An Overview of Waldorf Schools

Waldorf Schools

Waldorf school
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If you are looking to enroll your child in a private school—either for their early education needs or as a place for them to attend for the long-haul, you have likely considered a Waldorf school. Waldorf schools have been esteemed for decades as the perfect place for a family who is looking for a free-form style education that emphasizes arts, outdoor play, spirituality, screen-free learning, and that takes a more holistic approach to grading and assessments.

Still, it’s one thing to hear about a Waldorf school in theory. You may be wondering what a Waldorf education is really like, and if it’s the right choice for you. We’ve got you covered.

History and Background of Waldorf Schools

The first Waldorf school was founded in Germany in 1919 by philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Steiner coined the term Anthroposophy and based his educational philosophy on the idea that each of us is a spiritual being with the power to change the world. He believed in nurturing all aspects of a child (“the head, the heart and the hands”). The teaching philosophy of Waldorf schools is meant to nurture the mind, body, and soul of each child.

In 1928, the first Waldorf school opened in America, the now famous Rudolf Steiner School in New York City. According to The New York Times, there are currently 125 Waldorf schools in the United States and over 3,000 across the world.

9 Fast Facts About Waldorf Schools

  1. Waldorf schools usually start at pre-K, though some have preschool or toddler programs as well.
  2. Many schools continue through high school.
  3. The majority of Waldorf schools are private schools, but some public and charter schools have adopted Waldorf educational approaches.
  4. In many Waldorf schools, the child stays with the same teacher from 1st up to 8th grade.
  5. Most Waldorf schools don’t use grades (though they often do in high school to satisfy college admission standards) but have end-of-year assessments, which take a more holistic approach to learning assessment.
  6. Standardized tests usually aren’t given; you can independently enroll your child in college placement tests when the time comes.
  7. Reading basics are not usually taught till first grade, and children are not expected to read until second grade.
  8. Textbooks are usually not used until sixth grade.
  9. In most cases, there is no technology use permitted in classrooms.

The Waldorf Approach to Learning

The main tenant of the Waldorf philosophy of education is that children learn, grow, and develop best when you tend to all aspects of their beings – not just the academic ones.

In a Waldorf school, you won’t see kids sitting all day at their desks, listening to the teacher standing in the front of the room. Instead, you’ll see kids learning through art, play, cooking, music, and outside exploration.

What Activities Do Kids Typically Engage In?

  • Kids spend a lot of time outdoors, in almost all weather (bundled up, of course, in winter).
  • Screens are not used in the classroom and are discouraged outside of the classroom as well.
  • There is an emphasis on loving and respecting nature; many art activities use natural materials from nature such as leaves and beeswax.
  • Teachers use music and storytelling to deliver many of their lessons.
  • Children participate in cooking, cleaning, knitting, and jewelry making.
  • Movement and play are emphasized in the early grades as the primary way of learning.

What Does a Waldorf Classroom Look Like?

  • Waldorf classrooms have a signature look and feel, emphasizing calm, beauty, natural light, and natural furnishings.
  • Many classrooms are painted in soothing light pink colors.
  • Natural wood furniture and wooden toys are the norm.
  • There is usually plenty of open space for free play, and while there is seating for children, there usually aren’t traditional desks.
  • Toys are simple, usually wooden or fabric, and many toys are hand-made.
  • Many classrooms have a “nature table” where items from outside are gathered and arranged.

Is the Waldorf Approach Religious?

Spirituality is emphasized in all aspects of Waldorf schools, but no particular religious denomination is followed. Families are welcomed from any background or religion. Steiner himself believed in reincarnation and karma, and while many Waldorf teachers ascribe to such philosophies, they are not generally taught in the classroom.

Who Typically Attends A Waldorf School?

In general, Waldorf schools are most popular among progressive, liberal-minded parents who are looking for alternative educational choices for their children.

Although Waldorf schools have been stereotyped as appealing to “hippie” parents, there are many different kinds of families who choose a Waldorf education for their children.

