Practising Steiner Waldorf early childhood education: what it means in 2012 and beyond

Jill Taplin
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jill Taplin, co-ordinator for the North of England Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies Programme, answers questions about where Steiner Waldorf stands in relation to the revised EYFS and what it means as a career choice

Q: How does Steiner Waldorf practice work with the EYFS?
The Steiner Waldorf schools, settings, teachers and practitioners have, since the first days of the EYFS, argued that their approach to early childhood education is directly incompatible with some aspects of the learning and development goals, and does not sit comfortably with others, such as the profile.  This has led to a cumbersome business of gaining exemptions from the goals that directly conflict with Steiner Waldorf practice.  There have been some mixed experiences with inspections where it has become necessary to ‘translate’ what might be observed in a visit to a Steiner Waldorf setting into the EYFS context and language.  Currently negotiations are underway for a more streamlined process of gaining the necessary exemptions alongside a revised ‘interpretation’ document for the use of inspectors.Partly due to the regulatory framework of the EYFS and the negotiations and discussions that have ensued, the principle and practice of Steiner Waldorf early childhood education have become much more widely known.  Now, reference to Steiner Waldorf methods is included in Early Childhood Studies courses, from BTEC to MA level, and continues to  feature in publications such as Nursery World.

The slow start to formal academic work within the Steiner system is much more in line with the European model of a much later school entry age than with the British one adopted in the late 19th century.  For example in Finland, recently lauded for its exemplary education system, children begin school at seven having spent much of the early years in childcare that emphasises play, movement, the outdoors and social development.  The Steiner Waldorf kindergarten group is most commonly a mixed age group of children between three and rising seven years old.  The focus is on self-initiated play both indoors and out, and adult-led activities which encourage learning through imitation and through doing. Imagination and creativity are cultivated within a balanced and predictable rhythmical framework.  You will rarely find teaching through instruction, using abstraction ideas or play guided to extend learning according to an adult plan.   Nor are children in Steiner kindergartens often questioned by adults about what they are doing and why, or given extra information about the things that catch their interest.  However building strong and trusting relationships between children and between children and adults is a priority, and meaningful social encounters and conversations are part of the everyday life of the kindergarten.

Q: What is unique about the Steiner Waldorf approach?
The distinctiveness of the Steiner Waldorf early childhood environment is clear as soon as you enter a kindergarten.  The physical environment is carefully thought through and taking care of it is part of the task of the adults working there.  Many domestic and garden tasks are undertaken in the presence of, and with the help of, the children.  Natural materials and a calming colour scheme are a priority and the play equipment is predominantly open-ended and flexible, with such things as logs, shells, large cloths and furniture that can be used for building purposes.  Activities include the purposeful ones of preparing food and cleaning the room and equipment, and the artistic ones such as painting, drawing, modelling, singing and movement.  Children listen to stories, which are usually told not read and sometimes given as puppet plays.  You will not see electronic gadgetry, plastic toys or garish colours.

Even in Britain, where, unlike many places in the world, Steiner Waldorf education has traditionally been part of the private sector, it is clear that this kind of care and education for young children is something that some parents want and are willing to pay for.  The nursery education grant has been taken up by many Steiner settings and made the kindergarten more accessible to three and four-year-olds.  There is now one state-funded Steiner Academy, educating pupils up to the age of 16, another has been accepted into the Free School programme and more are applying for Free School status.  Therefore the continuing need for well-trained staff for Steiner settings is evident.

Q: What is Rudolf Steiner’s view of child development in a modern context?
Rudolf Steiner gave many lectures that indicate a view of child development further developed by others since his death in 1925.  Steiner Waldorf early childhood training will include a complete overview of this child development picture up to the age of 21 and a much more detailed analysis and evaluation of the years from birth to seven.  Embryological development will also be studied.  This will be set alongside the work of other early childhood pedagogues, both historic and current.  Most importantly, students will be engaged in work placements that enable them to interrogate the theories that their course presents against actual experience and practice.  Methodological questions such as the practicalities of bringing songs, poems, movement games, activities and stories to children, of making toys and puppets, the subtleties of supporting good free play and even the nutrition behind food preparation, will all be part of a Steiner early childhood course and contribute to the rich mix of experiences that await the students.

Q: What does Steiner Waldorf training involve?
There are a variety of Steiner training courses available in Britain.  One of the initially striking things for new students is the amount of time spent on artistic work for the adult that does not seem to be directly related to working in a school or setting.  This will include singing, playing musical instruments, water colour painting, clay modelling, and eurythmy, which is an art of movement to speech or music that is found in initiatives based on the work of Rudolf Steiner.  Depending on the course, there will be others such as perhaps basket-making, copper-work, felt-making or green woodwork.  Teaching is often described by Steiner trainers as a ‘lively art’. 

There is just as much artistry in working with a group of children or teenagers as there is in any other art.  The activity of the artist, the painter or the poet, for example, is to take something out of  the imaginative realm and make it visible in the world in a painting or a poem which others can share.  Interestingly this is also what is happening when children play.  And it is what happens when an adult plans a lesson or an activity with a group of children, presents it and modifies and develops it in the moment with them.  If we look on teaching as an artistic activity in this way, then cultivating any art is going to support it because it develops the imaginative capacity in the adult to create and to respond in the moment.  

