It’s just before Easter at a Waldorf school, and every child in the fifth grade class is sitting at a wooden table with an egg to decorate. The classroom’s knotty pine cabinets hold baskets filled with blue, pink, and red wool, and other fabrics for knitting and sewing projects. There are Celtic symbols on the blackboards and handmade cotton curtains line the windows. Students are using candles to heat up old-fashioned wax pens they use to decorate their eggs. Later, they’ll dip them into bowls filled with natural dyes.

The scene is not unusual for a Waldorf school, which emphasizes creativity and hands-on learning. On any given day, students can be seen riding unicycles around the grounds, playing songs on their recorders, or practicing in a Renaissance play that they wrote and produced.

The birth of Waldorf schools: a radical educational model

When Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner developed the first Waldorf school for the children of cigarette factory workers in 1919, Europe was rebuilding after World War I and was ready to embrace a new type of educational model, one that was radically different for its day. Today, the model remains unique when compared with traditional American schools.

Rudolf Steiner believed all humans had the ability for self-improvement, spiritual growth, and the potential to change the world around them. Waldorf schools are based on the philosophy that imaginative and practical, hands-on work is the best way to promote learning, and children are introduced to lessons through music, visual arts, dance, writing, and myth. Classical mythology, cultural folk and fairy tales, and religious images — from the Buddha to angels — are common in Waldorf classrooms.

Instead of teaching specific skills such as reading, Waldorf encourages students to paint or draw letters until they learn to recognize and write them. The Waldorf approach to reading is substantially different from how it’s taught in mainstream American schools. Students don’t focus on traditional forms of reading until third grade. Instead, they spend time listening to stories and recognizing sounds in the early grades.

Through creative arts, such as knitting and woodworking, students also learn basic arithmetical skills of counting, geometry, and fractions. They learn about science, zoology, and biology by crafting animals and dolls out of pine cones, rocks, and other materials they find outside. Outdoor classes are not only offered at some Waldorf schools, students are encouraged to get muddy and play in the rain.

In later grades, students also learn through storytelling, hands-on art projects, and textbooks they write and illustrate themselves. Some schools may bring in textbooks for math and foreign languages, though. Classrooms are famous for banning technology.

Is a Waldorf school a good fit for your family?

Because a Waldorf education is so different than traditional schooling, it’s worth asking whether a Waldorf school is right not just for your child, but for your entire family. There’s plenty in a Waldorf school that attracts parents — and some aspects that gives them pause.

Many parents who visit a Waldorf school for the first time are attracted by Waldorf’s unique approach: the old-fashioned pace, an abundance of arts and crafts, a dearth of technology, plenty of outdoor education, and an emphasis on hands-on learning. In lieu of whiteboards, you’ll find old-fashioned chalkboards. Students learn about history and mythology through the images and objects they create. If your child is creative, there’s a lot of opportunities to paint, knit, or sew. Music is core to the curriculum; you’ll find musical instruments in nearly every classroom. Budding Thespians can write and act in their own plays.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a technology-intensive classroom that prepares children for a fast-driven world, Waldorf may not be for you. Admissions packets at many Waldorf schools contain strict media policies that parents and students must sign, limiting the child’s access to television, computers, iPods, iPads, video games, and pretty much every electronic device that can distract a young child.

At some Waldorf schools, everyday use of electronic media is banned for students until the fifth grade. Beginning in sixth grade and with parental supervision, some Waldorf schools allow students to watch limited amounts of television and movies. Some schools allow sixth graders to carry a cell phone as long as they don’t keep it in their backpacks during school hours, but Internet and video game use is still discouraged. It’s not until high school that most Waldorf schools allow students to have limited use of electronic media, including the Internet and social media.

At the same time, a Waldorf school may not be for you if you’re more comfortable with a traditional approach to reading, writing, and arithmetic. It could also not be the right fit if you worry that your child will fall behind if she doesn’t learn the basics in her first few years at school.

Finally, while Waldorf encourages children to roam and play outside, there may not be much chance for organized teams that compete with others. If your child loves competition, she may not get it here.

