The Holistic Education we need more than ever

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

To say the world is having a collective moment at present would be an understatement. Unprecedented circumstances have irrevocably impacted our society, economics and politics and forced many of us to experience both connection and isolation like never before. And as our social and work habits have changed, many of us are also beginning to re-evaluate the role and purpose of education. What would an education that can prepare children for this uncertain world look like? What kind of education would impart the skills, critical thinking and knowledge our children need, while also instilling hope, healing and humanity?

If you’ve been following me on Instagram, been a part of my online Waldorf community/playgroup or have had the chance to read some of my posts on the “parenting“ page of this blog, it may be pretty obvious that we are a Waldorf inspired family.

Waldorf education is a beautiful and holistic philosophy that emphasizes nurturing and developing a child’s head, heart and hands. This is achieved by integrating arts, academics and practical skills, to develop their full potential as compassionate, creative and free-thinking human beings. With a focus on resourcefulness and sustainability, it is far more than simply an educational model, but a lifestyle (and one that many of you may already be living without being aware of it!)

So whether you are entirely new to this idea or well-versed, I hope you’ll find this post insightful. I’ll go over an overview of what it is/why we chose this path and why it may be the holistic education you may be looking for.

Receive the children in reverence, educate them in love, and send them forth in freedom.

— Rudolf Steiner

Waldorf education, also known as Steiner education, is based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Its pedagogy strives to develop pupils' intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner.

The first Waldorf School opened in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919 and has since grown into an international movement with over 1000 schools and 2000 early childhood programs in over 60 countries. In 2019, Waldorf had its 100th anniversary, coining their education with the aptly chosen slogan "Learn to Change the world"

(See these 3 beautiful short films highlighting Waldorf for the occasion: 1: Learn to Change the World, 2. Learn to Change the World, Part 2 3. Becoming)

Now you will likely have heard of Montessori and may be wondering about the difference. I can tell you the differences are so vast they merit a different and very detailed discussion (which I will get to another day) so let's focus on what makes Waldorf so uniquely special.

Simplicity, Beauty and Warmth

One of the first things you may have noticed about Waldorf - and especially if you’ve had the opportunity to set foot into any Waldorf setting - is the sheer beauty, magic and warmth. You'll see silks draped across the ceiling, dreamy lazure painted walls, natural baskets full of handcrafted toys, bountiful plants, watercolour paintings hanging on the walls, the smell of freshly baked bread or soup, a nature table that reflects the changing seasons, even essential oils diffusing. And of course: handmade everything.

The environment is designed to be nourishing to the soul. Everything is well-thought out and made to nurture and inspire. No corners are cut. Every lesson, material, story, song and experience is beautifully, lovingly and mindfully crafted.

Everything exudes purpose and intention

In a Waldorf setting, all tasks are nurtured and encouraged to be carried out with purpose, love and joy. There is a balance between individuality and community. You’re just as likely to see children drawing, painting and working individually on their main lesson books or projects as you are to see them working, singing and moving together as a community. But overall, there is a very strong sense of community and rhythm. Because in the end, no matter how capable and competent you are as an individual, how we relate and meet one another as human beings - how kind, compassionate, generous and empathetic - is just as important. Because Community is essential to human survival. This is education that deeply considers and holds in utmost importance not only what our children learn, but what kind of people they become and how they connect with others (with focus on the striving, and not perfection).

“Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.” - Rudolf Steiner

Creative and Practical

Activities are designed to engage head, heart and hands. Lessons are taught in interdisciplinary main blocks ie: they'll focus exclusively on Ancient Egypt for a few weeks and will study its history, geography, art, etc. in depth. There are no textbooks - students create their own from the lessons taught by the teacher, and they take great pride in making them into works of art in their own right.

Furthermore, subjects are interwoven. Math may involve music and movement. Geometry is taught with art, crafts and movement. History lessons may involve sculpting. Botany will include gardening and nature walks. Students start sewing and knitting from as early as kindergarten.

On a practical level, science has shown us that integrating art and movement helps stimulate left and right brain hemispheres which increases learning engagement and retention.

And in my opinion, being able to cook a healthy meal, identify edible plants, grow your own food, sew and knit your own clothes, woodwork and build by the time you graduate gr. 8 at a Waldorf School (really!) are some pretty useful skills to have.

Nothing boosts confidence like self-sufficiency!

