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Is Steiner Education the Answer?

Updated: Aug 2

We are facing a mental illness epidemic and if actions aren’t taken soon, I fear for our future. It is scary, shocking and daunting teaching in today’s age and witnessing first-hand the rise in depression, suicide attempts, eating disorders, perfectionism, trauma and anxiety.


I am a primary school educator, certified youth mentor and holistic life coach. My questions and answers about mental health always lead back to, how we are educating our children.


I wholeheartedly believe that if the majority of schools took a Steiner approach, we would see a significant drop in mental health statistics.


Technology vs. divergent thinkers:


Preschools, prep and schools today have taken on an IT approach to learning as they believe that keeping up with the times will better prepare students for the future. Unfortunately, this approach fails to recognise the beauty that lies in childhood.


Many parent/s that are employees of Silicon Valley, Google, Apple and Yahoo send their children to Steiner schools and kindergartens. There are no screens or technology in Primary Steiner Schools and here is why. [1]


If you give a child a paper clip, they can come up with over 200 different ways the paper clip can be folded. An adult would be lucky to create 10. Children have an incredible imagination and the ability to think outside the box. This is known as divergent thinking. [2]


A longitudinal study was done on kindergarten children. The study measured kindergarten children having a 98% genius level in divergent thinking. They continued to watch these children and found that 5 years later (ages 8-10) those at genius level dropped 50%. As the children grew older, their genius level in divergent thinking continued to drop. In other words, our capacity for divergent thinking deteriorates with age. [2]


So, what happened to these children?


Unfortunately, they became ‘educated.’


So, what are we doing wrong?


Whether you like to admit it or agree with it or not, technology inhibits creative thinking, higher-order thinking, movement, attention spans and human interaction. Technology has also been designed to be as ‘brain-dead to use as possible’- says Mr Eagle who is a Steiner parent and works at Google. “It’s super easy, like learning to use toothpaste.’ [1]


By allowing for an unrushed childhood, a child can learn about themselves and the world around them through love, warmth, joy, gratitude, reverence, wonder, creativity, curiosity and meaningful experiences.


Susan Perrow founder of Periwinkle Steiner Kindergarten says that “what I accomplish with a child, I accomplish with a grown-up person in their 20’s. [3]


When a child is playing, they are at work. They are developing their ability to problem solve, plan, communicate with others, construct, design and ask for help when required.


By giving a child an iPad or seating them in front of the television, we are robbing them of creativity, imagination and sensory play as they become absorbed in the screen and it interferes with their innate wish to play and explore. [6] Each activity provokes a purpose that develops a child’s sense of wonder, willpower and own thinking skills. Children today are being taught what to think, not how to think and this has detrimental effects on their connection to learning particularly throughout high school.


I want to give you a little background on some of the activities in a Steiner Kindergarten and school setting to help you understand that everything is built on profound meaning and purpose.


Knitting has more purpose than you know:


In Steiner kindergarten’s children spend a whole term knitting a rainbow recorder case that will last their whole schooling journey. From an obnoxious perspective, this may seem like a ‘hippy’ exercise but in fact, it is teaching the child, the work that goes into a product and its resources. It is teaching the child how to care for their belongings. While this may seem useless, let me contrast to the students that I taught in a mainstream school who went through 526 pencils in the space of 10 weeks just from snapping them in half, leaving them on the floor, not putting them away and having no concept of where a pencil comes from and how to care for their belongings.


The process of knitting and felting strengthens and develops the immune and nervous system to be calm and healthy through the art of breathwork. The exercise of connecting the child’s fingers through fine-motor skills connects the very rich network of nerve endings in their fingertips to the neural passages in their brain. Neurophysiologist from Sweden, Professor Berstom suggests that ‘finger blindness’ occurs when we don’t use our fingers during early childhood to connect with the world around us. This then has a direct impact on our all-round development. [4]


Rudolf Steiner was many things but he was also well before his time. Insisting that both boys and girls knit was quite a revolutionary idea at the time. By assisting a child to start and finish something you are teaching a child how to develop their willpower which has long-term benefits not only on their learning but for their own self-development. Developing a child’s willpower is a lifelong power that, unfortunately, children and adults are lacking in today’s society. Children today think that every time they finish something they deserve a point or a nomination in the prize box and have no connection to their own personal power of will.


