What is Waldorf: Why Prolonging Childhood is Part of the Waldorf Way

What is Waldorf: Why Prolonging Childhood is Part of the Waldorf Way

Photo by Dave Clubb

As a family raising young children, and especially if you’re homeschooling, you’ve probably come across several resources, such as a Waldorf Inspired home, Waldorf Education, Montessori Toys and Methods, Reggio Emilio Philosophy, Charlotte Mason Homeschool, Forest School, Unschooling, Wild Schooling and so on. 

Though I do find pieces in many of these that I like for both home and homeschool, and you could say our family style and homeschool style is really an eclectic mix, we, as a family, tend to gravitate towards Waldorf-inspired early childhood, parenting and educational ideas the most.



The first Waldorf school began in 1919 as a result of Rudolf Steiner’s social reform ideas following WWI. Steiner was, what many might consider, a colorful figure. Well educated in a wide berth of academic subjects, his complex beliefs and ideas in combining the sciences and the pseudosciences, including spirituality, may seem perplexing today, but not so much during that time period of his life, i.e. Thomas Edison, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Todd Lincoln and Queen Victoria also subscribed to similar ideas during Steiner's era. But it was his ideas and observations about child development and how children learn that first caught my attention years ago.

Steiner’s social reform lectures included his social threefolding philosophy about the separation of the cultural, economic and political spheres. To Steiner, one aspect of separating the cultural sphere from the economic and political meant that education should be made available to all children for all grades regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

Photograph of Rudolf Steiner by Otto Rietmann circa 1905, Public Domain


The educational aspect of Steiner’s ideas are multi-faceted and based upon what he called the threefold nature of a human’s spirit, soul and body throughout the main developmental stages of early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence — each main stage of childhood lasting about seven years. Though some of Steiner’s ideas raise an eyebrow or two, many of his child development ideas were ahead of his time and would end up largely matching, decades later, those of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, of whom was still a baby during Steiner’s time.

Photograph Jean Piaget at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, 1967 or 1968, Public Domain - US - no notice. 


Steiner's ideas were first used in 1919 as part of an educational method to teach the Waldorf-Astoria factory’s children in Stuttgart, Germany, hence the crossover terminology of “Steiner Education” with “Waldorf Education” and “Waldorf-Steiner” or “Steiner-Waldorf” that you may see or hear.  But it was his ideas about children before starting school — those from birth to age three and then age three to age six—that spoke to me first. 

Photo by Luma Pimental

To me, the Waldorf philosophy is what I call a holistic method of developmentally appropriate child rearing and education. Starting with the educational academic method, it ranges from first grade and beyond. But there is an initial early childhood philosophy from birth to age six that has nothing to do with what we think of as academics. Instead, the emphasis is on environment, experiences, nurturing, family life and opportunities for babies and children. And for me, it was a way to remember to slow down and be present. Enjoy what you have with your little ones because it moves quickly.


 Photo by Vitolda Klein


The time period from birth through the end of age six in Waldorf philosophy is a period of what I call 'complete childhood.’ It’s a non-academic time of nourishing the child’s growth and development including emotions and senses, through an intentional environment. As your baby grows from newborn to infant, this environment includes a warm and nurturing home with consideration of how such things as color, sound, warmth and texture affect your little one and includes advice and ideas based on observations about how to be a responsive, nurturing and positive parent.  As your infant grows into a toddler and preschooler, this environment includes daily opportunities for the growing child in developmentally appropriate art, crafts, nature, music, home life, family, traditions, seasonal cycles, festivals, storytelling, rich language, sensory development and play. Lots and lots of play—especially open-ended play—to encourage creativity and imagination. This time period is also a time to expose children to particular books and stories, as well, especially magical nature stories for the three to six-year-old, to help foster imagination, a love of nature and impress upon our responsibility to it, as well as introducing good old life lesson examples. 

Image by Jenneth

This time period of allowing the child to develop a solid sense of self and grounding, a solid period of gross and fine motor development, a strong attachment to and preliminary understandings of nature, a solid ability in imaginative creativity, a solid sense of family and traditions, a period of rich language development and extensive vocabulary with understanding and context…before beginning any academics — is what early childhood is about in the Steiner-Waldorf tradition. And then look at what has already been put into place before ever beginning formal school: an amazing foundation to build future academics upon. 

Image by Jessica Rockowitz


From an educational viewpoint, Waldorf educators typically delay (when compared to current public educational standards) any approach to reading and writing or mathematics until a child is in their seventh year. Instead, children between the periods of birth to age 6 focus on their language development and number sense through the spoken word and interactions with parents, family members, friends, the environment and, if in a preschool or kindergarten, from educators in a non-academic format. They develop their rich language abilities as they grow through poetry, nursery rhymes, finger plays, puppet shows, songs, verses and high-quality storytelling with an introduction to age appropriate magical stories and fairy tales. They develop their number sense through play, as well as through every-day activities, like baking, gardening, imitation, play and crafts. This is an intentional way of living with our young children for the first six years.

Image by Mark Zamora


Children in a Waldorf education are not drilled on their ABCs or 123s from toddlerhood and beyond and are not pushed into memorizing sight words as out of context lists in Kindergarten to get a head start. Nor are they pushed into sounding out words, tracing letters over and over or attempting to read, write, add or subtract in preschool or kindergarten. 

Instead, they are allowed to completely and fully develop a sense of imagination through their childhood experiences. Academics wait until the seventh year of life, which in a true Waldorf-type education is the year typically called class one, or first grade.

This style of non-academic learning, or learning through daily life, was originally based upon Steiner’s observations and insights into the best methods and developmental time frames for children to begin formal learning. In developing his ideas that formal learning should wait until a child's seventh year, an entire new set of observations and how to nurture children between birth to age six began to emerge.

Today, science has caught up with Steiner and we know that brain development in children agree with and back up many of Steiner’s original views. Conventional education has pushed academics onto children earlier and earlier in an attempt to give children an edge or to appease parents wanting their children to have a head start. But it just doesn’t work this way for a child’s developing brain.

It’s not to say that preschool or Kindergarten are wrong. Preschool is great for giving children another opportunity to play, work on language development through social interactions, work on number sense through daily life activities, be creative, and work on motor, as well as social skills! I love preschool! But it’s not the time to begin learning to write, read, add or subtract. 



What good is it to force a child who can only suckle to eat from a spoon or to force a child just learning to crawl to walk instead? What good is it to force a child just learning to say his or her first words to speak a full sentence or write their name? So why do we force children in preschool and kindergarten to do things their brains are not completely ready for, foregoing the very things their growth and developmental timetable need instead, such as gross and fine motor movement and different types of play, social skills, creativity and language development. 

 Image by Claire Lumley



This age of academics in a Waldorf-style education is easy to determine, as it happens to coincide with the time a child begins losing baby teeth, or milk teeth, as they can also be called in certain parts of the world, and were during Steiner’s time. 

During the same time frame children are losing baby teeth, the brain is experiencing a leap in growth and development of its own, and 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 math 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 to prime itself for the next phase of formal, academic learning. 

Image by Jelleke Vanooteghem

Interested in reading more about Waldorf Literacy and Number sense in grade one? Find that here in What is Waldorf: When and How do Academics Begin in the Waldorf Way



Parenting and Family

Crafts to Make for Young Children

Games and Activities for Young Children

Cooking with Young Kids

Stories for Young Kids




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        Written by Laura Lowe

        Laura is a professional educator with degrees in the Environmental Science realm, as well as early childhood through adolescent education, with decades of experience teaching children.

        More about Laura and Alder and Alouette, here.


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