In 1919, Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist, opened a school for the children of workers in the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. The educational methods he incorporated into this new school were based on the theories of anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy he formulated in the late nineteenth century that stressed the importance of perceptual abilities and inner development. Specifically, Waldorf schools follow the anthroposophical view of human growth, which divides child development into three phases: early childhood (birth until age seven), middle childhood (age seven through fourteen), and adolescence (age fourteenth through eighteen). Around 900 Waldorf schools exist throughout the world, and they provide an education aligned with the specific concerns of each phase and that emphasizes learning through sensory experiences, emotional expression, and creative activities.
Waldorf schools view early childhood as a period defined by imagination and imitation. Imagination becomes an important force in the life of a young child, encouraging them to explore their world and promoting such complex activities as walking, talking, and thinking. By imitating the sounds, movements, and characteristics of those around them, children gain a more solid grasp of important skills. In school, Waldorf teachers encourage their students to imitate practical activities, such as cooking or gardening. Creativity is an integral part of each school day, and the teachers sing songs, tell stories, and give the children plenty of time for imaginative play, where they create their own stories, songs, artwork, and engage in games of pretend. The children play together in groups, and these activities lay the foundations for academic skills they will learn later on.
By the time they have entered a Waldorf elementary school, children are ready to begin learning more complex and abstract skills. During middle childhood, they learn academic subjects in two-hour block periods, with each topic receiving several weeks of study. The teachers give lessons to the class as a whole, and, ideally, the same teacher will stay with the class throughout the seven years of elementary school and teach most of the subjects, which allows for the formation of close and supportive relationships between the teacher and students. Artistic expression remains an important aspect of the Waldorf elementary school and while teachers cover various subjects, including reading and writing, math, history, and science, they strive to incorporate visual art, music, and dance into each lesson. While textbooks are seldom used, the children create their own workbooks that summarize, through writing and artwork, the skills and concepts they have learned.
With the move from elementary school to high school comes a greater emphasis on more academic and complex subjects, but, as before, the teachers frame every lesson with art, music and dance. As they engage with their studies through creative activities, the students experience each topic in a unique way and gain a fuller understanding of their own interests, and they will begin taking classes that allow them to further develop these interests and prepare for their futures. During this final developmental phase, children also begin looking for role models who display healthy behaviors and characteristics. They have developed an understanding of the qualities they wish to embody in their own lives, and they will spend more time with the teachers and peers who emulate these values. Waldorf teachers strive to instill in their students a sense of responsibility and an understanding of ethical issues. With its focus on perceptual abilities and abstract thought, Waldorf schools aim to give children skills that will allow them to pursue their chosen paths in a thoughtful and considerate manner, that will foster in them an enthusiasm for leaning, and lead them to a well-balanced life rich in creative abilities.