The Waldorf Education: Rudolf Steiner’s vision

I recently had the chance to visit the Waldorf School in San Diego, and shared a bit of my experience here on the blog.  Since the world of Waldorf Education is vast and profound, I thought it was worth it to write a more theoretical post with the objective of presenting more about Rudolf Steiner, the founder of this educational approach, and his vision.

It’s worth highlighting that this post only scratches the surface, and that I will not be detailing all of the vast content of the Waldorf approach to education.  Which, frankly, makes sense, as do not yet know everything there is to know about the Waldorf pedagogy!  A Waldorf educator studies for four years beyond their regular education studies.  But here is an attempt to explain some of the basics.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was a Austrian man known for his profound knowledge and reflections in the areas of Philosophy, Education, Arts, and Esotericism.  He was the founder of Anthroposophy[1], a spiritual science which has as a central figure a specific human image distinct from the image prevalent in contemporary Western culture.  The concept of Anthroposophy is vast and complex, and understands the human being as a central figure that inhabits different subtle bodies and psychic activities that interact amongst themselves and develop throughout the different phases of human life.  Different proposals for practical areas of knowledge such as Organic Architecture, Biodynamic Agriculture, Anthroposophical Pharmaceuticals, and Art of Eurythmy have been derived from this spiritual science.  Within the realm of education, Anthroposophy gives us a specific pedagogical approach known worldwide as the Waldorf Pedagogy.

In a speech in 1907 and in the book, “The Education of the Child” (1996), Steiner proposes an approach to education that places the child within a holistic idea of what a human being is and can be, as a being with different subtle “bodies” that are independent and develop in different phases along the child’s life.  Education should be guided according to the development of each of these bodies: the physical body, the etheric or vital body, the sensitive or astral body and the ego.

According to the book “The Waldorf Pedagogy” (2013), each and every human being already has the four subtle bodies when they are born – and it is this that makes them human beings – however, the different bodies take on a certain independence and develop at different moments in life.  In the same way that during gestation up until the moment of birth the physical body of the baby is not yet totally individualized because it is connected to the mother’s physical body, the other bodies are born in different moments throughout childhood and adolescence.  In accordance with this concept, education should start in the intrauterine phase, during which the priority is to permit the full and adequate development of a healthy physical body.

Starting from birth, Anthroposophy gives us a non-linear approach to human development that happens in cycles of seven years, phases marked by the birth and development of the different subtle bodies.  Birth marks the independence of the physical body of the infant, breaking the umbilical tie with the physical body of the mother; in the first seven years of life, the etheric body is not yet individualized in the same ways as the physical body, as it still has connection with and influence from  universal etheric forces.  The concept of each subtle body is vast and will not be presented here in detail, but in short, we can say that the etheric body or vital body is what differentiates man from animals, plans, and minerals.  The body has a vital pulse that keeps it alive and acts against death.

During these first seven years, the development and strengthening of the etheric body, together with the physical body, should be the focus of a child’s education.  In this phase, the strong and healthy growth of the physical body and all of its organs, as well as the development of the vitality of the etheric body, must be harmonized.  Eating habits, sleep, environment, movement, and other stimuli are important factors in this developmental phase.  According to Steiner, this is the moment of the blossoming of will and of desire, and a child should be encouraged to move freely, in frequent contact with nature, cherishing the strength and endurance of their vitality.

In the first seven years, a child’s development is marked principally by imitation and example, and because of this, the adults that are around the child, whether they are educators or not, should set healthy examples for the child’s development in their attitudes and in the environment.  Imitation is the way in which a child experiments with the world – it is a comportment that should be respected and welcomed.  Experiences from this phase of life mark the etheric body of the individual and the child should receive love and affection in abundance.  Human warmth and contact is the essential ingredient for this moment and helps show the child that “the world is good.”

According to Steiner, the changes in a child’s dentition at the end of the first seven-year period, in addition to other signs, marks the total independence and complete constitution of the etheric or vital body and the beginning of the second set of seven years.  From 7 to 14 years old the child is in school, with their physical and etheric bodies already independent.  The focus of their development therefore now becomes their sensory or astral body.  This is the body that differentiates man and animals from plants, that is responsible for “our sensations, reflexes, sympathies and antipathies, instincts and passions” (Lanz, 2013, 21). At this stage, education should favor the development and recognition of feelings and emotions. One must develop a sense of beauty and of artistic languages.

According to the Waldorf approach, in the second set of seven years the child manifests their memory before their intellectual ability, and it is important that this be respected.  It may be detrimental to the child’s development to awaken their intellectual judgment before the right moment, that is, before puberty and independence from the astral body.  Between the ages of 7 and 14 it is important for the child to gather references, materials, and knowledge that will be used for judgment and comparison later in life.  In this phase, Steiner recommends that educational experiences always have a parallel with spirituality and laws of nature.  For example, when talking about the birth of a butterfly, he talks about the constant transformation of all things.  While imitation and example are key words in the first seven-year phase of development, in the second seven years the key words are authority and reverence.  Authority should not be imposed, but must be won by the respectful and loving relationship between educator and educated.  This time is when the child seeks human ideals, and it is important that the educator assume the position of being admired in their authority. This is the stage of the development of “feeling” and the message to be passed on is that “the world is beautiful”.

The arrival of puberty around the age of 14, characterized by physical and sexual transformation, signals the end of the second seven-year period and the complete birth of the astral body.  From there, the third phase of development begins, which lasts from the age of 14 until 21, and often corresponds to high school and the beginning of university life.  The focus in this time period will be the development of the ego.

The third phase is the moment of life in which the human being is freed from its bonds with the astral body and with the rest of the organism.  The energy becomes focused on the development of the self, mental and moral faculties, critical thinking, the exercise of autonomy and freedom, and the construction of moral responsibility. The idea of the educator as an authority figure no longer works, since at this stage the young person takes a very critical position on everything imposed on them; educators must build a relationship based on transparency, inspiring young people in their critical ability and moral conduct. At this point, the Waldorf approach focuses on the development of the “thinking” activity and the main message to be perceived by the learner is that “the world is true”.

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The table above summarizes Rudolf Steiner’s proposal for each phase of human development during schooling.

To learn more, these are the two books I used as references:

If you are curious to know more about the rhythm of a Waldorf school, in this post I talk a bit about my visit to the Waldorf School in San Diego, California.

Observation: this text was taken from an academic paper that I developed about Psychology and Education, and if used I ask that you include this citation:

CAPITANIO, T. S. Pedagogia da Inteireza: uma concepção Transpessoal de Educação – A importância da integração dos elementos do desenvolvimento psíquico na educação de crianças e jovens. Monografia (Especialização em Psicologia Transpessoal) – Faculdade Vicentina, Alubrat, São Paulo, 2017, 82f.


[1] Anthroposophy is a term that refers to the method of knowledge of human nature and the universe developed by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the 20th century, and which can be applied in different areas of human life.

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