Waldorf History: A Brief Overview

Waldorf Education has its roots in the spiritual-scientific research of the Austrian scientist and thinker 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, Rudolf Steiner visited the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. The German nation, defeated in war, was teetering on the brink of economic, social, and political chaos. Steiner spoke to the workers about the need for social renewal, for a new way of organizing society and its political and cultural life.

Emil Molt, the owner of the factory, asked Steiner if he would undertake to establish and lead a school for the children of the employees of the company. Steiner agreed but set four conditions, each of which went against 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 twelve-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. Steiner’s conditions were radical for the day, but Molt gladly agreed to them. On September 7, 1919, the independent Waldorf School (Die Freie Waldorfschule) opened its doors.

Today, with more than 900 Waldorf schools in 83 countries, Waldorf Education is the fastest growing independent educational movement in the world. In North America Waldorf has been available since 1928, and there are now over 250 schools and 14 teacher training centers in some level of development. These schools exist in large cities and small towns, suburbs and rural enclaves. No two schools are identical; each is administratively independent. Nevertheless, a visitor would recognize many characteristics common to them all.

The Waldorf Philosophy Summarized

Waldorf schools offer a developmentally appropriate, experiential approach to education. They integrate the arts and academics for children from preschool through twelfth grade. Waldorf education aims to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities. Founded in the early 20th century, Waldorf education is based on the insights, teachings and principles of education outlined by the world renowned anthroposophist, artist, and scientist, Rudolf Steiner. The principles of Waldorf education evolve from a profound understanding of human development that address the needs of the growing child. These principles inspire and guide teachers, administrators, trustees and parents today.The Waldorf curriculum is broad and comprehensive.

Structured to respond to the three developmental phases of childhood—birth to 6 or 7 years, 7 to 14 years and 14 to 21 years—Rudolf Steiner stressed to teachers the best way to provide meaningful support for the child is to comprehend these phases fully and to bring “age appropriate” content that nourishes healthy growth for the Waldorf student. Music, dance and theatre, writing, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about and tested. They are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate their intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service in the world.Teachers in Waldorf schools are dedicated to generating an inner enthusiasm for learning within every child. This eliminates the need for competitive testing, academic placement, and behavioristic rewards to motivate learning and allows motivation to arise from within. It helps engender the capacity for joyful life-long learning.Waldorf education is independent and inclusive. It upholds the principles of freedom in education and engages independent administration locally, continentally and internationally. It is regionally appropriate education with hundreds of schools worldwide today.Waldorf education is truly inspired learning.

About Rudolf Steiner

“My meeting with Rudolf Steiner led me to occupy myself with him from that time forth and to remain always aware of his significance. We both felt the same obligation to lead man once again to true inner culture. I have rejoiced at the achievements his great personality and his profound humanity have brought about in the world.”
- Albert Schweitzer

Beginning at the end of the 19th century, a relatively unknown Austrian philosopher and teacher began to sow the seeds of what he hoped would blossom into a new culture. The seeds were his ideas, which he sowed through extensive writings, lectures and countless private consultations. The seeds germinated and took root in the hearts and minds of his students, among whom were individuals who would later become some of the best known and most influential figures of the 20th century. Since the teacher’s death in 1925, a quiet but steadily growing movement, unknown and unseen by most people, has been spreading over the world, bringing practical solutions to the problems of our global, technological civilization. The seeds are now coming to flower in the form of thousands of projects infused with human values. The teacher, called by some “the best kept secret of the 20th century,” was Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner, a truly “Renaissance man,” developed a way of thinking that he applied to different aspects of what it means to be human. Over a period of 40 years, he formulated and taught a path of inner development or spiritual research he called, “anthroposophy.” From what he learned, he gave practical indications for nearly every field of human endeavor. Art, architecture, drama, science, education, agriculture, medicine, economics, religion, care of the dying, social organization-there is almost no field he did not touch.
Today, wherever there is a human need you’ll find groups of people working out of Steiner’s ideas. There are an estimated ten thousand initiatives worldwide-the movement is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, social and political activism, artistic expression, scientific research, and community building. Contemporary manifestations of Steiner’s influence include Waldorf Education, Biodynamic farming and gardening, and the Camphill Movement for the support of people with disabilities.

