Waldorf Education K–12

by Henry Barnes


Early Childhood

 Infants and young children are entirely given over to their physical surroundings; they absorb the world primarily through their senses and respond in the most active mode of knowing: imitation. Imitation is the power to identify oneself with one’s immediate environment through one’s active will. Everything—anger, love, joy, hate, intelligence, stupidity—speaks to the infant through the tone of voice, the physical touch, bodily gesture, light, darkness, color, harmony, and disharmony. These influences are absorbed by the still malleable physical organism and affect the body for a lifetime.


Those concerned with the young child—parents, caregivers, nursery, and kindergarten teachers—have a responsibility to create an environment that is worthy of the child’s unquestioning imitation. The environment should offer the child plenty of opportunity for meaningful imitation and for creative play. This supports the child in the central activity of these early years: the development of the physical organism. Drawing the child’s energies away from this fundamental task to meet premature intellectual demands robs the child of the health and vitality he or she will need in later life. In the end, it weakens the very powers of judgment and practical intelligence the teacher wants to encourage.


In the nursery-kindergarten, children play at cooking, they dress up and become mothers and fathers, kings and queens; they sing, paint, and color. Through songs and poems they learn to enjoy language; they learn to play together, hear stories, see puppet shows, bake bread, make soup, model beeswax, and build houses out of boxes, sheets, and boards. To become fully engaged in such work is the child’s best preparation for life. It builds powers of concentration, interest, and a lifelong love of learning.


Middle Childhood

 When children are ready to leave kindergarten and enter first grade, they are eager to explore the whole world of experience for the second time. Before, they identified with it and imitated it; now, at a more conscious level, they are ready to know it again, by means of the imagination–that extraordinary power of human cognition–that allows us to “see” a picture, “hear” a story, and “divine” meanings within appearances.


During the elementary school years, the educator’s task is to transform all that the child needs to know about the world into the language of the imagination, a language that is as accurate and as responsible to reality as intellectual analysis is in the adult. The wealth of an earlier, less intellectual age–folk tales, legends, and mythologies, which speak truth in parables and pictures–becomes the teacher’s inexhaustible treasure house. When seen through the lens of the imagination, nature, the world of numbers, mathematics, geometrical form, and the practical work of the world are food and drink to the soul of the child. The four arithmetical operations can, for instance, be introduced as characters in a drama to be acted out with temperamental gusto by first graders. Whatever speaks to the imagination and is truly felt stirs and activates the feelings and is remembered and learned. The elementary years are the time for educating the “feeling intelligence.”


It is only after the physiological changes at puberty, which mark the virtual completion of the second great developmental phase, that imaginative learning undergoes a metamorphosis to emerge as the rational, abstract power of the intellect.



  Throughout the glorious turbulence of adolescence, the personality celebrates its independence and seeks to explore the world once again in a new way. Within, the young person, the human being to whom the years of education have been directed, is quietly maturing. Eventually, the individual will emerge.


In Steiner’s view, this essential being is neither the product of inheritance nor of the environment; it is a manifestation of the spirit. The ground on which it walks and into which it sinks its roots is the intelligence that has ripened out of the matrix of will and feeling into clear, experienced thought. In traditional wisdom, it is this being who “comes of age” around age 21 and is then ready to take up the real task of education– self-education–which distinguishes the adult from the adolescent.


Revised for this publication, this article by Henry Barnes, former Chairman of the Board, Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, originally appeared in the October, 1991 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine.

Informed parenting

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