We can experience some teachers and practitioners as naturally intuitive.  They know just through a natural talent, what to do in the many unplanned-for and unexpected situations that appear in our work situations.  For example, when a child drops that art project and it falls apart on the floor, this adult can say and do the right thing to move the situation on.  This kind of intuition can be built up through observing others, through experience and through discussions with colleagues.  The imaginative teacher can plan good interesting lessons and activities, tell stories, and use metaphor to explain things.  Beyond this we might describe some teaching as inspired.  The inspired teacher can consistently read the group or the individual and respond in the right way to meet their needs.  A course for Steiner teachers and practitioners aims to build these capacities for intuition, imagination and inspiration in many ways.  A variety of artistic work builds flexibility and courage as well as creative skills.

Q: Why does personal development carry such a strong emphasis in Steiner Waldorf training?
Something less obvious, perhaps, in an initial survey of a Steiner training course, is the work of self-development that will be asked of the students and indeed of the teacher or practitioner throughout his or her career.  It matters what kind of a person stands in front of children or young people, who have an unconscious ability to see right through to the inner being and react accordingly.  Naturally self-development cannot be taught.  However, it is possible to work with students on many aspects of self-education.  Courses include discussions of the kind of inner exercises and meditative work that others have experienced as helpful.  Students are encouraged to look back at their own biographies to give them a clearer picture of why they are as they are and to increase their understanding of others (parents and colleague, for example).  Like artistic activity this helps participants to free up old habits, and become more flexible, creative and sensitive thinkers.

Because of the particular needs of early childhood education, some aspects are especially prioritised in a Steiner training for education and care in this area.  There is a great emphasis on the young child’s natural ability to learn through imitation which mean that the Steiner early childhood practitioner must be a fine model for that imitation.  This is a responsibility that requires preparation and time to get used to.  Again it is the artistic and self-development aspects of the training courses that will help this.

Q: What Steiner Waldorf training is available?
Along with the regulatory nature of the EYFS has come the need for all early years staff, even those in privately funded settings in England and Scotland, to hold appropriate qualifications.  Because of this the previously completely privately-run Steiner early childhood training courses have had to find paths for validation.  Complying with the National Standards has not been difficult but learning the language that is needed to explain ourselves and how to tick the right boxes has been quite a journey.  For some years both the English Steiner early childhood courses have been validated to Levels 4 and 5 qualifying for work in any early years setting, not just Steiner settings.  One is the London Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies programme which is based in London and is validated by Crossfields Institute,  and accredited and licensed by Edexcel

The other has been a Foundation Degree in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education from Plymouth University, which was based in York to serve the north of England and Scotland.  We were very pleased to have this higher education route but rising costs and rising entrance criteria made it unviable and it closed last July.  However, this autumn the tutor team that developed and ran the Foundation Degree will be running a new level four and five course, based in York again and sharing the validation pathway of the London course.  This will be the North of England Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies Programme (NESWEC).

Q: What can Steiner Waldorf offer for the future?
The recent interim report from Professor Cathy Nutbrown on the early years qualifications consultation, draws a clear picture of the status difficulties that early years qualifications have.  It is disheartening to hear that ‘hair or care’ is still the option given to those whose chance of gaining academic qualifications is deemed least.  Of course we want to improve the status of those who work with young children.  I believe that three things are necessary for this.  Firstly all teacher training courses, not just early years courses, need to have built into them an understanding of the importance of child development in the early years, and consequently the quality of care and education that are provided at this age.  Secondly, those who give careers advice to young people and those considering retraining need to appreciate and be able to convey how exciting it is to work with young children.  Thirdly, funding needs to be available for a diverse range of high quality early years trainings, including those that represent proven progressive curricula like Steiner Waldorf.  Funding should be targeted not just at the basic level 2 and 3 courses, but also for levels 4, 5, 6 and beyond.

What is needed now and in the future is a professional work force with an enquiring and reflective attitude.  This will give early childhood practitioners a stronger presence in the wider educational and social care world.  Steiner Waldorf trainings intend to continue to be part of that picture and to offer courses that give a sound knowledge of child development and present the care and education of young children as an art. By the end of their training, our students know that their work will require a commitment to life-long self-development and they are well able to talk about their work with young children and keen to interrogate and reflect on principles and practice.  By the end of 2012 there will be two reasonably-priced and accessible courses running once more.  I hope that they will continue to attract participants not just from the Steiner Waldorf world, but also from other educational backgrounds, who seek to expand and deepen their ways of understanding and supporting young children.
Further information
  • The document produced to accompany the current EYFS regulations is: Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (2009) Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Settings. Forest Row: SWSF Publications
  • For more information on the Steiner Waldorf approach see Understanding the Steiner Waldorf Approach by Janni Nicol and Jill Tina Taplin, published by Routlidge (2012), as part of a series providing students and tutors with accurate, up-to-date information on comparative approaches to early years education and care.
    Steiner students practise eurythmy, which is an art of movement to speech or music (below).

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