EYFS Best Practice: All about ... the Steiner Foundation Stage

Lynne Oldfiel
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The principles of the Steiner Waldorf kindergarten put play at the heart of early learning and provide a stress-free setting, says Lynne Oldfield.

The first Steiner Waldorf kindergarten opened in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1926. The first teacher, Elizabeth Grunelius, produced a book outlining her pioneering practice, and in the foreword asked, 'As the human lifespan becomes longer, why is childhood becoming ever shortened?'

As we debate lowering the age of school entry to four and confront legislated literacy, ICT and numeracy goals for those in pre-school settings, this question has returned for Steiner practitioners.


From its earliest beginnings, the Steiner kindergarten movement has, among other things, resisted moves to prematurely intellectualise, and over-stimulate, in early years childcare. It has also been determined to base all decisions on an understanding of child development.

The following three points concisely yet comprehensively define the intentions of a Steiner kindergarten teacher:

1. To protect and respect the boundaries of childhood, which we define as extending to the child's seventh birthday

2. To develop practice based on an understanding of child development in those years

3. To be awake to the possible damage caused by intellectuality that is introduced too early.

With these intentions, and in the light of the Early Years Foundation Stage, the Steiner Foundation Stage is notably unhurried.

The unhurried mood surrounds everything that we do - how we present activities, the structure of our day, the attention to detail, the caring for child and environment. This approach minimises stress in both child and teacher (and children of this age are particularly sensitive to stress in the environment). It also gives the educator the time to establish a true foundation for later formal schooling.

In a Steiner kindergarten we have the gift of time, and the child senses and responds positively to that mood.

Our Foundation Stage extends to the sixth birthday, with children in mixed-age groups, three to six years, ideally remaining with the same teacher throughout the three years before entering school. There are seldom more than 16 children within a group.

This gift of time together allows a valuable connection to be made between child and teacher, child and child, which finds a resonance in attachment theory.


- It is a hand-first, not head-start, approach

- A language-rich, rather than print-filled, environment

- An activity-rich, authentically play-based experience within a calm, emotion-regulating and nurturing environment.

The recent work of Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro Physiological Psychology, is awakening early years practitioners to the significance of movement, balance and play in relation to healthy brain development, and as a prerequisite to formal learning.

In a Waldorf kindergarten, the child experiences a confidence-building sense of freedom, but, importantly, within boundaries created by a rhythmical, repetitive experience, drawing on example and established habits.

It is essentially an active experience, what we call a 'will-first pedagogy'. This is led by a practitioner who is informed, reflective, responsible yet relatively unintrusive.

The naturally active nature of young children finds many outlets for initiative (taking initiative becomes a habit for Waldorf children). Through being the instigators of their learning, children understand that 'I can do it!'.

We believe that an empowered learner emerges, because the child has not been set up for failure in the pursuit of targets which push them into the next stage of development. The presence of targets results in the question, 'Am I good enough?'. This has serious implications for disadvantaged children.

We understand that movement establishes neural pathways and makes sense of sensory experience. The Waldorf kindergarten teacher is familiar with the senses of balance, touch and movement, and develops her programme to support their development. (One third of primary school children have poor balance and motor skills, which have significance for eye and hand control necessary for reading and writing.)


Earlier this year, in its 25 June issue, Nursery World ran a report on the World Forum on Early Care and Education, at which a leading academic in brain research expressed his concern at the estimated 50 per cent of school starters unable to self-regulate and the relevance this has for success in education.

Steiner practitioners recognise that children need to move beyond instinctive/impulsive behaviour and towards self-management by school-entry age, and certainly before they are assessed to be ready for reading and writing at the level currently required by the EYFS. Their practice, underpinned by an understanding of the development of will, enables children to acquire the beginnings of self-control.

The possibility for positive activity - welcoming rather than suppressing movement - has implications for socialisation and ADHD (the latter is virtually unheard of among children in Waldorf schools).

The active, repetitive, habit-forming environment of a Waldorf kindergarten, together with the trained example of the teacher, enables this progress in self-regulation.

Our day is a balance between child-initiated and teacher-led activity, between indoor and outdoor experience - baking, bread-making, weaving, sewing, gardening, woodwork, painting, sand play, mud play, water play, den-building, soup making and authentic free play.

