Last reviewed 7 March 2022

Rudolf Steiner’s revolutionary ideas led to a philosophy that makes links between science and spirituality. The principles of his approach live on through Steiner Schools throughout the world. Rachel Dearnley, Early Years Consultant and Trainer, explores how his approach can be seen within the Early Years Foundation Stage.


Born in 1861 in Hungary (now Croatia), Steiner was tuned in to nature and spirituality. His interests lay in philosophy, science, literature, and the arts. The first Waldorf School was established in 1919 following the First World War, which left its legacy of political and social chaos throughout Europe. It was Emil Molt, an industrialist and founder of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, who encouraged Steiner to provide a healing and spiritual approach to education. The first non-selective, non-denominational school was established which would “provide for the children of workmen and employees the same education enjoyed by children of families with means”.

Steiner went on to lecture in England, where a mutually respectful friendship was developed with Margaret McMillan, who also influenced early childhood education and care in the early 1900s. Steiner worked closely with Elisabeth Grunelius, a Froebel-trained kindergarten teacher, to establish the principles for Waldorf early childhood education before his death in 1925. In the 1940s Grunelius founded Steiner Waldorf kindergartens in the United States and later returned to Germany to expand this further in Europe. Today, there are a number of Steiner schools across the UK.

Principles of Steiner Waldorf education

Seven-year periods

Steiner divided child development into three psychological and physiological phases which indicate a change physically and mentally, at around 7 years, 14 years and 21 years.

  • The first cycle (0–7 years) is devoted to the child building the physical body, through activities based on imitation.

  • In the second cycle (7–14 years) children learn through feelings and connect to the subject matter. The teacher is an essential support for the children.

  • In the third cycle (14–21 years) the young adults learn through thinking and intellectual challenge.

The first seven years: Stage 1 (1–2.5 years) and Stage 2 (3–5 years)

  • Social, emotional, cognitive, language and physical skills are considered equal.

  • In the first stage the youngest children (1 to 2.5 years) learn to stand upright, walk, speak and think in words. Everything is done out of imitation and habit.

  • Imagination and memory develop in the second stage (3 to 5 years) and children start transforming and creating with objects in new ways.

  • The environment is carefully structured to reflect the interests and developmental stages of the child. The environment is structured to encourage personal and social learning.

  • The curriculum is structured from the child and where they are at that time of observation and is tailored to meet the child’s changing needs. Observations focus on the “inner nature of the child” rather than theoretical or ideological aspects.

  • Steiner supports play and particularly the joy experienced by children in their play and learning. He attaches great importance on freedom from constraints to be able to do what one wishes.

  • Domestic activities also stimulate play, eg washing up, setting the table, putting clothes away.

  • Creating rhythmical structures to the day that provide a balance between activity and rest is important. It allows little opportunity for chaos and promotes healthy development of a child’s rhythmic systems, leading to a balanced life later.

  • Repetition establishes continuity and the healthy development of memory.

The Teacher’s Role

  • Teaching is by example rather than direct instruction. The role is not instructive or intrusive, but lies in the creation of an environment that enables children to learn through discovery.

  • The teacher is a role model who forms and guides children’s development and interactions with the environment.

  • The teacher creates a warm and close spiritual relationship with children. Steiner considered this essential for children’s wellbeing.

  • Steiner encouraged teachers to look, not just at the body of the child but at the spirit and soul. Teachers should lovingly create opportunities for children to experience joy, awe and wonder.

Steiner Waldorf and the EYFS

EYFS Principle — A Unique child

Every child is a unique child who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.

Steiner perspective

“We do not educate the child for the age of childhood, we educate him for his whole earthly existence.” Rudolf Steiner, The Roots of Education, 1924.

“Everything that surrounds a child both visible and invisible has an impact on them.” Understanding human development underpins practice. The whole child is considered, including the spirit and soul. Children are given time to develop capacities in their own time and at their own pace. Calm, peaceful and predictable environments are created for children to develop, learn and flourish. This helps them develop resilience and confidence.

