What is Waldorf: When and How do Academics Begin in the Waldorf Way

What is Waldorf: When and How do Academics Begin in the Waldorf Way


(This post is part of series that began with What is Waldorf: Why a Prolonged Childhood is part of the Waldorf Way; however, it can also be read as a stand-alone article.)

deleece cook photo

Photo by Deleece Cook

The age of academics in a Waldorf-style education is easy to determine as it happens to coincide with children losing baby teeth, or milk teeth as they are called in certain parts of the world.

During the same time children lose baby teeth, the brain experiences a leap in growth and development. It’s at this very time around the seventh year of life between the sixth and seventh birthdays that these brain changes make learning such things as reading, writing, and mathematics developmentally appropriate. The brain has spent the last six years making sense of the natural and physical world, emotions, gross and fine motor movements, language development, imagination, basic number sense, creativity and so much more that I’d need a book to list them out, and it now experiences a new leap, priming itself for the next phase of formal, academic learning. 

Image by Jelleke Vanooteghem


When letters are finally introduced in the Waldorf first grade, they are not introduced in the rigid flash-card, worksheet-tracing way many of us unfortunately experienced as a child. Instead, the letters are each illustrated in a pictorial, imaginative way so that children begin to make connections between the letters, their sounds and a child’s surroundings in life.

The Waldorf teacher or homeschool parent will begin teaching letter recognition with a story. The letters, and their sounds, become part of the story and are illustrated in a creative, connective, pictorial fashion by both teacher and child. They are searched out in nature and objects and reinforced in more stories, movement and art. Children are eventually encouraged to make up their own letter stories and illustrations and finally, the traditional letter format begins to emerge, leading to writing.

 Illustrations by   The Waldorf Alphabet Book by Famke Zonneveld

The six and seven year old child is extremely imaginative and creative. This way of introducing letters reaches the whole child through their imagination. Through stories, poetry, movement, music,  art…a child learning their letters and it includes their emotions and a creative gateway.  This is an extremely engaging way to learn for children. And the addition of an emotional aspect helps embed the learning deeper into the brain's “files” to become permanent. That, combined with other methods, such as the phases of learning (phonemic awareness, patterns, syllables…), allow children to eventually form letters into words, which also then connect to reading and expanded writing. But it is this creative and emotional approach of teaching to the head and the heart and the hands, or to the whole child, that makes the difference. What may have been a forced and frustrating, non-connected event in Kindergarten has now instead become a rich event in learning during first and second grades. What a difference a year makes!

Excerpts from  The Alphabet, How Pine Cone and Pepper Pot (with the help of Tip Toes and Farmer John) Learned Tom Nutcracker and June Berry Their Letters by Reg Down


Number qualities are also introduced within stories and art beginning in grade one. Just like introducing letters, introducing number qualities (and all math really) includes the whole child approach through the head, heart and hands. Storytelling, art and life take center stage here, as well as finding images in the world to represent 1 of something, 2 of something and so on. And movement with numbers is important, including rhythm, to helping children really hang on to what they are being taught. 

And it's not that you can't ever mention numbers or counting before first grade! It's that the formal instruction waits until brain development allows the child to actually understand and process the information beyond rote memorization, copy behavior or basic number sense. In fact, number sense itself has already begun in early childhood whether you want that or not!

Excerpt from the poem, Numbers for First Graders, by Dorothy Herrer in Verses and Poems and Stories to Tell

When at first we look for 1
We find it in the shining sun .
For me and you
We count 1, 2 .
The day, 
the night,
The dark and light,
The good, the bad,
The gay and sad,
The girl, the boy
We count with joy.
They all are 2s
Which we can use.


Numerica by Gloria Kemp and Elsa Murray 


Number Card for number 1 and 1 tall tree

Waldorf Inspired Number Cards - Block Crayon Drawings

Preschoolers who group all the large, medium and small felt balls into their own bowls are using a really basic type of number sense. Children who are learning finger weaving at age five and can count four stitches are using a basic number sense. Rhythm and “keeping time” with a song or saying is a basic type of number sense, too and can help tremendously later on with such things as skip counting and multiplication facts. But there is no sit down, pencil-paper formal instruction until grade one because again, the brain development isn't in place yet for formal instruction.

Felt Balls, Bowls and Tongs Sorting Set

Once there, however, number qualities are within the first one or two math blocks, often following or joining in with Roman Numerals. One is the sun. One is me. One day. One Night. Four seasons. Four wings. Four Limbs. Two legs. Two arms. Two eyes. Two ears. Five points on a star. Eight legs on a spider. In other words, reinforcing or teaching that numbers represent real amounts will be taught in first grade through art, stories, songs, poems, games and movement. Not only is it a fun transition into school life, number qualities have already been building with language development, and so move along at a nice, natural pace with children enjoying the process. 

King Maximo and the Number Knights by Howard Schrager - Number Qualities


Other areas children experience in a Waldorf or Waldorf inspired home or education need their own article (or articles) really as there is so much color and texture to each topic. These can include art, crafts, singing, musical instruments, storytelling, community, festivals, homelife, baking, gardening, and textiles, to name a few. And storytelling and story reading are treated as two different actions. The important thing here is age appropriateness, building upon each other, and using these 'softer' areas to enhance the formal 'harder' areas, or academics of reading, writing, math and eventually other academic subjects. And again, educating the whole child with activities and lessons which inspire the head, heart and hands. 