We are a community of doers and unashamedly risk-taking.


The Waldorf early childhood educator is engaged in 'linguistic mothering'. The child's experience of language in our kindergartens is that of human speech, as opposed to the false substitutes offered by technology. Audio books, television and computer software have no place in our settings.

Our foundation for literacy (which extends to the sixth birthday) involves phonological awareness, fine motor skills, the development of speech and communication skills, the ability to listen and sustain attentiveness, perseverance, the self-management of behaviour, opportunities for mark-making and love of stories.

Our programme is rich with carefully chosen songs, verses, finger games, puppet shows, speech practice in free play, circle time and story time - all repeated over a number of days so that children can memorise them, and extend their vocabulary, without anxiety.

The EYFS goal states 'Communication, Language, Literacy' in that order. We would agree wholeheartedly with this sequence, although we would possibly add Movement before Language, but for us the literacy stage, in the sense of reading and writing the alphabet and whole sentences, belongs to the six-year-old and beyond.

We need to become aware of what the child loses when introduced to phonics.

Literacy of this nature is both a gain and a loss. Literacy changes everything. It represents a significant shift in consciousness for the child - away from the unselfconscious state of being that is normal to the healthy child below five, and which is necessary for authentic play. The intellectual and analytical consciousness required for phonics, reading and writing, together with the constant instruction, direction and questioning outlined in the EYFS practice guidance, will gradually inhibit the genius of imitation and play, and result in the loss of their rewards.

The alphabet has only a tenuous link to the concrete reality of children under six, and they can become anxious when pulled too early away from the concrete to the abstract.

The EYFS goals for literacy belong to the next stage of development from the Steiner viewpoint of child development; they represent an acceleration of intellectuality which goes against our understanding.


From our early beginnings, the Steiner movement has stated its intention to offer a play-based experience for children to the age of six years. For more than 80 years we have refined our definition of play and developed our ability to create an enabling environment for play.

The rewards that arise from play are well documented so I will limit myself to three less well-documented points:

1. Our definition would exclude descriptions such as 'directed play', 'structured play' and 'purposeful play' but would embrace descriptions such as 'free, child-initiated, creative, imaginative play'. For us the concept of play instigated by practitioners for the purpose of acquiring a particular concept or 'goal' is a contradiction in terms. In our view, this is playful teaching rather than authentic play. Play arises from within, not from without.

2. From our understanding, the 'enabling environment' that would need to be created for phonics, reading, writing and ICT skills would in time actually disable true play. One requires a new self-consciousness, a separating, analytical, awakened state of being which will be toxic to the unselfconscious, unseparated, non-analytical condition from which play springs. They are incompatible environments.

3. The peak time for authentic play is between four and five years, when the demands of EYFS reading and writing goals will begin to be felt for the literacy targets to be met by the June after the fifth birthday.

Once the window of opportunity for play is lost, it cannot be reopened. But this only makes sense for educators and politicians if play is truly understood, defined and valued.


Steiner described the child before seven as a 'wholly sense organ' and this description underpins one of our main principles.

The young child is open, utterly, to the environment. At the same time we can now know the extent to which the brain is experience-dependent, formed by experiences that leave their neuron footprint.

I want to borrow a wonderful description from the Social Justice Policy Group's report 'Breakthrough Britain, The Next Generation' (2008). It says the nerve sense system in early childhood is 'a critical window of vulnerability and of opportunity'. The report also refers to the stress that can arise when children are over-stimulated through early anxiety for the child 'to achieve'.

The Waldorf early years educator would stand behind these findings. The environment we prepare is calm, unhurried and stress-free.

In relation to the vulnerability of the nerve sense system, we have a protective approach, shielding children from screen viewing, over-stimulation, precocious intellectuality and negative sense impressions.

In relation to the window of opportunity, we accept the openness of the child as an opportunity for sensory nourishment. Natural materials, direct experience of nature, organic food, colour, touch, smells, sounds -all are chosen for their integrity, beauty and truthfulness.


Perhaps one of our most enigmatic principles is that of imitation. Steiner gave imitation a central place in the child's transition from being a creature of instinct and impulse to being capable of self-regulation. The failure to overcome impulsiveness is a major problem in Britain, with the heartbreaking behaviour of many of our children. This is considered a prime challenge for the Waldorf teacher.