Waldorf schools have made headlines in the past few years because of their low vaccination rates; however, Waldorf officials say they do not have an official policy on vaccination.

Demographics and Diversity

Waldorf schools do not discriminate based on race, gender, or religion. However, they are not generally known for racial diversity. Each school has its own unique demographic profile and it’s worth researching the Waldorf school you are interested in to learn more.

Since the majority of Waldorf schools are private institutions, they attract families who have the economic means to attend, so middle-class or upper middle class families are the norm.

Tuition Costs

According to The New York Times, cost of tuition can range from about $7,980 per year on the lower end, to up to $34,400 at high-end Waldorf schools like the Rudolf Steiner school in Manhattan. If a private Waldorf school is out of your price range, you can inquire about scholarships, which are usually available. You can also consider looking into some of the public schools that have adopted Waldorf curriculums.

Waldorf and Special Needs Children

Many families come to Waldorf schools when they have found that more traditional education doesn’t work well for their child. Special needs parents—whether children with developmental disabilities, children on the autism spectrum, or gifted children—often find the Waldorf model beneficial. The small class size, individualized attention, and emphasis on the “whole child” rather than academic standing is often just what’s needed to nurturing their child’s challenges.

On the other hand, if you are looking for an educational approach tailored specifically to your child’s needs, or one that teachers are specifically trained in, Waldorf may not be what you are looking for. Each school is different, though, and it’s worth inquiring as to what the Waldorf school you are interested in does for their special needs populations.

Montessori vs. Waldorf

Waldorf and Montessori schools have many similarities, and parents who are interested in one school type may also find themselves considering the other. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two educational systems.

  • Waldorf schools usually have distinct grade levels that children advance through; Montessori classrooms often combine different age groups together in one classroom.
  • Waldorf school usually have one teacher that follows the students from grade to grade; Montessori schools usually have different teachers for each classroom group.
  • Both Waldorf and Montessori emphasize learning through play; Waldorf’s approach is often more imaginative, whereas Montessori emphasizes “play as work.”
  • Waldorf believes in nurturing the individuality of children, but takes a more teacher-based approach to learning than Montessori, which often allows children to plan their own curriculum.

Pros and Cons of Waldorf Schools

There is so much to consider as you try to pick the best school for your child. Here are some of the issues commonly consider by prospective Waldorf families as they weigh the pros and cons of a Waldorf education.

Pros

  • Children can learn at their own pace
  • Lots of outdoor time
  • Kids learn to live a tech-free life, at least in the classroom
  • Much more emphasis on creativity and the arts than other schools
  • Children are given a lot of individualized attention
  • Most schools allow many opportunities for parent involvement

Cons

  • One teacher for all grades may feel restrictive for some
  • Since academics are not stressed, some children may not acquire basic skills, at least not in the commonly expected timeframe
  • Potentially being around unvaccinated children may be an issue for you 
  • You may want your child to be taught more tech skills than Waldorf schools offer
  • High parental involvement is expected, which may not be possible for you
  • Tuition costs may be prohibitive for you

A Word from Verywell

Making a final choice about where to send your child to school can feel like one of the weightiest decisions in the world. After all, when we send our kids to school, it’s like releasing a part of our heart out to the world.

We want the very best for our children – for their gifts to be recognized and nurtured, and we want to find a school where they can grow and thrive.

A Waldorf school may be the right match for you, but it may not. You know your child best, so it’s a wise idea to sort through all the data and visit the schools you are considering in person if possible. Remember, too, that if a school does not ending up being the right fit for your child, there are usually other options down the road. You have choices, and you should feel empowered to make the best decision for your child and your family.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • A Van Buren. What is the waldorf method? New York Times. August 15th, 2019.

  • Comparing preschool philosophies: montessori, waldorf and more. PBS.org. Updated November 2012.

  • K de Freytas-Tamura. Bastion of anti-vaccine fervor: progressive waldorf schools. New York Times. June 13, 2019.

  • Rudolf steiner & the history of waldorf education. Association of Waldorf Schools of North America website. 2016.