Foundations of Education


Describes the intersection of child psychology, educational philosophy, and classroom design in elementary Waldorf education.

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Waldorf Education and the Aesthetic Environment

CREDIT: The text below is adapted from: Hutchison, David. (2004). A Natural History of Place in Education. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 87 - 93.
In the Waldorf education philosophy, authority is manifested in the strength of the child/teacher relationship, rather than the structuredness of a prepared environment. In contrast to the intellectual milieu of the Montessori early childhood classroom, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, argued for the primacy of the aesthetic in designing learning environments for children.

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Although there is no evidence to suggest that they ever met, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was a contemporary of Montessori’s. An eclectic writer and lecturer, Steiner was in touch with people from many walks of life. His contributions to the fields of art, architecture, agriculture, and theology are all well documented. Early in career, Steiner was a student of Goethe’s spiritual science. Steiner embraced and further developed Goethe’s ideas on form and color and applied each to sculpture, painting, and architecture. However, it is Steiner’s endeavors related to education which have had the most pervasive influence. In 1919, he founded the first Waldorf school (so named for the factory in which it was situated) in Stuttgart, Germany. Today the Waldorf movement numbers several hundred schools in some twenty countries.

Whereas Montessori’s theory of development and education was largely rooted in her clinical and empirically disciplined study of the child within the environment of the classroom, Rudolf Steiner argued that his understanding of childhood education (and other phenomena) emerged from a supersensory awareness of a spiritual world well beyond the material physical world which informed much of the scientific thinking of his time. It was Steiner’s lifelong aim to bring the spiritual/artistic and materialistic/scientific communities closer together. Indeed, it is this spirit which perhaps best characterizes the basic philosophy of the Waldorf school movement right up to the present time.

The fusion of science and art, intellect and emotion, and materialism and spirit, underscores the design considerations at work in many Waldorf schools. From a purely materialistic perspective, a school building is simply bricks and mortar, but to infuse a school facility with an aesthetic, or even spiritual dimension, is to build connections between the physical design of the school and the interior lives of the students, teachers, and staff who inhabit it:

"Steiner’s architecture was really open sculpture; huge pieces of sculpture in which people move and have a new sense of being.... [It was] an environment above and around which the primary spaces are created to invoke the response of the Spirit in man. With Steiner the interior spaces were all important.... They were 'soul spaces' in which there was an important distinction between real space, which remains external to man, and soul space in which spiritual events, interior to man, were realized." (Sharp, 1966, pp. 153-4)

Unlike most other traditions in education, the physical characteristics of a Waldorf school - including its shape, scale, orientation, interior colors, and material make-up - are themselves explicitly connected to the Waldorf curriculum and theory of child development. The twin foci of form and color in particular find expression in both the architectural and pedagogical principles of Waldorf education. Hence form is not only central to the Waldorf curriculum, through form drawing, clay modeling, and other artistic pursuits, but also to the design of the Waldorf school itself.

Ideally, argued Steiner, the architecture of the school will include archetypal transformations in the repetition of common motifs which, in turn, evoke a metamorphosis of form that echoes those similar metamorphoses of growth that characterize the development of the child (Dudek, 2000b). The ideal form evokes an energy similar to those inner growth forces of the budding plant, the maturing butterfly, or the growing child - organic, dynamic, and archetypal.
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Purposeful set back from the road within a natural environment, the central focal point of the Toronto Waldorf School spirals high into the sky, architecturally celebrating the developmental forces that propel growth in childhood. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)
Likewise, children’s experiments with color figure prominently in the Waldorf curriculum and color is itself judged to be related to children’s temperaments (Carlgren, 1976). Yet color also has a moody and spiritual quality within the Waldorf philosophy which has design implications for the hue, texture, and lighting of rooms and corridors. Ideally, argue Waldorf educators, the built and natural environments of the outdoors, home, and school will each reflect and complement, through form, color, and other characteristics, the developmental experience of childhood. In short, the physical make-up of home and school are deemed to have a subtle, but important influence on the young child’s development, her temperament, affective life, and psychic well-being.

