Historical Foundations of Early Childhood Education 

The Waldorf Schools

Founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the Waldorf approach got its official start in 1919 as a school to serve the workers of the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette factory's children. Steiner was an academic, holding a doctorate in Philosophy, and a strong interest in the intersection of science and spirituality. As the founder of a school of philosophy called "anthroposophy", he explored the role of spirituality in contemporary society, and was deeply interested in the search for self and development of human potential. In relation to childhood, Steiner believed that childhood is important in its own right, and that human development is based on 7-year-long cycles that combine periods of physical, mental, and spiritual development, and he emphasized balanced development, creativity, and imagination. His schools were created to promote healthy, unhurried opportunities for learning based on an individual child's stage in development. Steiner stressed the development of the child's body, mind, and spirit. Like other programs, the focus was on educating the 'whole' child, because Steiner believed that engaging a variety of academic, artistic, and handicraft subject areas would equalize the human aptitude for thinking, feeling, and will. He also believed that the first 7 years of a child's life were the most important to the child's body and inclination to activity, and that educational activities should be practical, imitative, and hands-on.

Steiner's kindergarten includes ages 3-6, and consists of storytelling, puppetry, arts and crafts, imaginative play, and practical work like knitting, gardening, cleaning, and baking. Steiner felt it was of utmost importance that children feel warm, secure, and safe in their environment, so classroom settings were designed as an extension of home. They featured soft colors, natural materials, and simple, homemade toys made from cloth and wood (no plastic, battery operated toys), that encouraged imaginative play. Classrooms are designed to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Children in Waldorf schools are allowed to remain 'childlike', under the belief that there is a time for every aspect of development, and that children ought not to receive formal education until after the age of 7. While children in Waldorf programs do not usually read as early as some of their peers, Waldorf advocates maintain that they do catch up by 2nd or 3rd grade.  Teachers in Waldorf programs stay with their groups of students for three years, allowing teachers to offer continuity, build trust and relationships, and build a community within their classroom. Teachers are there to provide an optimal learning environment, nurture students, and provide a positive role model, encouraging children to serve as role models for younger children as well. The focus in the Waldorf classroom is on sensory exploration and self-discovery rather than formal instruction and merit, helping children develop  a sense of compassion and responsibility.