Body, mind and soul:


The teachings of Rudolf Steiner co-exist with the human’s physiological and neural development. Steiner formed an education system that saw the child as a whole being and linked science with spirituality. This allowed him to construct an education philosophy that mimicked the development of the child both physically, mentally and spiritually (body, mind and spirit).


Gardening, bushwalks, watercolour painting, the recorder, cooking, cleaning and beeswax modelling all take on the breathwork approach as well as doing things slowly and with care. The teacher models simple tasks done with joy rather than through stress and tension, as the teacher is fully aware of the child’s innate ability to imitate them. People today are beginning to understand the impact of the breath on the nervous system and our overall state of wellbeing. It is not normal for it to be ‘normal’ that children are on anti-anxiety and anti-depressants. These approaches prevent the child from developing anxiety disorders later on down the track.


Purposeful toys:


In Steiner/ Waldorf kindergartens, children are not given toys as such. They are given the opportunity to explore the world around them through nature and imagination. The only ‘toy’ apart from elements of nature (sticks, rocks etc.) is a doll that is handmade out of natural resources. The doll has no hair, facial expression or facial features. [3]


Why?


Children have the innate tendency to move on from toy to toy very quickly. This is a good thing as their imagination and creativity is blooming and reliving the same story in their heads is rather boring for their creativity and self-development. By giving a child a doll with a blank canvas, the play experiences for the child are endless.


Imagination is a wonderful thing and essential for a young child’s brain development.


Albert Einstein says that imagination is more important than knowledge.


Sadly, we live in a consumerist world obsessed with stuff and superior status. Children are brought up brainwashed by ads and marketing to think that the more ‘stuff’ they have, the happier they will be. More 18-month year old’s can recognise the McDonald M than their own surname. A child at 36 months old already knows 100 brand logos. However, Johann Hari shares in his book Lost Connections, the numerous studies that prove, depression rates are higher in those that have more ‘stuff’ and go about their life with less joy and more despair, daily. [10]


This is because, materialistic people and children are motivated by extrinsic values such as more toys, a prize for doing the right thing or money. However, the more someone focuses on money, status and stuff, the more their real needs go unmet. Unfortunately, we live in a system that is constantly distracting us from what is really good about life. [10]


A group of kindergarten children were split into 2 groups. One group was shown an advertisement for a toy. The other half weren’t. Both groups had the option to play with a nasty child who had the toy from the advertisement or a kind child without the toy. The children who were shown the ad, chose to play with the nasty boy whereas the children who weren’t shown the ad, chose intrinsic values instead and decided to play with the kind child. Advertising plays a key role in why we are choosing a value system that puts our extrinsic needs over intrinsic values. [10]


The child innately imamates what is happening in the world around them. If what they are seeing is television ads, guns and violence, screaming and swearing, social distancing and masks, innately the child will mimic this behaviour.


Children who have developed a strong sense of willpower, a childhood without screens and advertising are driven by intrinsic values such as the love for play, the interest in a subject and a connection to what they are learning. [10]


Teaching wonder, willpower and curiosity first and foremost:


Mainstream schools tell children what to think. Steiner schools teach children how to think on their own through imagination, development of willpower, sensory experiences, valuable imitation and nurturing their instinctual curiosity for the world around them.


From my own personal experience, I always wondered why as an adult I suddenly had an interest in science, history, politics and social studies whereas, in high school, I couldn’t have cared less?


During adolescence, the brain is bouncing between the right and the left hemisphere requiring experiences that feed off problem-solving, creativity, healthy risks, and passion. For one to learn and be interested in maths, science, english and geography they must first be interested in the world around them and that requires an in-depth understanding of who they are as a person. Steiner education teaches the child as a whole being. Rushing a child through childhood has intense implications for their adult life.


