What do the Nine Essentials of Waldorf Early Childhood look like in the Home?

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When we ask about how education is structured, we often refer to the “curriculum,” but the underlying philosophy for Waldorf early childhood education is that life itself is the curriculum. Young children absorb their environments every moment like sponges.

What makes a “Waldorf” program different from other early childcare experiences, and if we would like to provide a “Waldorf” experience for our own children in our homes, how might we do it? One of the most essential parts of a child’s environment is the caregiver. The caregiver creates a physical environment and an energetic one- through their own inner work, gestures, attitudes and speech. Steiner believed that these experiences of environment and caregiver profoundly affected a child’s future adult life- their habits, predispositions and resiliency.

Susan Howard, the current @waldorfearlychildhood Coordinator, mentor, advisor and retired Waldorf teacher, outlines “The Nine Essentials of Waldorf Early Childhood Education”, in her article of the same title. They are:

❤️ Love and warmth

Fire is a transformative element – love and warmth are the fires that give our children the vital energy to grow, flourish and develop towards their human potential.

Young children learn by imitating everything they see, touch and feel. As caregivers, our gestures, our tone of voice, how we connect with other people, and even how we hold boundaries are all absorbed by the young child. When we imbue our environment and ourselves with love and warmth, we are setting a foundation and an example for our children of compassion, empathy, self-love and Divine connection.

Love and Warmth in the Physical Environment

🎵 songs, rhymes, stories and fingerplays, especially from a child’s home culture, traditions or language
🕯 warm natural lighting, candles, windows, salt lamps
🧦 ensuring children are dressed in layers and natural fabrics, wearing hats in the Winter and wool socks and/or slippers
🥣 providing warming foods like soups, teas, stews, congee or porridge
🐕 🐈 🪴 tending to animal and plant babies with love and care
👩🏽‍🍼archetypal images of a parent and child hanging in a child’s room or playroom
🛏 early bedtimes, warm blankets and hot water bottles in winter

Love and Warmth in Spirit or Energetically

🫂 physical touch, hugs, caresses, sitting in laps, being carried
⭕️ examples of caregivers working in the community to help and support others
🙏🏼 prayers, blessings or other examples of connecting with gratitude and/or something bigger than ourselves for our children to see and imitate
🌹 seasonal festival work in the home with the adult having an underlying connection with the spiritual significance of the festival
🗣 words of affirmation, gratitude and love
❌ holding loving boundaries with children that support their development



🥣 Care for the environment and nourishment for the senses

Our physical environment is everything around us that our senses can perceive. According to Steiner this also includes our ethics at work in the environment. Because young children are highly sensorial and learn primarily via imitation how we shape our homes and classrooms, both inside and outdoors is of utmost importance.

The “temporal environment” (Howard) is also carefully crafted to support the growing child- strong rhythms and routines are followed so that the children experience a breathing in and out of their days, weeks and seasons.

Tending to a Child’s Environment with Conscious Care can look like:


🐑 🐚 🪵 toys are made of natural materials that were once ensouled and living (wood, shells, wool, silk, cotton)
🧺 everything in the home and classroom has it’s place and is put back in order at the end of the day for new beginnings the next day
🪴 plants bring life and “etheric energy” to the environment and need to be cared for
🐓 in some school programs and homes animals or pets are found in the school or backyard to care for and tend to
🌀 a strong daily rhythm is established to anchor the young child who does not perceive time in the same way as adults do
⚖️ objects like balancing beams, large planks, balance boards or tree stumps are found inside and outside so that children can develop gross motor skills, balance and coordination
⭕️ opportunities for stomping, stamping, hopping, jumping, rolling, clapping, running and skipping can be found in outdoor play and in morning circles helping to strengthen proprioception, balance and cross-lateral movement
🕯 🎵 ✋ stories, songs, rhymes, poems and gestures are carefully chosen inspired by the seasons, archetypes and home or classroom cultural diversity
🍽 tables are set nicely, napkins are used and a blessing of gratitude is said before eating creating a sense of ritual, order and care at mealtimes
🌸 seasonal flowers or plants adorn the home or classroom bringing seasonal beauty and appreciation inside
🛏 times of expansion (play) are balanced with times of contraction (story, resting, eating)
🪟 classrooms are made to feel warm like a home with kitchens, cozy rugs and muted colours

 

🌈 Creative, artistic experience

Offering a “creative, artistic experience” does not only apply to the practical arts listed below but also to the sense of artistry the caregiver brings to the home or classroom in a larger sense.

Caregivers lovingly craft the rhythm of the day so that it flows like a song with an intentional beginning, middle and end.

Nature Tables are curated and tended to regularly, seasonal flowers or greenery are freshly cut and placed around the environment and colourful transparent paper stars adorn the windows.

The classroom or home radiates with creativity, imagination and beauty.

Practical Arts often included in Waldorf Early Childhood Programs and Homes:

🎵 singing
🎼 instrumental music such as the glockenspiel, kinderlyre or pentatonic recorder
💃🏼 dance, movement (sometimes Eurythmy), circles
📚 oral stories and/or puppet plays
📑 poetry, verse, rhymes and fingerplay
🎨 watercolour painting
🐝 beeswax or saltdough modelling
🖍 daily drawing
🪡 sewing or weaving projects
🍁 seasonal crafts such as carved pumpkins, winter lanterns, flower crowns etc
🧶 fingerknitting
🍞 domestic arts such as grinding grain, kneading and baking bread
📄 origami, paper lanterns or “moving story” paper crafts

 

🧶 Meaningful adult activity as an example for the child’s imitation

Children learn via imitation. Millennia before formal school or daycare existed, children stayed close to their caregivers and observed them cooking, baking grains, cleaning the home, making, mending and cleaning clothes, tending to gardens, fetching water, nursing the sick, making medicine, caring for animals and being present and nurturing for the young children in their care. The domestic arts in every culture serve as a foundational education- they provide opportunities for gross and fine motor skills; they give children a sense of purpose and compassion; they often create a natural rhythm to the flow of days (eg. early morning milking and baking, mid-afternoon mending in the shade) as well as a sense of rhythm and meaning within the seasons (berry picking in summer, making candles in late autumn, cleaning and clearing in spring).

Many of our blessed modern conveniences (running water, laundry machines, kitchen appliances, fridges) have taken away some of the meaningful work children used to observe & imitate but there is still a huge amount of value in what meaningful work is left for the young child to oversee, imitate, try on and accomplish them self.

“This creates a realm, an atmosphere, of freedom in which the individuality of each child can be active. It is not intended that the children copy the outer movements and actions of the adult, but rather that they experience the inner work attitude: the devotion, care, sense of purpose, intensity of focus, and creative spirit of the adult. And then, in turn, each child is free to act as an artist-doer in his or her own right, through creative free play and active movement, according to his or her own inner needs and possibilities.” (Howard)

Meaningful Adult Activity as an Example for the Child’s Imitation:

In the broadest sense, meaningful activity is work that:
🙌 the caregiver does with their hands to create or tend to something meaningful and purposeful (indoors or outdoors) so that the thing they are making assists or nourishes themselves, their family and/or their community

👑 Free, imaginative play

Free, Imaginative Play is at the heart of a young child’s education. Independent play is completely individual- each child plays out what they yearn to explore, understand and master- physically, intellectually and spiritually.

“…the manner in which each child plays may offer a picture of how they will take up their destiny as an adult. The task of the [caregiver] is to create an environment that supports the possibility for healthy play.” (Howard)


Healthy INDEPENDENT PLAY can look like (but is not limited to):

🦹🏽‍♀️ wearing silks & costumes & pretending to be fantasy/fairytale characters
🦮 pretending to be an animal and the caregiver
🤱🏻 engaging in imaginative play as parents, babies, and various family members
🥼 exploring diverse professions such as chef, baker, airline host, police officer, vet, doctor, herbalist, singer, dancer, farmer, and more
🎓 participating in the roles of both student and teacher
🧚🏻‍♀️ indulging in imaginative play with fairies, small animals, dolls, and dollhouses
🚒 pulling and pushing trucks, cars, boats and trains
🧱stacking blocks, building towers, building lego
💁🏻‍♀️ telling stories/narrations with props & toys
⛺️ making forts/cubbies
👏 playing catch and clapping games
🛁bathing dolls, babies and any other toy they can find
🎨 drawing, painting, crafting, modelling and inventing in all their manifestations
👣 digging, sifting, pouring, packing and dumping sand, dirt and water
🪵 climbing, building, rolling and stacking big objects like logs and rocks


Healthy INDEPENDENT PLAY also often looks

💫  very messy, muddy, dirty
💫  transient: changing from one play to the next
💫  engaged, fun & active
💫  cooperative in every sense of the word: involving many negotiations along the way
💫  imitative: often playing out something from the child’s recent life experience
💫  surprising!! you just never know what these amazing, curious and intelligent little beings will come up with next!


Healthy INDEPENDENT PLAY should ideally

💫 be followed and balanced out with an “in breath” activity. (like a quiet*ish meal, reading, an adult-led craft, resting or listening to a story)

 

🧦 Protection for the forces of childhood

“Although it is highly necessary that each person should be fully awake in later life, the child must be allowed to remain as long as possible in the peaceful, dreamlike condition of pictorial imagination in which his early years of life are passed. For if we allow his organism to grow strong in this non-intellectual way, he will rightly develop in later life the intellectuality needed in the world today.” [RS, A Modern Art of Education]

This Waldorf Early Childhood Essential is likely the most widely debated in terms of interpretation. At the foundation of it is the belief that children under the age of 7 need to feel in their hearts, minds and bodies that the world is GOOD.

The reality, however, is that many young children worldwide experience the dichotomy of “good and bad, just and unjust” far earlier than primary school age. I believe it is crucial to interrupt transductive reasoning and bias in early childhood explicitly.

If we do not accept the definition of “Protecting the Forces of Childhood” as the avoidance of important explicit conversations, what might this Essential look like?

🏰 Enriching the imagination through storytelling while incorporating vivid imagery and archetypes.
🌪 Introducing diverse narratives and archetypes through the art of storytelling.
🙌 Modeling skills and expectations through gestures before resorting to verbal communication.
🌀 Facilitating understanding of the passage of time in children through the use of rhythm.
👫 Providing ample time and space for uninterrupted free play.
❓ Encouraging curiosity and wonder in children by responding with phrases like ‘I wonder’ instead of immediately providing concrete answers.”
👧🏼🧒🏽👧🏻 leading children in group activities that create a sense of community, belonging and group consciousness
📺 avoiding media, adult news sources & screens as much as possible in early childhood based on pediatric guidelines
🧠 introducing academics at a developmentally appropriate time based on science and our current understanding of brain and body development

 

🙏🏼 Gratitude, reverence, and wonder

Out of gratitude: love and compassion are born. Gratitude practices, reverence and prayer are a part of all traditional cultures and for good reason. A regular gratitude practice (in studies on adults) has been shown to improve sleep, increase feelings of wellness and optimism, lower immune response and improve relationships.

Because young children learn primarily via imitation, a caregiver “teaches gratitude” by authentically modelling it.


EVERYDAY PRACTICES and GESTURES that model gratitude for young children

🌟   say a reverent blessing or verse once a day (gratitude for earth & spirit)
🌟  learn how to mend, fix or repair clothes and toys or reach out to your community to find those who can. (gratitude for work, tools & resources)
🌟  make meals for new parents, busy families or the elderly in your community (gratitude for community)
🌟  tell stories about your childhood and those special moments that helped to shape who you are. (gratitude for learned experience)
🌟  share and offer your skills to someone in your community eg. technology, gardening, cooking, cleaning, child minding or a listening ear. (gratitude for individuality and expertise)
🌟  write thank you cards and send them in the mail or deliver them in person (gratitude for small gestures)
🌟  cut down on ‘stuff’: prioritize quality over quantity, observe what items are cherished and which ones remain neglected, and remove clutter to create space for a deeper appreciation of what you and your children possess (gratitude for what we already have)
🌟  take time at the end of the day to share as a family your ‘rose and thorn’: your most cherished part of the day and your least favourite part of the day (gratitude for duality)
🌟  find a small time each day for inner work, whether this is meditation, prayer, yoga, or art. (gratitude for Self)
🌟  if you feel gratitude for something, say it aloud for the whole family to hear. (gratitude in thought)
🌟  express your gratitude in detail & for specifics (gratitude for details & “and, also” mindset)

 

☺️ Joy, humour, and happiness

How do we foster a home and school environment that is joyful?
Do children wake up in the morning and want to go to school?
Do our own children laugh and experience wonder each and every day?
Can the caregiver bring levity to each moment- moving from holding a strong boundary to making light-hearted jokes with grace and ease?

