The Spirit of Waldorf Education

Because a Waldorf School endeavors to awaken and maintain a child’s experience of the mysterious through awe and wonder, parents often ask if it is a religious school. This is a difficult question to answer because the term religious can be understood in so many different ways. Perhaps the most accurate answer would have to be both, “No and Yes.”

In the sense that a religious education is associated with a creed or a catechism that children are asked to memorize and accept on faith, the answer is decidedly “no.” There are no tenets presented to Waldorf students that are intended to become their set of beliefs. Neither are Waldorf Schools sectarian and for that reason they can thrive equally in a Buddhist country like Japan, an Islamic country like Egypt, or on a kibbutz in Israel.  If this subject interests you beyond this article the Philly Waldorf recently posted an article on their website called Are Waldorf Schools Religous? that is worth reading.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable still exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”
Albert Einstein ~

But in the sense that a Waldorf education helps children remain open to the mysterious dimensions of life, to the complex web of meaning that connects human destiny with other individuals and events, to the over-riding sense that there is something present in life that is greater and wiser than we are, the answer is “Yes.” In keeping with the origin of the word religious, derived from the Latin religare (to reconnect or bind together), it is the task of Waldorf Education to help children remain open and connected to this inexplicable aspect of human existence. For this reason it is appropriate to describe Waldorf in a broad way as a spiritually-based education.

At the heart of the Waldorf approach is the understanding that young children are innately spiritual and arrive in this world with the ability to recognize the mysterious and sublime. The words of the poet William Wordsworth seem to convey this best:

There was a time when every meadow grove and stream,
The Earth and all the World did seem,
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.

A preschool teacher protects this unconscious awareness in the young child by creating an environment where a child can sense that the world is good. Through activities, routines, and stories, children encounter the inherent goodness in human existence the wonder and bounty of nature, the comfort of loving human care. These elements reassure, welcome, and invite a young child to embrace all of life.

In the grade school, children’s spiritual awareness diminishes slowly over time as their sense of self, their independent individual awareness, becomes more pronounced and distances them from the immediacy and oneness of early childhood. It is at this time that Waldorf teachers provide children with the experience that the world is beautiful. Through arts-infused instruction, through a program rich in poetry, painting, and music, and through science study that explores the splendor of our natural world, the children’s feelings are nourished by this aesthetic quality.

In the high school, a young persons growing capacity for critical thinking longs to know that the world is true as they grapple to understand modern life by recognizing patterns and underlying causes of human behavior and in world events.

These experiences:

· that the world is good for the preschool child
· that the world is beautiful for the grade school child
· that the world is true for the high school student

enable Waldorf graduates to engage life. It was Rudolf Steiner’s contention that when children are educated in a sound three-dimensional manner, they are able to sustain their deeper nature.

But a spiritually-based, holistic, and child-centered education must have other dimensions as well, specific ones, and one of these is character education. Character education is a serious matter for all schools and for our society, but also a complicated issue. In his essay “The Education of Character,” Martin Buber points out the challenging nature of moral instruction.

But if I am concerned with the education of character, everything becomes problematic. I try to explain to my pupils that envy is despicable, and at once I feel the secret resistance of those who are poorer than their comrades. I try to explain to my pupils that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I try to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens: the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying. I have made the fatal mistake of giving instructions in ethics.

This statement highlights the fallacy of giving direct instruction in ethics, but schools, nonetheless, have a responsibility to help awaken the ability for moral judgment. One truly effective way to educate character is through the stories that are told to the children because stories speak directly to the heart, enabling teachers to guide but not preach. Storytelling is a time-honored tradition around the world. For ages, people all over our planet have instructed children in this way. In a Waldorf School many of the moral lessons conveyed to the children are brought to them indirectly through fairy tales, folktales, legends, and mythology.

When schools work from a spiritual premise, they, by necessity, make assumptions that run counter to the current way of thinking. For example, in our culture we have commonly accepted that the word myth is synonymous with untruth. This is not the case for Waldorf teachers who would more likely state that mythology conveys profound truths.

Years ago there was an exhibit at the Exposition in Montreal that consisted of an elaborate slide show with narration. As the program began, multiple slides were shown simultaneously of native villagers hunting crocodile along a river in Africa. As the perils of their hunt were conveyed through the photographs, the narrator spoke: “If someone were to ask if centuries ago on the Isle of Crete there really was a labyrinth in which there lived a beast, a Minotaur, half-bull and half-man, that devoured seven youths and seven maidens every seven years, we would say, “No.” But could we deny with equal certainty that within the twisted labyrinth of the human heart there is not a beast that tries to block our way on the quest to know ourselves.”

The inner psychological truths conveyed in mythology, legends, and folk tales provide our children with understandings that help them to know human nature on a deeper level.

An important characteristic of a Waldorf Education is that it offers a spiritual view of humanity. The human being is seen as a bridge between two worlds – the earthly and the heavenly. Although our bodies have a mammalian nature (we are warm-blooded, our children are born live, etc.), there is also something uniquely dignified, noble, and heavenly in our nature. This spiritual aspect has been named in a variety of ways throughout history. It has been called our daemon, our angel, and at other times our genius.

In his book, Education in Search of the Spirit, John Gardner states, “in the original sense of the word, genius is a guiding, inspiring principle that is accessible, if we will, to every human being. The source of strength and guidance is not concerned with special abilities but with the whole person. An education works either to close or to open the channel between a child and his or her genius. Genius was once an intuitively perceived reality: the protective and guiding spirit that gave each person prepared to receive it the wisdom, or love, or power for good deeds on Earth. A person’s genius was a higher self that could be called upon to infuse life with values transcending personal limits. Genius, says the Oxford University Dictionary, stating the ancient view, is a tutelary god or attendant spirit, allotted to every person at birth to preside over destiny in life.”

How confusing and sad that in schools today, the progressive as well as the traditional, this term has come to mean something entirely different, some special privilege no longer available to all. From a spiritual perspective all children have genius. This premise raises an important question: How do we nurture and protect the childs genius?


Unlike other spiritually-based schools that teach in a conventional manner and then add a class or two to address children’s deeper needs, Waldorf Schools meet the inner needs of their students through the entire educational program. It begins with the reverence and respect that the teachers feel for each child. It occurs continually throughout the school year at timely moments when students stop to say a verse or a grace and acknowledge the existence of something greater. But more extensively, it takes place through a unique approach to teaching that engages children actively, emotionally, and thoughtfully. This truly holistic and balanced approach nurtures the deepest in each child by encouraging warm-hearted involvement, an enthusiasm for learning, and an abiding interest in the world.

This spiritual dimension of a Waldorf Education supports and strengthens children. It is the surround that quietly pervades their whole educational experience allowing them to find their way freely to a deeper, more meaningful experience of life, one that is consistent with their family’s values and beliefs. This spiritually-based education provides a compass for young people affording them direction in a chaotic world and enabling them to enter adult life with confidence and courage. For Rudolf Steiner and the first Waldorf teachers this was the foundation that supported children’s healthy development. In today’s challenging times this foundation is needed more than ever.

Jack Petrash, Waldorf teacher

Nova Institute

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