Waldorf’s Brilliant Approach To Teaching Math

By Chris and Nicole – proud parents of two children living in a small mountain town in British Columbia, Canada, and authors of the blog http://www.rootparenting.org/


“We believe in an intuitive approach to parenting, getting guidance from childhood development psychologists and other educators who have developed practical principles such as attachment parenting. We started this blog mostly has a journal to help us research different parenting approaches. It has now grown to include research from many childhood development experts who we find interesting, as well as alternative parenting approaches.”

Mathematics is not taught in isolation from other subjects at Waldorf schools. It is part of a holistic learning experience that connects with the child’s inner self and body through muscle-memory and other exercises.  For the Class one Waldorf child math is really some kind of kinesthetic or whole body learning experience. Math is also closely related to and taught through music – furthering the important connecting between the child’s body and their understanding of numbers. As an adult I know that the most lasting memories are always those that involves more than one sense. I vividly remember walking past a jam factory on the way to and from school when I was a child, and counting the metal fence rungs while breathing in the aromas.


By using bodily movement to aid the understanding of numbers in the early grades – even before learning to read and write – the child develops a proficiency much like a musician memorizing scales. It is a slow and unhurried approach that does not push the child to count or read too early – an approach that does not taint a child’s passion to learn, but one that rather ignites that passion.  In addition to moving to math, the child plays with beans or glass beads – learning to add and subtract without even knowing that they are doing so. They get to participate in imaginative math fairy tales, requiring them to solve the same problems the main characters have to solve. They use manipulatives (bean bags and chestnuts) to work through exciting math tales and classroom conundrums. This experiential learning allows a real ‘living’ understanding of math to develop within the children.


When children begin writing, they begin with roman numerals and integrate this lesson within their form drawing block. Roman numerals have much easier forms and more straight lines than our common curvy numerals. Each number, 1-12, invites a discussion that requirqes a deep intensity of imagination. Waldorf math begins with Roman numerals and incorporate geometry into the discussion of each number, scribing freehand the relative polygons and stars. The children work to master each of the stars, crossing the vertical midline over and over again as they practice on large sheets of paper. Eventually, a particular star will stand out as the class favorite which tells the Class Teacher an immeasurable amount about the class itself.

Waldorf starts off the introduction to math by asking a seemingly simple question, “What is the largest number in the universe?”  My son (aged 5) came home from school and asked me the same question.  I answered “Well, erhmmm, it’s infinity.”  He said “No, one is the biggest because I am one.”  Other responses discussed in class are “One is the biggest because without it there isn’t any 2, or 3, or even a million.” “One is the biggest because everything there is is in one Universe.” “One is the biggest because it can be any number it wants.” All sorts of philosophical and mathematical truths become evident through just this “one” discussion. This gets them thinking in a whole new way about numbers, and how they relate to us and the world. Eventually the children arrive at “I am one!”, they see how their bodies are shaped like the number one, they relate themselves to the vastness of the Universe, and realize at that point that they are co-creators.


All of this happens in 1st grade.


So from the start, children are made aware of the significance of numbers and enter into a multi-dimensional relationship with them. Once they’ve experienced numbers with their imaginations, they can use their will to execute stars and polygons.  They  move their bodies through the math facts of all four processes (+ – / x) each day, and create personalities for each math function.  There is Tessa Times, Mickey Minus, Penelope Plus and David Divide.  Each character is known by how they appear and how act. For example, David Divide has a sword and always chops things up, sometimes in half or more. Children take part in music classes involving flute, voice and other instruments, allowing them to ‘feel’ the beauty and rhythm of the numbers.


This multi-faceted learning approach continues into Class 2.  Here is a Class 2 report summary of a math block lesson:

Column algorithms, vertical addition 1, 10,100. By using the image of the chipmunks and their holes, rooms and chambers to store and count the nuts, the children understood well by the end of this block.  We practised many sums and wrote some in our books. We worked the times tables in many different ways, always with rhythm:  sticks, walking, clapping, bean bag throwing, etc.  We reviewed the 2 and learnt the 4, 8, and 11 times table.  In circle we did lots of mid line work, expansion and contraction, throwing and catching and, recently added: juggling! We have been walking squares, stars, and doing some eurythmy.


A genuine love of math can only be enhanced by a practical approach in the mid to later grades. In the third grade curriculum, for instance, fractions are learned through cooking and building.  There is the introduction of orchestral stringed instruments at that same time, which also leverages many math basics. Math is the key to participating in Waldorf music lessons. Math is everywhere. The sixth grader gets to experience this by working with the Fibonacci sequence and Euclidean to Platonic geometries.


Waldorf education seeks to help students develop and integrate math, music, building, movement, storytelling, art and more – all at once.


Read more articles about the Waldorf curriculum in the Resource Library.



Informed parenting

Michael Mount
has collected a series
of articles to …

Help parents understand what makes Waldorf education so profoundly different from other educational systems. Start by reading this interview with Joseph Chilton Pearce.

And to support parents in the daunting task of raising free, unfettered individuals through insight into the Waldorf philosophy of human development and the different stages of childhood please click on the Resource Library


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