Examples of age-appropriate joy, humour and happiness in the home and school

🐿 Funny little stories about animals and the mischief or adventures they get up to in nature
🎁 Anecdotes from the caregiver’s life that convey delight, surprise and/or humour
🧺 The joyful resolve and engagement of the caregiver performing the domestic arts such as folding, ironing or washing dishes
🎵 Singing, humming and/or whistling while the caregiver works
📖 Stories, songs and fingerplays with light-hearted plots, funny twists and humour
💃🏼 Dancing at circle time or family dance parties

Examples of adult joy, humour and happiness we hope to AVOID until after the age of seven

☁️ sarcasm is extremely hard for young children to understand and can be hurtful
📱 memes, funny reels and other short humorous clips can go over children’s heads and require a level of abstract thinking young children have not acquired yet
😂 slapstick comedy where someone is being melodramatically rough, sad, pushy, angry or sarcastic. It will have the wrong effects on children who learn via imitation.
🗣 Teasing, mocking or snappy comebacks will also give the wrong impression of what is appropriate and what is not

 

✨ Adult caregivers on a path of inner development

“What kind of school plan you make is neither here nor there; what matters is what sort of person you are.” [RS, The Kingdom of Childhood]

“For the small child before the change of teeth, the most important thing in education is the teacher’s own being.” [RS, Essentials of Education] “Just think what feelings arise in the soul of the early childhood educator who realizes: what I accomplish with this child, I accomplish for the grown-up person in his twenties.”

Steiner was very conscious of the (now scientific) fact that our early childhood experiences have a profound and direct ripple effect on the rest of our adult lives.*

As a primary caregiver who we are, how we act and our relationship with the children in our care matters deeply.

If we are out of alignment the children in our care experience this in their threefold being as well.

Does this mean we ought to be perfectly divine radiant beings for our children? That’d be nice, but of course not- we’re human.

But it does mean that wherever and whenever possible, we are on a path of striving- modelling to our children inner growth, learning and expansion as conscious human beings on a journey.

Inner Work for Caregivers can look like:

☀️ a daily prayer and/or meditation [I personally use @prayasyougo_official (Christian) ]
☀️ practicing daily gratitude [@reflectlyapp (Secular)]
☀️ tuning in to an episode of @onbeing or another spiritual or philosophically leaning conversation
☀️ listening to faith or spiritual music
☀️  writing in a digital diary or a good old fashion journal
☀️ using @calm or @headspace or @wakingupapp meditations
☀️  working with Rudolf Steiner’s 7 Contemplation Exercises – I highly recommend “Raising the Soul” by Warren Lee Cohen for this
☀️  engaging in daily self-care to restore and revitalize body, mind and spirit (scroll through my grid for countless ideas)
☀️  mindfulness of our words, actions and thoughts
☀️  nightly review of how we lived (or did not live) in alignment with our values or purpose that day
☀️  bringing big questions to something higher than ourselves in our sleep (eg. Angels, Spirit, Higher Self…)

 

If you want to learn more about these essentials, please read the article by Susan Howard on there which you can find here

 

 

Did you know that your family may already embody the principles of Waldorf education without even realizing it? Rudolf Steiner, the visionary behind Waldorf Education, encouraged individuals to question and adapt his teachings according to their own unique circumstances. Rather than blindly adhering to a set doctrine, he emphasized the importance of discovering personal truths within his work. Check my journal “20 Ways You’re Already a Waldorf-Inspired Family” to know more.

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Meagan Wilson is a parent educator and author of the now-retired seasonal series of Whole Family Rhythms. After finishing a BA, she went on to complete her Foundations in Steiner Education and Anthroposophy at Sydney Steiner College, as well as her Waldorf Early Childhood Certification at the Rudolf Steiner Centre in Toronto. She has received her certification as a Simplicity Parenting Family Life Coach and has supported hundreds of parents to create a strong family rhythm unique to their own values and culture. She has four young children. Meagan provides resources, support and information to parents who are looking for a bridge to cross between their unique family life and their children’s (often but not always) Waldorf schools.

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