I was skeptical about my son's Waldorf school. Turns out, we both love it.
- After many evaluations and a disability diagnosis, my son was expelled from his preschool.
- Knowing nothing about
Waldorf, we signed him up for the only school with an opening.
When my 4-year-old son started at our local preschool, there were issues immediately: Oscar couldn't pay attention or stay in his seat. He wouldn't follow instructions. He moved around the room, overwhelmed. After a flurry of evaluations, my son was diagnosed with a disability. Rather than accommodate him, the school expelled him. It was a nightmare.
I wanted to go back to work — and my son needed to learn among a group of peers — so when our school district failed at finding him a more appropriate setting, we searched for and found a program on our own.
The one school within a 40-mile radius with an open place in an early-childhood program just happened to follow the Waldorf method.
My husband and I didn't know anything about Waldorf education, so we were skeptical
In my mind, Montessori and Waldorf were the same thing. There are similarities between the methods: Both Waldorf and Montessori are hands-on, play-based, and developmentally appropriate curriculums taught in mixed-age classrooms. In both, there's an emphasis on rhythm and routines, as well as a focus on the process of learning, rather than outcomes. You won't find grades or high-stakes testing at your typical Montessori or
The biggest difference between them is that a Montessori education focuses on real-life, practical experiences, while Waldorf places a high value on imagination and fantasy.
A Montessori classroom is a more minimalistic environment than a traditional classroom environment. Picture wooden tables, chairs, and open shelves.
A Waldorf classroom, by contrast, is even sparer. Everything is functional and handmade, if possible, in gentle, muted colors imitating the natural world. Rather than the specifically designed and approved toys made of wood that Montessori is known for, kids in Waldorf schools are encouraged to create their own toys from the materials at hand.
It's an aesthetic that is easy to make fun of, and, yes, it feels somewhat pretentious to give a kid a hand-dyed scarf instead of an Elsa costume or a stack on rocks in lieu of blocks.
But with a little imagination, a rock, stick, feather, or piece of cloth transforms. Left to it, a group of preschoolers will turn an enormous log into a rocket ship. A bundle of sticks becomes a magic-wand shop. Pebbles become change.
Waldorf schools don't teach academics in any traditional sense for the first 7 years
Initially, we were worried Oscar wouldn't feel challenged without science or math. Admittedly, I was self-conscious knowing our friend's kids were learning to read, while my son climbed trees, baked bread, and turned wool into felt. But a lack of intellect wasn't the reason his old school had expelled him — in fact, he'd scored at or above the expected level despite his behavioral difficulties.
Diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, and a pragmatic speech delay, Oscar didn't need academic pressures; he needed an unhurried environment where he felt safe to relax and make friends.
People think it's a religious school — or worse, a cult
Neither my husband nor I are particularly spiritual people, so it was a bit disconcerting to read articles characterizing Waldorf schools as religious. Some made it sound like Waldorf was nothing more than an anti-media, unvaccinated Luddite cult.
Yes, there's a spiritual element to the curriculum — and there were some rituals, including a morning prayer where they said the word God. The Waldorf method is based on a philosophy called anthroposophy, which, to be honest, I still know very little about.
Depending on the school, you may be asked to conform to certain practices, such as limiting screen time or making mealtimes a focus of one's day. But we were never asked to "keep a Waldorf home," and I was relieved to learn most other families didn't conform perfectly to any set of rules.
Turns out, it's exactly what my kid needs
Picture your typical mainstream preschool: It's 20-plus students and multiple adults, crowded and cluttered with brightly colored plastic toys. It's noisy, kids are expected to sit at desks, and everyone transitions constantly from one subject to the next.
This may work for some, but for kids like my son, it's a recipe for disaster.
Before his enrollment, the teacher helped me to prepare Oscar. We spent two or three hours a day outside in the natural environment, just as he would at the start and end of each school day. I learned from his teacher to hold back offers of help and encouragement. Rather than parenting intensively, I began quietly following his lead.
To ease his separation anxiety, I was allowed to stay by my son's side for the first week or so. Overall, the school day was unhurried but productive. My son and his new friends played, snacked, created art, sang, ate lunch, listened to stories, rested, and then played some more. That was it. The teacher intervened little during play, allowing the children to create games and solve problems themselves. When she spoke, she did so softly but firmly and in a way that commanded respect.
Academically, studies have found that Waldorf kids catch up and surpass their traditionally educated peers and score significantly higher on a test of moral reasoning than students in public high schools and students in a religiously affiliated high school.
In a short time, I can already see my son transforming: Oscar is calmer and kinder. He's developing confidence and character. Isn't that what education should be about?
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