Humanist and Inclusive

Waldorf Education is based on Rudolf Steiner's philosophy known as Anthroposophy (anthro = human + sophia = wisdom) and all teachers are required to take an immersive Foundations in Anthroposophy program prior to Waldorf teacher training. Steiner was an Austrian, Christian White Male but his ideas are universal and non-denominational. Critics have accused Steiner of being outdated, sexist or racist - but that is unfairly short-sighted and dogmatic. What they are missing is this: Steiner tells us to always think for ourselves and not to blindly follow anything that he or anyone else says.

"To be free is to be capable of thinking one's own thoughts - not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one's deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one's individuality." - Rudolf Steiner

Ultimately his goal of Anthroposophy is to elevate human understanding and create a world where we can - through inner work and personal development - move into our higher faculties of compassion and empathy and ensure nobody is suffering.

It's a very humanist philosophy.

The curriculum at grade levels also encompasses and encourages a broad scope of cultural studies, festivals and traditions from around the world. Waldorf educators are mindfully finding ways to move away from the Euro-centric foundations. Because it is our role as human beings and job as teachers, to actively do the inner work required to de-construct prejudices, unlearn privilege and incorporate inclusivity in meaningful and authentic ways.

And an important note: Anthroposophy itself is not taught in Waldorf schools. It is simply the philosophy behind what and why they do things the way they do.

Honouring the Child as a Three-fold Human

(Thinking, Willing & Feeling )

Waldorf education is rooted in the belief that human beings have a threefold nature, meaning they are comprised of mind, body and soul. Education should thus support and develop the healthy unfolding of all three. You can also think of this as thinking (head), feeling (heart) and willing (hands)

Thinking (thought) and willing (action) stand on opposite ends with the heart (feeling) connecting and being a bridge between the two. The heart brings feeling and purpose to our thoughts and actions. We can be taught to analyze a situation rationally but in order to connect with others, we need to have an empathetic heart.

How many people do you know who are intellectually brilliant but can’t connect emotionally well with others? (IQ vs EQ) Our personalities tend to be dominant in one over the other. Waldorf seeks to nurture a healthy balance so we can reach our fullest potential. That’s why you’ll hear phrases such as “working with the will” or “nurturing inner life” used by Waldorf parents and educators because when learning and human development are viewed within a holistic context, knowing what to nurture and when is crucial - allowing the importance of each stage to unfold.

Understanding 7 Year Cycles

Child development is distinguished in seven-year cycles, with a correlating pedagogical focus for each.

Age 0-7: Willing/Goodness

In the first 7 years, the children are still incarnating into their physical bodies meaning simply they are learning to live in their own bodies (experiencing themselves as separate from mother) and are developing their senses and motor skills. They learn by imitation and example so we need to work with their Will. Our task as parents is to provide them with nourishing sensory experiences and be “worthy of imitation”. The focus during this time is to let them experience the world as a good place.

Age 7-14: Feeling/Beauty

In this second cycle, children move away from learning through imitation and towards loving authority, with a focus on rhythm and aesthetics to help develop their imagination and feeling. Stories and lessons appeal to feelings and the vivid pictorial life of the imagination. The focus is on the expression and experience of the world as beautiful.

"Those human beings who have not learnt to work in the ways of beauty and through beauty to capture truth, will never come to the full humanity needed to meet the challenges of life." Rudolf Steiner

Age 14-21: Thinking/Truth

This is the age where thinking and ideas come to the forefront and children form their own thoughts, judgements and identity. They are able to think conceptually, critically and rationally. Along with their search for knowledge, children at this age also search for truth. This seeking becomes part of their identity and they incorporate it as part of their personal journey.

An Antidote to Modernity

I say this slightly tongue in cheek. Waldorf may seem old-fashioned or outdated with its focus on self-sufficiency, imagination and handwork skills, but it is an antidote in many ways to the pitfalls of modernity - especially as we are navigating a period of collective fear and uncertainty. By limiting the influence of mass media and consumerism, we encourage children to find their own voices and not just follow the herd. In our age of too much, too fast, and now - too fearful - this unhurried approach lends itself to a natural and wholesome lifestyle, builds resilience and celebrates in essence: slow living, mindfulness, childhood and what it means to be human - so we can support our children's development into individuals full of hope, confidence, courage and fortitude - who will lead the way to a more sustainable and compassionate future.

I hope you found this post insightful. I will be sharing plenty of tips, resources and advice on Waldorf homeschooling and education on this blog. Please tell me a little about yourselves and where you are in your holistic parenting/educating journey if you'd like more specific resources/recommendations.