The Steiner approach to early childhood education and care

Published on Tuesday, 17 April 2018
Last updated on Friday, 17 December 2021

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The Waldorf or Steiner approach to early childhood education is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who attempted to find a link between science and spirituality and who founded anthroposophy

The first school based on Steiner’s thinking was opened in 1919 in the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette factory in Stuttgart to provide an education to the children of employees. The name Waldorf has stuck and now both names refer equally to schools and early childhood services which adopt the Steiner approach. 

According to the International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education there are currently close to 2000 early childhood services located in 75 countries worldwide. 

The Steiner curriculum is designed to be responsive to the three developmental stages of childhood. The Physical from 0 - 7 years, The Imagination from 7 - 14 and the Spirit from 14 - 21 years. 

According to the Steiner approach the first seven years are critical in determining the future wellbeing of children as this is when the foundations are laid for later learning and healthy development, including life-long physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.

Proponents believe an atmosphere of loving warmth and guidance provide the optimal environment for healthy development and educators have a vital role in role-modelling and scaffolding a child’s natural urge to explore and experiment. 

To this end, the Steiner approach for this age group prioritises and promotes: 

  • Loving interest in and acceptance of each child.
  • Opportunities for self-initiated play with simple play materials as the essential activity for young children.
  • Play makes it possible for young children 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 role- modelling 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.

According to the Steiner approach, the first three years of a child’s life are especially important as this is when children are the most open and trusting and dependent on their caregivers. This means educators working with children in this age group need a special set of skills and personal qualities to ensure they are meeting the needs of each child to the best of their ability. They must also be aware of what it means to be a role model as children three-years and younger rely on imitation as one of the main ways of learning.

With this in mind Steiner educators consider and prioritise the following principles when providing education and care for children in the early years:

The attitude of the adult:

Educators must work to cultivate an attitude of trust, openness and gratitude towards the child and life more widely. They highlight the importance of meaningful daily activities such as work (cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening etc.), physical activity and exploring nature.

The environment of the child:

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

Rhythmical daily life:

Rhythmical and predictable daily life is practiced with an understanding of the child’s need for:

  • quality and quantity of sleep in a safe and peaceful environment
  • healthy food
  • physical exposure to nature including walking daily
  • care taking filled with warmth, presence of being, and joy

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

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.

Steiner in action

Steiner settings do not focus on teaching literacy and numeracy in the early years in the belief that these skills come more easily when children are given the opportunity to focus on developing their social, emotional and physical skills in an environment which emphasises play based learning experiences. 

A typical Steiner day follows a reliable pattern, alternating between child led and teacher led activities. Children participate in structured activities such as painting, craft and domestic arts such as cooking, cleaning and self care, as well as circle time, story telling and music. 

Steiner settings take great care in planning and setting up the environments where children learn and play, to ensure all sensory inputs are considered. Where possible there are no hard corners, muted colours are preferred, providers choose natural materials over plastics and toys are simple and encourage open-ended play. 


International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education

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