Steiner argued that the surrounding environment permeates children’s aesthetic and spiritual lives. He projected well into middle childhood a state of being similar to that of Montessori’s own early childhood notion of the unconscious absorbent mind. Yet while Montessori concluded that this immersive period ends in late infancy, Steiner (1924) posited an extended period of environmental surrogacy which lasts until about age nine:

"The child is not in a position to distinguish clearly between himself and the outside world; even in his feeling life, the feeling of the world and the feeling of his own ego are not clearly distinguished ... he looks upon what goes on outside him as a continuation of his own being." (p. 81)

Through her subconscious, instinctive imitation of those around her and through the unconscious absorption of the environment, the child comes to know the world and further refine the basis of her identity. The child’s consciousness “extends beyond the sphere of her little body,” wrote A.C. Harwood (1958, pp. 15-16). “In an impersonal, dream-like, or rather sleep-like, way the child’s powers of consciousness are living in her environment.” To support this child ideal of place, Steiner proposed something akin to Froebel’s (1826) original vision of the kindergarten (Dudek, 2000a) as “a garden of children." The interior of a Waldorf school, with its characteristic fleshy and earth-tone wall colors and beautifully designed spaces for music, dance, and handicrafts, would be purposefully crafted to complement the organic character of a natural setting, the aesthetic needs of the child, and the artistic focus of the Waldorf curriculum:

"[In designing the Hartsbrook Waldorf School in Massachusetts] we focused on the curriculum and its appropriate enhancement through architecture and landscape. Our discussion considered such topics as the spiritual and philosophical foundations of the Waldorf education, the learning path of the child, the characteristic qualities of each class year, and how these qualities may be embodied architecturally. We also explored the vernacular architectural impulse, the land, and its history. The relationships of classroom spaces to the immediate sites and distant views were carefully considered as were the spaces themselves, in terms of form, colour, proportion, and detail." (As quoted in Sanoff, 1994, p. 103)

It is perhaps not surprising, given the organic epistemology of the Waldorf philosophy, that many Waldorf school communities favour rural locales over congested urban sites, a privilege not afforded to schools in most other educational traditions. The Hartsbrook Waldorf School, noted above, employs a farmhouse motif and takes its silo-like form from the common structures to be found in the neighbouring New England rural landscape. Studies in organic farming and seasonal festivals further reinforce the local community context. On the other side of the ocean, the Nant-Y-Cwm Steiner School in Britain is not only situated in a natural setting, but also purposefully set off from the surrounding thoroughfares. The long walk from the parking lot to the school aims to effect a transformation in children’s moods as they make their way on foot to class each morning:

"Children will have almost certainly traveled by car ... having had a kaleidoscopic experience [of sight and sound].... The effect of this synthetic experience may be to make them raucous and fractious. They have therefore about a hundred meters of woodland walk, crossing several thresholds to leave that world behind them. First a leaf archway, then a sun-dappled cliff edge above this shining, singing river ... Then an invitingly gestured, but slightly asymmetrical ... entrance. Then a blue purple-green corridor, quiet, low, twisting, darker." (Dudek and Day as quoted in Dudek, 2000b, p. 77)

Other features of the Nant-Y-Cwm Steiner School further endear it to its natural setting. Classrooms and corridors twist and turn to reveal irregularly curved and organic shapes. Walls taper out at their bases to create the impression of a school which is rooted in the earth. The roof is grass covered. Classrooms feature homemade interior lights and nooks and crannies that await children’s discovery. The building is paradoxically both innovative and homey at the same time.
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In Waldorf classrooms, elemental materials such as wood, clay, and wool subtly reinforce children's identification with nature. This kindergarten classroom also provides direct access to the natural world outside. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)
A concern for the organic integrity of the Waldorf school as a whole also finds expression in the design of each classroom. First time visitors to a Waldorf school may be surprised to learn that, despite the Waldorf movement’s holistic underpinnings, students, beginning in the first grade, sit in rows and learn their main lessons in a combined teacher-directed and participatory fashion. There is not, in Waldorf schools, the high degree of childhood independence that is found in Montessori preschools.

