What is Waldorf Early Childhood Education?

Essential Characteristics of Steiner/Waldorf Education for the Child from Birth to Seven

The future development of each individual child and of humanity as a whole depends on health-giving experiences in the first seven years of life. An atmosphere of loving warmth and guidance that promotes joy, wonder, and reverence supports such healthy development. The most essential aspect of the work with the little child is the inner attitude of the educator, who provides the example for the child’s imitation. Therefore the work of the Waldorf educator demands an ongoing process of research and self-education including anthroposophical study, meditative practice, artistic and practical activity.

In Waldorf nursery-kindergartens, home care programs, childcare centers, parent-child programs and other settings, foundations are laid for later learning and healthy development, including life-long physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.

This education, based on an understanding of the development of human individuality, offers protection and respect for the dignity of childhood. It includes an understanding of the unfolding development of the child from pre-birth to seven, including the unique significance of the development of walking, speaking and thinking in the first three years of life.

Activities in Waldorf early childhood education take into consideration the age-specific developmental needs of young children, from a focus on will-oriented physical activity in the first three years, then on imaginative play in the middle years of early childhood, and later a more cognitive approach to learning after the child enters school.

Educational Principles

Waldorf based programs may differ according to geography, culture, group size, age-range, and individual teaching approach. Granting these differences, Waldorf programs share certain fundamental characteristics:

  • Loving interest in and acceptance of each child
  • Opportunities for self-initiated play with simple play materials as the essential activity for young children.
  • This is the young child’s work and makes it possible for them to digest and understand their experiences.
  • Awareness that young children learn through imitation, through the experience of diverse sensory impressions, and through movement. Their natural inclination is to actively explore their physical and social environment. The surroundings offer limits, structure and protection, as well as the possibility to take risks and meet challenges.
  • A focus on real rather than virtual experiences to support the child in forming a healthy relationship to the world.
  • Artistic activities such as storytelling, music, drawing and painting, rhythmic games, and modeling that foster the healthy development of imagination and creativity.
  • Meaningful practical work such as cooking, baking, gardening, handwork and domestic activity that provide opportunities to develop unfolding human capacities. Here the emphasis is on the processes of life rather than on learning outcomes.
  • Predictable rhythms through the day, week and year that provide security and a sense of the interrelationships and wholeness of life. Seasonal and other festivals are celebrated according to the cultural and geographical surroundings.

We recognize that healthy child development unfolds most fully in the context of a community with healthy social relationships among parents, teachers and children. In our administrative, financial practices, and leadership processes, we work collaboratively rather than hierarchically. Steiner/Waldorf early childhood programs are typically not-for-profit, as an expression of the free cultural life, and are not based on self-interest or personal gain. Waldorf educators strive to create such conscious, collaborative communities around the children in their care and see their activity as part of a worldwide cultural impulse.

The IASWECE Council members (early childhood educators and trainers from 32 countries) prepared this statement describing what we consider to be the essential characteristics of a Waldorf kindergarten.  We hope that this document will be a helpful reference for those who are working to develop Waldorf early childhood programs around the world.

Download PDF of Essential Characteristics of Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education here

See also:

“The Universal Human Spirit of Waldorf Early Childhood Education”

Essential Characteristics of Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education for the Child from Birth to Three

The first three years of our life are unique. The child is totally open and trustful towards the world, therefore dependent of how his/her needs are met. Care for the child under the age of three needs very specific qualities. It requires adults who are constantly striving to develop their soul and spiritual qualities.

By understanding and respectfully meeting the needs of the child we can consciously build up daily life. This understanding must penetrate our attitude and activity. The adult has to be aware of what it means to be a role model, because the child lives in imitation, as his/her main way of learning. It is important to develop a close and continuous attachment between the caretaker and the child.

Through conscious daily rhythm the child is guided into life, which should be based in authentic work. We also have to consider that child needs plenty of time for exploring the outer world, meeting others, meeting himself, developing all the senses, especially the senses of touch,  life, movement, and balance.

Educational principles

  1. The attitude of the adult:

It is important to cultivate an attitude of trust, openness and gratitude towards the child and life. It is necessary to understand the importance of meaningful activities, both for oneself and one’s own development of skills, such as  work (cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening, …) and  walking and exploring nature.

  1. The environment of the child:

In order to meet the needs of the child, the environment has to be quiet, simple, warm, peaceful. It  has to allow safe exploring. Toys should be simple and made out of natural materials.

  1. Rhythmical daily life:

Rhythmical daily life is permeated with an understanding of the child’s need for:

  • quality and quantity of sleep in a good environment
  • Healthy nutrition
  • Movement and exposure to nature including walking as a daily activity.
  • Care taking filled with warmth, presence of being, and joy.

This makes it possible for the child to feel safe and secure, and thus develop healthy self-esteem.

  1. Encounters between adults:

The child learns to meet the world through relating to others. For this reason, any encounter has to be respectful, caring and professional, whether with children, or adults.

Healthy child development unfolds most fully in the context of a community with healthy social relationships among parents, teachers and children. Waldorf educators strive to create such conscious, collaborative communities around the children in their care and their activity as a part of a worldwide impulse.  

Download PDF of Essential Characteristics of Waldorf Early Childhood Education for the Child from Birth to Three here.