Storytelling to teach values, morals and address behavioural issues:


Another beautiful aspect of the teachings is through storytelling. Stories are told without books, around a campfire type of setting. The children are seated in a circle with the teacher in the middle. The story is only told through words and allows the child to create their own pictures in their mind through their imagination. This connects them to the story through their own version of images and experiences. A child raised in an Indian culture will have a different perspective of images than a child raised in African culture. This connects the child individually to the stories and gives each story purposeful meaning. This personalises the story for the child through their own cultural experiences, rather than allowing the child to constantly compare themselves to the ‘white, pretty blonde girl in the story.’ This allows the child to develop strong levels of self-esteem as low self-esteem stems only from comparison.


Stories have an incredible way of dealing with behavioural issues such as a folktale that sends the message of kindness or stealing. The teacher may witness a behavioural problem and rather than telling the child what to do, they can teach a lesson of kindness through a story. This form of storytelling develops the child listening and thinking skills in a far more profound way as well as developing their core values. [3]


Rhymers and readers:


The most incredible thing to observe with Steiner children is their unbelievable memory and language skills. Every day, the children partake in rhymes and verses. The child’s capacity to imitate sounds enables them to master the ‘mother tongue.’ This begins before birth (even in the womb) which puts an incredible amount of pressure on the caregiver to ensure the language they are using is worthy of imitation. [7] Rhymes and music aid the child’s development and increase their special reasoning which leads to greater successes later on in maths and science. [8]


For a child to be able to read, they must first learn how to speak and articulate words, in other words, rhymers are readers. By chanting rhymes and verses every day, the child unlocks their memory pathway in the brain and this has incredible benefits for how they learn in the future. [9]


Kids today are more stressed, anxious, angry, addicted, frustrated, unfocused and to put it bluntly- have the attention span of a fly.


But it’s not their fault.


Placing importance on memory skills, breathwork, willpower, self-development, sensory experiences, nature, imagination and creativity has long-term benefits for the child and the rest of adulthood. These meaningful activities develop out of the box thinkers, children connected to what they are learning, children who are confident in their own skin, children who are not afraid to bring forward abstract ideas, children who have a healthy relationship with food and technology and children who care for a world for future use.


Rushing through childhood has detrimental implications for adulthood. There are so many more elements to Steiner philosophy that haven’t been mentioned in this article. The intricate and profound detail in every aspect of Steiner education speaks for itself. Mainstream education is how the majority of Australian children are taught. It lacks any connection to the physiological development of the child as well as taking any of their innate abilities and strengths into consideration.


However, the purpose of this article isn’t to winge, compare and complain, my purpose is to educate others about the impact Steiner education could have on the mental health of our children.


Our mental health epidemic lies in our education system and unfortunately until someone like me who cares an awful lot, things are going to continue to get worse.


  1. Richtel, Matt, ‘A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute’. Grading the Digital Schools, 22 October 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

  2. Abbasi, Kamran, ‘A riot of divergent thinking.’ Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, October 2011, 104 (10) 391: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3184540/

  3. De Jong, Carla. ‘Toys.’ The Essentials of Rudolf Steiner Early Childhood Education https://periwinkle.nsw.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/periwinkle-handbook-2019.pdf

  4. Hand movement sculpt intelligence. Waldorf Research Institute.

  5. Waugh, Rob. ‘Video games DO alter your brain- and the effect is visible in MRI scans in just a week.’

  6. Manzoor, Sarfraz, ‘Could Steiner schools have a point on children, tablets and tech?’ 14 June 2016.

  7. R. Bayley. Foundations of Literature (2004)

  8. Associated Press; “Study says preschool music may aid Math skills”. Chicago Tribune Aug.1994

  9. Sheen, Stephan, Rhyme, Rhythm and Ritual, the Three Rʼs of Childhood. https://michaelhall.co.uk/inspiration/rhyme-rhythm-and-ritual-the-three-r%CA%BCs-of-childhood/

  10. Hari, Johann, Lost Connections. Why you’re depressed and how to find hope. 4 February 2019. ISBN: 9781408878729