Waldorf education has its roots in the research of the Austrian scientist and thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner entered the Vienna Institute of Technology at the age of 18. Studying advanced courses in natural sciences, mathematics, and the physical sciences, Steiner became deeply interested in the scientific writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who is known today chiefly as a dramatist and poet. After moving to Weimar, Germany, in 1890, Steiner became the editor of Goethe’s scientific writings at the Goethe-Schiller Archives. During this period, he published his first major work, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (also known as The Philosophy of Freedom).
Working from esoteric traditions as well as natural science, Steiner developed a three-fold vision of the human being, comprised of spirit, soul, and body whose capacities unfold in three developmental stages on the path to adulthood: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. He named this spiritual element of his work Anthroposophy. His work extended into medicine and pharmacology; into biodynamic agriculture and farming; and eventually into political and social activism. The educational branch of Anthroposophy, Waldorf Education, was born out of this activism in the aftermath of the First World War.
In April of 1919, Rudolf Steiner visited the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. The German nation, defeated in war, was teetering on the brink of economic, social, and political chaos. Steiner spoke to the workers about the need for social renewal, for a new way of organizing society and its political and cultural life.
Emil Molt, the owner of the factory, asked Steiner if he would undertake to establish and lead a school for the children of the employees of the company. Steiner agreed, and in September 1919, the Independent Waldorf School (die Freie Waldorfschule) opened its doors. Today there are over 1,100 Waldorf schools and almost 2,000 Waldorf kindergartens in some 80 countries around the globe. In North America, Waldorf education has been available since 1928, and there are now over 250 schools and 14 teacher education centers in some level of development. These schools exist in large cities and small towns, suburbs and rural enclaves. No two schools are identical; each is administratively independent. Nevertheless, a visitor would recognize many characteristics common to them all.
On September 19, 2019, Waldorf education proudly marked its 100th anniversary. Waldorf schools and communities around the world celebrated this anniversary through social and environmental impact projects including action to foster compassion, promote empathy, and encourage meaningful acts of kindness and connection locally and globally, and bee-tending programs to help support and rebuild the pollinator population.