Children have a natural biological predisposition to imitate. They unconsciously look for the human example to model. By allowing children to imitate our example, rather than directing or instructing them, we allow a relatively unconscious process of learning, without anxiety, and appropriate behaviour can be developed. This approach also preserves the ability to play.

Our teachers are trained to be worthy of imitation - we see ourselves as a significant part of the environment. In our training we study speech, movement, music and artistic activity as preparation for this responsibility.

We recognise that imitation, when used intensely, can strengthen attachment and develop empathy. (Neuroscience has confirmed a link between mirror neurons, which are activated by the act of imitation, and the quality of empathy.)


These Steiner 'foundation' intentions, when contrasted with the principles of the EYFS, leave us with certain questions:

- What is the rationale for ever-earlier introduction of reading, writing and ICT? What are the dangers?

- Why is it assumed that 'quality pre-school experience' requires this ever-earlier introduction to literacy targets? Do we need to redefine 'quality' in this context?

- Why is it also assumed that this will benefit disadvantaged children in particular? Surely reading and writing are the least of their problems? Surely these are the children who need the unhurried pathway - with socialisation, speech, attentiveness, perseverance, self-management, fine and gross motor skills, healthy relational experiences and the healing power of play - to be central to preparation for school?

- Do we need to clarify what is truly necessary as a 'foundation' for school entry?

- Lynne Oldfield is author of Free to Learn (Hawthorn Press) and director of the London Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Teacher Training Course


Rhythm, beauty, creativity and respect for others underpin provision at The Children's Garden, a Steiner Waldorf kindergarten in Richmond, west London.

Attended by up to 20 three- to six-year-olds, the kindergarten was set up 12 years ago by parents inspired by Rudolf Steiner's philosophy of education. It is based in a chapel, with limited outdoor space, but backs on to Richmond Park and has just acquired the use of a nearby allotment.

Outdoor play and free play, with an emphasis on creative activities such as cooking, craft and drawing, are central to the kindergarten's provision and aim to build a sense of security.

Practitioners provide few toys, other than dolls, but offer lots of open-ended and natural resources such as blankets and old-fashioned clothes horses, conkers, stones and pine cones, which the children incorporate into their play.

Practitioners model the use of resources, such as felt-making or putting on a puppet show, which the children can engage in if they wish.

Mending, cleaning and tidying-up times are also important features of the day as they instill a sense of respect and responsibility into the children.

'Everything that the children do is meaningful and real,' says the kindergarten's teacher and manager, Regine Charriere, who has an Early Years Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten teaching diploma and an Early Years Steiner Waldorf Foundation degree.

The Steiner approach, she believes, brings many benefits for the children. 'Through true free play, children acquire a lot of confidence, as well as the qualities necessary for independent learning. Children create their own play, individually or in a group, so they're used to working independently and that sets them up well for the years following kindergarten.

'They're very social, very warm towards other children and very comfortable with other children. They also respect others and the environment.'

Children move on to a maintained school, to be home educated or remain within the Steiner system. 'More and more parents are staying with the Steiner system and many consider moving house to be near a Steiner school,' says Regine.

- Regine Charriere spoke to Ruth Thomson

9.30am: Outdoor play
9.45: Free play, incorporating all creative activities
10.30: Tidy-up time
11.00: Singing time
11.20: Snack time
11.45: Outdoor play
12.45pm: Storytelling - stories are told rather than read and often
brought to life with the use of puppets as props
1.00pm: Home time
Monday: Painting
Tuesday: Craft
Wednesday: Drawing
Thursday: Eurythmy, a form of dance
Friday: Cleaning and mending
(The children cook or bake every day)


The Well Balanced Child and What Babies and Children Really Need by Sally Goddard Blythe (Hawthorn Press)

Living Literacy by Michael Rose (Hawthorn Press)

Ready to Learn by Martyn Rawson (Hawthorn Press)

'Breakthrough Britain, The Next Generation' (2008) by the Social Justice Policy Group, www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/client/downloads/TheNextGeneration ReportFINAL.pdf

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2024. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved