtown, is the only Waldorf School in the state providing early childhood through grade 8 education; families travel from 30 surrounding towns to attend. Apple Blossom School and Family Center in Wilton provides early childhood education through kindergarten and feeds into the grade school at the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School.
Melissa Merkling, founder of the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School in 1989, states: “I’m a K-12 Waldorf graduate myself, from the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan. I always loved school; every day was full of beauty, depth and meaning. When I had a child of my own, I realized I wanted the same experience for him, though there were no Waldorf schools in Connecticut. I was an editor and television producer but, when in April 1989 I met with a group of other parents interested in a Waldorf school for their toddlers, they encouraged me to become the teacher. Thus began the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School as well as my journey into Waldorf teaching. Today, 30 years later, I’m still teaching here, and I see in our students’ eyes the same sparkling joy and wonder of discovery that I experienced as a child. I feel Waldorf education is the perfect antidote to the increasing acceleration and superficiality our children are surrounded by today. I’m always thrilled when our graduates come back to visit: they look you in the eye as well-rounded, emotionally mature human beings.”
The Waldorf curriculum is broad and comprehensive. Math, science, language arts, history and foreign languages are not simply subjects to be read about and tested. They are to be experienced through music, dance, drama, writing, literature, handcrafts, woodworking, painting and clay modeling. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate their intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities, along with academic skills.
When the arts are incorporated into the teaching of all disciplines, it weaves a connection of meaning, beauty and practicality into everything that the students learn. Music brings soul to math, art brings life to geometry, and woodwork brings purpose to engineering. When students discover beauty and connections in the world, they become eager learners, forward-thinking problem-solvers, and are intuitively creative. Not only are their learning experiences more comprehensive, but their lives are richer for it.
The Waldorf pedagogy strives to engage all the senses in the learning process, not just the intellect. By doing so, the inner life of the child is nourished and much deeper learning results. This takes time. Ironically, by preserving each phase of child development, not rushing children “ahead,” they make far greater leaps in competencies, capacities and skills later. Their executive functioning is strengthened; they have greater confidence, along with far less stress.
Foundational cornerstones that contribute to Waldorf’s success include the artistic approach; working from experience to concept; working from whole to parts; use of rhythm and repetition; and observation as the foundation for assessment, alleviating the need for testing. Marcella Kapsaroff, Waldorf parent and newest teacher at the Housatonic Valley School, explains choosing Waldorf Education this way:
“We are choosing a Waldorf grade-school education for our daughter because we firmly believe the Waldorf philosophy and approach is best for the well-being of the whole child. We believe learning requires all of the senses, not tamping down some senses while overloading others. We want our child to experience kindness and caring from important adults/teachers. We do not want our child to experience the intense inducement to ‘do well’ on an achievement-standardized test. We feel confident our daughter will love learning and that as she grows older she will embark on learning adventures that require rigorous discipline and fortitude that comes from within her! We feel a Waldorf grade-school education can support her on this very important personal journey.”
Enduring human relationships between students and their teachers, and between the children themselves, are at the heart of Waldorf Education. The teacher’s task is to work with the developing individuality of each student and with each class as a whole, within the context of the entire school. These relationships gain in depth and stability when they are cultivated over multiple years.
This was true 100 years ago and is still true today, perhaps more so. We’re living in a world that feels increasingly divided and disconnected. Humankind needs self-aware people with a strong sense of purpose, concern for others, and the capacity to be in service to society. Waldorf education cultivates empathy and prepares students to take responsibility for their role in society and contribute to positive change.
Photos courtesy of Housatonic Valley Waldorf School.