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Incorporating a Waldorf Curriculum in Early Learning Settings

Oct 20, 2022    |   ECE Theory & Philosophy

Waldorf curriculum is an approach to early learning that emphasizes a connection to nature, creativity, and artistic expression. This philosophy is a popular approach to early learning that is utilized by many ECE programs throughout the world. In this article, we explore some of the key components of a Waldorf approach to learning, including where this philosophy originated, what Waldorf classrooms look like, and how you might incorporate some of these principles into your own curriculum. 

A Whole-Child Approach 

The Waldorf approach to early learning was first developed by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and scientist, who had special interests in art and human development. An article written for the Waldorf journal, Renewal, describes Steiner’s mission as educating young children to grow into adults who would bring peace into the world. 

The first Waldorf school opened in Germany in the early 1900s. The curriculum emphasized development of the whole child, including “physical, emotional, intellectual, artistic, moral, and spiritual development.” 

In early Waldorf classrooms, art, music, and dramatic play were considered to be just as important as early math and literacy skills. Today, many Waldorf classrooms maintain these original values by incorporating playful activities that foster each child’s creativity and sense of independence. 

Setting, Routine, and Imaginative Play 

Natural Materials in a Cozy Environment 

Waldorf classrooms typically have a warm and comfortable, home-like feel. The walls are often painted in soft colors, and most of the furniture is made from wood. Soft materials, like colorful scarves and dolls made of wool and cotton fabrics, are also plentiful. Often the dolls feature very simple facial expressions or do not have any faces at all, to encourage and cultivate imagination.

Connectivity to nature is one of the most important elements of a Waldorf curriculum. In a Waldorf classroom, you will likely find many natural materials, such as tree stumps, sea shells, flowers, wooden dishes, feathers, and pinecones. Additionally, children spend significant amounts of time outdoors, exploring the environment around them, and observing the changes throughout each season. Many educators will lead children on regular nature walks and encourage them to pay close attention to different plants and flowers that they might be able to find.

Predictable Daily Rhythms

Waldorf classrooms follow predictable daily routines so that children know what to expect each day. This helps to establish a sense of structure and security for young children. The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, a local early learning program based in Mountain View, California, describes the benefits of its classroom routines, explaining that the “daily, weekly and yearly rhythms of a Waldorf class provide a welcome security for the young child. The predictability of knowing ‘what comes next’ allows children to relax and be fully present in the moment. The daily schedule and weekly patterns…provide a comforting sense of time and structure.”

Waldorf classrooms encourage a balance of work and play by following daily routines and rhythms. A typical day’s routine might include movement, circle time, cleaning, gardening, outdoor play, puppetry, crafts, baking, and storytelling. Heidi Schwarzenbach, a faculty member at The Waldorf School in San Francisco describes the way that Waldorf classroom routines can help build resilience: “Our days have a steady rhythm and there is consistency, so when the unexpected happens, children are calm.”

Emphasis on Dramatic and Imaginative Play

Rudolf Steiner believed that opportunities to engage in active, creative, and imaginative play are instrumental to a child’s development. During dramatic play, for example, children develop important social-emotional skills as they cooperate with their peers. Dramatic play also encourages creativity and offers opportunities to explore foundational skills in problem-solving and communication that will prepare children for later academic success.

At a Waldorf school in Charlottesville, Virginia learning through creative play is described this way: “Some children will use furniture and equipment to create all manner of structures and vehicles…other children might be acting out the story or puppet play that was presented by the teachers the previous week.”

How Can I Incorporate Waldorf Ideas?

Even if you are not working in a Waldorf center, there are plenty of ways to incorporate Waldorf principles into your curriculum. Here are a few ideas:

  • Spend time in nature. Think about how you might spend more time outdoors with the children in your care. Going for a nature walk, walking to a park, or even lying on the grass to observe the clouds are all wonderful ways to encourage children to become more connected to the natural environment around them.

  • Maintain a clear, predictable pattern of daily activities and routines. Predictability is an especially important component of the Waldorf curriculum. When young children know what to expect throughout the day, they feel safe, secure, and comfortable enough to explore, learn, and thrive. As you think about your own program, consider the routines you have in place with an eye toward creating more predictability. How might you create a regular schedule that flows with the needs of the children in your care and encourages them to feel secure?

  • Include children in cleaning and classroom maintenance. In Waldorf classrooms, children help with classroom cleaning activities, from sweeping the floors to washing dishes (depending on their age and developmental stage). How might you include children in your program’s daily cleaning routines? Toddlers might be able to throw away their own garbage or put their dishes in a wash bin after they’ve finished eating their food. Older children might help with wiping down the tables, or drying clean dishes before putting them away. And children of all ages can help put away their toys or play materials after they’re done using them to keep the classroom tidy.

  • Try out a new recipe. Children in Waldorf classrooms enjoy baking bread together and sharing it during mealtimes. In many Waldorf classrooms, children participate in meal preparation by mixing ingredients, cutting fruits and vegetables, and following recipes. Cooking and baking together encourages children to collaborate with their peers and explore early math skills as they measure ingredients.

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