Many thanks to the authors of this article, Christopher Bamford and Eric Utne,
who generously allowed for its use here.

Accolades and Quotations

“There is no task of greater importance than to give our children the very best preparation for the demands of an ominous future, a preparation that aims at the methodical cultivation of their spiritual and their moral gifts. As long as the exemplary work of the Waldorf School Movement continues to spread its influence as it has done over the past decades, we can all look forward with hope. I am sure that Rudolf Steiner’s work for children must be considered a central contribution to the twentieth century and I feel it deserves the support of all freedom-loving thinking people.”
Bruno Walter, Composer and Conductor

“The importance of storytelling, of the natural rhythms of daily life, of the evolutionary changes in the child, of art as the necessary underpinning of learning, and of the aesthetic environment as a whole–all basic to Waldorf education for the past 70 years–are being discovered’ and verified by researchers unconnected to the Waldorf movement.”
Paul Bayers, Professor Columbia Teachers’ College

“Waldorf students are encouraged to live with self-assurance, a reverence for life and a sense of service.”
Ernest Boyer, President, Carnegie Institute for the Advancement of Teaching,
Former U.S. Commissioner of Education

“Pushing skills before children are biologically ready sets them up to fail.”
M. Baker, M.D. Executive Director, Gesell Institute of Human Development.

“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
William Butler Yeats

“Waldorf education places the development of the individual child in the focal point, convinced that the healthy individual is a prerequisite for a healthy society.”

The International Conference on Education of the United Nations Educational
and Scientific Cultural Organization

“I think that it is not exaggerated to say that no other educational system in the world gives such a central role to the arts as the Waldorf School Movement. There is not a subject taught that does not have an artistic aspect. Even mathematics is presented in an artistic fashion and related via dance, movement or drawing to the child as a whole. Steiner’s system of education is built on the premise that art is an integral part of human endeavors. He gives it back its true role. Anything that can be done to further his revolutionary educational ideals will be of the greatest importance.”
Konrad Oberhuber, Curator of Drawings, Fogg Art Museum,
Professor of Fine Arts, Harvard Unversity

“Many teachers have discovered that music can also be a powerful means of integrating other aspects of the curriculum. By tapping into the experiential and expressive aspects of music, teachers can add a distinctive dimension to instruction in other subjects. This insight has been used to develop interesting and productive pedagogical models like the Waldorf schools in Europe and the United States. In the Waldorf schools, for example, the goal is the education of the whole human being by paying attention to the needs of the human spirit. The arts particularly are used as part of a theory of human development that helps children find nonverbal modes of expression and understanding.”
From Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education,
The Report of the National Commission on Music Education, March 1991

“Ideal for the child and society in the best of times, Rudolf Steiner’s brilliant process of education is critically needed and profoundly relevant now at this time of childhood crisis and educational breakdown. Waldorf education nurtures the intellectual, psychological and spiritual unfolding of the child. The concerned parent and teacher will find a multitude of problems clearly addressed in this practical, artistic approach.”
Joseph Chilton Pearce, Author, Magical Child

“If I had a child of school age, I would send him to one of the Waldorf Schools.”
Saul Bellow, Nobel Laureate

“I first heard of Waldorf education about five years ago, after having carried out extensive study of the neurological aspects of cognition, movement, and maturation. I was delighted to discover such a neurologically sound curriculum. I heartily support efforts to spread the awareness of Waldorf education and hope that it will spawn not only an increase in Waldorf Schools but an infusion of at least some of the ideas into the mainstream where they are so sorely needed. In Colorado I am working with several districts to incorporate various Waldorf strategies into the teaching of reading and mathematics. The ideas are very well received and very much needed.”
Dee Jay Coulter, EdD, Instructor, University of Northern Colorado,
Outreach, Educational Consultant

Located in the northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. area, Potomac Crescent Waldorf School is an independent kindergarten and grade school offering a Waldorf curriculum true to the principles of Rudolf Steiner’s educational philosophies of experiential learning and age-appropriate activities that foster a lifelong love of learning.