What you might find at a Waldorf school or classroom

  • Artwork everywhere: Paintings, pastels, pen and ink sketches — you name it. Students’ finished artwork lines the walls of the schools, not to mention individual student notebooks.
  • Unwired classrooms: There are no computers, iPods or iPads, videos, pocket calculators, or CDs in the early grades. Limited use of technology is allowed in high school.
  • No grades or standardized tests in the early grades: In fact, at many Waldorf schools, students are not introduced to standardized testing until the eighth grade.
  • Journals of daily lessons instead of textbooks: Students hand-write lessons from their teachers each day. These journals contain artwork, math problems, and history lessons all written and drawn by hand.
  • The same teacher for years: The Waldorf tradition of “looping” means a teacher stays with the same class for up to eight years. The goal is to promote bonding between students and teachers.
  • Storytelling, cooking, and gardening in the younger grades: It’s common to find cooking utensils, including knives and chopping boards, and a bubbling pot of soup in the classroom.
  • A lesson or two outdoors: Students learn about science by using their senses and curiosity to interact with and observe plants, animals, and other things they may find outside.
  • Classrooms without walls, sometimes without furniture: Waldorf education has been adapted to home schooling programs and community programs without physical schools. In some classrooms, particularly kindergarten, children have no desks.

What supporters say

  • Restricting access to television and video games stimulates children’s curiosity. These advocates argue that without TV or computers, children build a habit of reading and writing in their free time. Research studies support the claim that writing by hand encourages adults to recognize written letters more quickly than they would if they had typed them.
  • Children are treated as individuals and curriculum is tailored to their unique style of learning. Students are discouraged from competing and are free to learn at their own pace.
  • Children learn the meaning of teamwork and community. Working on group art and theater projects helps them learn collaboration at an early age.
  • Waiting until the later grades to teach reading and math promotes long-term achievement. Because brain development occurs at a different pace for each child, the Waldorf approach helps students thrive until their learning skills catch up with their development. What’s more, reading and math is approached differently than in traditional schools. Numbers, math symbols, and letters are introduced in first grade through stories so they are less abstract for children.

What critics say

  • Lack of access to technology cheats kids. In an increasingly high-tech world, depriving kids of access to and familiarity with technology puts them at a disadvantage and makes little sense.
  • Too much copying goes on in classrooms. Instead of using textbooks, students write and draw what they have learned during the day. When children have to write their lessons down each day, it discourages them from actual learning.
  • Waiting until the later grades to teach basic skills sets children back. Most do catch up in the later grades, but it’s difficult to assess when children aren’t tested in the early years.
  • Lack of testing gives students a disadvantage. Without standardized testing in the early grades, gauging student progress is difficult. How, critics ask, can you help a student who’s faltering without knowing what he’s learned? What’s more, students are ill-prepared for how to take tests by the time they reach high school and college.
  • Waldorf schools have a religious affiliation that isn’t fully acknowledged. Waldorf teachings are based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of anthroposophy, which is based on his spiritual beliefs. Throughout his life, Steiner pursued a kind of spiritual research, and wrote about Christianity and its links to Buddhism. Although anthroposophy isn’t taught at Waldorf schools, critics contend Waldorf’s teachings amount to a religion. In some communities where Waldorf philosophies are taught in public charter schools, critics view this as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Final words of advice when considering a Waldorf school

  • Do some research. The Waldorf educational approach has been researched and written about extensively, and the movement has its own website, with books, curriculum, and research articles that it sells to the public; there is also a listing of accredited Waldorf schools. There are also several excellent independent books written about Waldorf, including Ida Oberman’s The Waldorf Movement in Education from European Cradle to American Crucible, 1919–2008. Oberman adapted the Waldorf model for a community school in Oakland, CA.
  • Ask for financial aid. If it’s a private school, then Waldorf, like other private schools, can be expensive. But some schools do have financial aid. Request a form to be considered for scholarships or other financial aid. Some Waldorf schools are publicly funded charter schools established by a local school district.
  • You don’t have to ditch your iPhone. Parents considering a Waldorf school don’t have to be Luddites themselves — some Silicon Valley executives of top technology companies send their children to Waldorf schools, but you do have to curtail your child’s technology use. When you enroll your child at a Waldorf school, you may have to sign an agreement to limit technology use in your home, at least until your children reach the sixth grade. Although high school students are allowed to use technology, parents are still urged to limit their use of electronic media, such as cell phones and computers.
  • See for yourself. Visit the school and spend time in the classroom, and make sure your child does too. It’s a good way to meet the teachers, explore the grounds, and investigate the curriculum of any school you’re considering for your child. Talk to other parents whose children attend the school and to their students, too.