In part, this arrangement conforms to the Waldorf view on child/teacher authority alluded to earlier. Just as the surrounding environment is deemed to permeate children’s aesthetic and spiritual lives, so too young children 'live through' parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures in their moral lives. Early childhood learning in a Waldorf school is as much about aesthetic, spiritual, and moral development as it is about intellectual development and children need the authoritative presence of a teacher they can look up to with reverence.

Upon closer examination, the Waldorf grade school classroom is also revealed to be an aesthetically crafted learning space. Poems on chalkboards are beautifully scripted using multi-coloured chalk. Handicrafts and artifacts which concretize the topics under study adorn the classroom walls. Rather than being copied from books and photos, many of these artifacts are original works. They are specially crafted by the teacher or other adult and always beautifully framed and presented. Yet Rudolf Steiner argued that the primary purpose of elementary education was to draw out from children, through their imaginations, those images which support learning, rather than presenting pictures and photos as a fait accompli. Indeed, one could argue, that the most important 'places' in Waldorf education exist in each child’s imagination. Such places are evoked through the telling of stories, myths, legends, fairy tales, and other narratives which are then utilized by teachers as the basis for lessons.

In contrast to the brightly colored, even synthetic character of many traditional learning settings, Waldorf classrooms favour an organic aesthetic that draws from and complements the varied textures, hues, and aromas to be found in nature. Early childhood learning environments in Waldorf schools favour non-finished natural materials over manufactured toys whose functionality is limited by their intricate and specialized design. Children bring their own imaginations to non-finished objects, which, in turn, preserve for the child the natural integrity, texture, and imperfections of the original material. Waldorf educators believe that elemental materials such as wood, stone, clay, sand, and water have an eternal quality which transcends that of mass produced playthings. Moreover, natural materials work on a subconscious level to reinforce subtly children’s identification with nature (Carlgen, 1976). Having natural materials in the classroom does not simply fulfill children’s aesthetic needs. These materials also reach far back in time to embrace an age when the natural world provided the overriding context for human activity. With this in mind, the milieu of the Waldorf classroom aims to imbue a strong agrarian, mythic, and eco-dynamic quality that celebrates a continuity between human culture and nature.


On first reading, the Waldorf and Montessori movements would seem to be world’s apart in their view of place in education. Although both philosophies put forward a detailed vision of child development, the pedagogical implications of their respective visions lead to very different prescriptions for the construction of educational spaces, particularly for young children. The Montessori movement favours an intellectual milieu where young children work consciously to build up their minds. The Waldorf movement favours an aesthetic milieu in which a beautifully crafted learning space subconsciously influences the affective development of children, both young and old.

Yet despite their differences, Montessori and Waldorf education share at least three elements in common. Both movements:

  • draw their inspiration from the vantage point of children's developmental experience
  • subscribe to deeply though out philosophies of education which inform every aspect of the teaching and learning process
  • subscribe to the view that children require a structured and teacher planned learning environment


Carlgren, F. (1976). Education Towards Freedom: Rudolf Steiner Education and a Survey of the Work of Waldorf Schools throughout the World. East Grinstead, UK: Lanthorn Press.

Dudek, M. (2000a). Kindergarten Architecture: Spaces for the Imagination. (2nd Edition) London: E & FN Spon.

Dudek, M. (2000b). Architecture of Schools: The New Learning Environments. Boston: Architectural Press.

Harwood, A. C. (1958). The Recovery of Man in Childhood. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Froebel, F. (1826/1912). Froebel's Chief Writings on Education. New York: Longmans.

Sanoff, H. (1994). School Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Sharp, D. (1966). Modern Architecture and Expressionism. London: Longmans.

Steiner, R. (1924/1982). The Roots of Education. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Montessori and Waldorf Education Comparison

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Q19.3: With direct reference to the "Montessori Education and the Prepared Environment" and the "Waldorf Education and the Aesthetic Environment" topic pages, identify one way Montessori education and Waldorf education are similar. Also identify one way Montessori education and Waldorf education are different. (Actions: Post and/or Respond (Mon-Sun) | 100 - 150 words)
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