EYFS Principle — Positive relationships

Children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships.

Steiner perspective

“There are three primary virtues which we must develop in the child: gratitude, love and responsibility. These three virtues are the foundation on which the whole social life is built.” Rudolf Steiner, Education of the Child, 1923.

Imitation is the most effective way of learning for children of this age. Practitioners must be models worthy of imitation as this helps them develop social skills and awareness of others. The practitioners (key persons) work as a team providing a home from home environment. Relationships are nurtured between practitioners and the child’s parents/carers and connections made between home and nursery.

EYFS principle — enabling environment

Children learn and develop well in enabling environments in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents/carers.

Steiner perspective

“In order to become true educators, the essential thing is to be able to see the truly aesthetic element in the work, to bring an artistic quality into our tasks, such as the creation of play materials.” Rudolf Steiner, The Child’s Changing Consciousness, 1923.

Children are given the opportunity to appreciate the natural world. They value natures gifts, processes and patterns of the seasons. Everything that nature has brings awe and wonder. Natural materials are used in play and encourage a connection with the outdoor world. Domestic activities enable them to experience science and the four elements. They work with wool, wood, felt, cotton, and other natural materials. They learn how to work with tools such as knives, peelers, saws, gardening tools and children are taught and trusted to use these safely.

EYFS principle — Learning and development

Children learn and develop in different ways and at different rates.

Steiner principle

Steiner’s curriculum includes physical, emotional, social, spiritual and cognitive development. They work together and develop equally in each child. Children’s development should be allowed to unfold at their own pace and time. This is the time when development will underpin more formal learning at a much later stage. Children are encouraged to make choices and find their own ways of learning in free and creative play in which they develop social skills and empathy. Children become motivated and independent learners.

Early years related qualifications

  • Crossfields Institute Level 3 Diploma in Holistic Baby and Child Care (Early Years Educator) 604/7739/2. This training integrates Steiner early childhood studies and the Pickler approach. Part-time over 14 months.

  • Crossfields Institute Level 4 Diploma in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies (Early Years Educator/EYE). VRQ: 603/7741/0. This qualification is Ofqual regulated. Part-time over two years.

  • Crossfields Institute Level 5 Diploma in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies – Leadership and Management. QRN: 603/7796/3. This qualification is suitable for leadership and management in a Steiner Waldorf setting. Full-time over one year (or 2-year part-time).

The level 3 course is delivered by Emerson College, East Sussex. The level 4 and 5 courses are delivered by North of England Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Studies Programme (NESWEC) and the London Steiner Kindergarten Training Company, with residentials in Gloucestershire.

Further information

Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2021)

Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship

An association of independent schools, early years settings and a state funded academy across the UK and Ireland offers Steiner-Waldorf education.

Waldorf 100 — becoming


  • The first stage of the Steiner approach covers children from birth to seven years old. It includes parenting, home childcare and pregnancy. The learning in these early years underpins learning in stage two (age 7–14 years).

  • Account is taken of the whole child, including their soul. It believes that their learning flourishes in a calm, peaceful, predictable, familiar, and unhurried environment that takes account of their sensory sensitivities.

  • The indoor space is based on the understanding that the senses of young children are important and careful consideration is given to the quality of the environment to ensure it is homely and gentle on all the senses.

  • Materials and toys are made of natural materials, eg wooden blocks, planks, logs, plain cloth, shells, cones and handmade dolls. Soft colours are used for dressing up or making dens.

  • Learning is not subject-based. All learning is based on play and domestic activities.

  • The approach incorporates building a connection with nature and showing children the rhythms of life in the seasons, plus the relationships we make with all living things.

  • Indoor and outdoor play opportunities are designed to be rich with natural beauty and wonder. Children play outside in all weathers and all seasons.

  • Doing is learning through which children learn social and domestic skills, as well as good motor and practical skills.