Being raised in the traditional education system may cause you to wonder, does this delay in introducing letters, numbers, writing, reading and math cause children to lag behind their peers? While initially in first and second grades, Waldorf children have not had the practice their public school peers began in Kindergarten. The amount of learning and understanding that takes place now that a child’s brain is actually ready results in most children not only catching up, but even, in many cases, surpassing their public school peers(1) (and often with much less frustration). This same US study found this occurred within elementary school for most kids but by no later than 8th grade for late bloomers. While a New Zealand study found this catch up occurred for most children by the 3rd to 4th grade range, or age 9.(2It’s amazing what can happen when you let the brain do what it’s meant to do WHEN it’s meant to do it. 


This is by far a general grazing of what is such a broad topic. Every family is different. Every child is different. Every school is different. Every teacher is different. There are ineffective teachers and exceptional teachers. There are teachers with a stronger background in one subject versus another. There are many variables in both Waldorf and public schools. Overall, however, Waldorf is has some creative methods for reaching children on many levels, including emotional connections. 

There is so much more to a Waldorf Inspired life of parenting, home environment, childhood and education than this touches on. Child development on its own is a fascinating topic.  Parenting is something we’ll always strive to be better at. And educational methods are nowhere near linear and fixed into one best model! But a Waldorf-inspired home, childhood and early education is definitely worth exploring as it’s full of so many positive outcomes for both children and family as a whole in many non-academic and academic parts of life. One more thing, childhood is fleeting, priceless and precious. Let it last. Think about not forcing academics before the brain development is there. And rememeber to be present and enjoy.  




  • The Waldorf Alphabet Book by Famke Zonneveld: A beautifully illustrated Waldorf alphabet book full of color and movement. Letter Recognition and letter sounds is primary here, but the artwork and storytelling and seek and find nature make this book speak to the whole child.  
  • Waldorf Inspired Alphabet Cards - These Waldorf inspired alphabet cards were created from original art by master storyteller Sieglinde de Francesca. Each illustration includes the letter shape within the drawing of something representing its sound. They are a lovely add on or follow-up to The Waldorf Alphabet Book.  
  • LMNOP and All the Letters A to Z by Howard Shrager: another great Waldorf inspired book and a great one to follow up The Waldorf Alphabet Book with and also a great one to precede The Alphabet, How Pine Cone and (see below)….  Do you see the letter “C” in that cave? What about the letter “B” in the bear sitting under the bee hive? That “M” in the mountains is fun to see but can you find the “V” in its valley? Paired with fun poems and riddles that connect letters to their sounds, your child will love exploring each letter with you. 
  • LMNOP Laminated Alphabet Cards Illustrated in the Waldorf Fashion by Howard Shrager, each card illustrates a letter within a drawing that matches the poems in the same titled book. The cards also lend themselves to storytelling. 
  • Alphabet Cards with gorgeous watercolor illustrations - These are beautiful, large decor-worthy Alphabet cards which combine letter recognition with an animal or object that has the letter in the beginning of its name. Not only are these gorgeous, but they make nice storytelling cards or stand up cards in our sand tracing trays and are a nice visual as children progress in their learning. 
  • Uppercase Letter Recognition Pebbles and Lowercase Letter Recognition Pebbles --Tactile, waterproof, mudpie proof!, great for stone soup or alphabet soup on the pretend stovetop, these fun letters can be used at many stages including letter recognition or sand or shaving cream letter practice up to three and four letter words. 



For Parents

Lesson Books

    • Early Literacy Main Lesson Books— Spiral, Portrait, Alternating Lined and Blank Pages; Lined pages are 1” writing guides; Best for 1st grade - 2nd grade 
    • Literacy Main Lesson Books -- Spiral, Portrait, Alternating Lined and Blank Pages; Lined pages are 0.6" writing guides; Best for 2nd grades and above


    Letters and Numbers

    Alphabet and Numbers Puzzle Pairs - Letter and Number Recognition

    Properties of Numbers

    Mathematics in General


    *Note: While many links on this page will keep you on our website some will take you to other websites: 

    • Alder & Alouette bookshop on Bookshop.org
    • Renewal of Literacy Website (affiliate website)
    • Jamie York Academy and Bookshop Website
    • Learning Cursive Website (includes print handwriting books too)

      We are not responsible for the content on these websites. We earn a small affiliate fee to help keep our blog going for our work with Renewal of Literacy if you purchase an e-course. 


      1.  Abigail L. Larrison; Alan J. Daly; Carol VanVooren (October 5, 2012). "Twenty Years and Counting: A Look at Waldorf in the Public Sector Using Online Sources". Current Issues in Education. 15 (3).
      2. Sebastian P. Suggate, Elizabeth A. Schaughency, Elaine Reese (2013). "Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier", Early Childhood Research Quarterly, v. 28, Nr. 1, pp. 33–48


      Written by Laura Lowe

      Laura is a professional educator with an Environmental Science degree, as well as a Master’s degree in early childhood through adolescent education with decades of experience working with children and the environment.

      More about Laura and Alder and Alouette, here.


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