What Do We Really Mean When We Say Something Is “Waldorf”?

Lots of people in my “real” life know very little of Waldorf education; many have never heard of it. But in other groups, particularly online ones (like these gems) and among friends on a similar homeschooling path, the term “Waldorf” is used in various contexts to mean so many things.

For example, there are Waldorf families, Waldorf toys and dolls, Waldorf crafts, Waldorf festivals, Waldorf books, Waldorf clothing, Waldorf homes, Waldorf foods, and Waldorf lifestyles. I have used some of these terms myself, which left me wondering whether this usage was right for what I was trying to say. I invite you to wonder the same…

To me, the term “Waldorf” is rooted in the movement of education pioneered by Rudolf Steiner. We discuss Waldorf education, Waldorf curricula, Waldorf schools, Waldorf co-ops, etc. But what does it mean to use this word to describe things beyond the realm of education? What if another word might tell a clearer and richer story? Would taking an extra moment and looking inward in search of the just-right language be a truer representation of the philosophy behind Waldorf education?

What if we used more descriptive language, if it applies, such as:

  • Natural
  • Intentional
  • Ethical
  • Simple
  • Open-ended
  • Beautiful
  • Kind
  • Holistic
  • Minimalist
  • Age-appropriate
  • Sense-nourishing
  • Thoughtful
  • Loving
  • Spiritual

Would some combination of these or other words paint a different picture than that created by simply labeling something or someone “Waldorf”?

“Waldorf Enough”

Then there is the insidious question of “Waldorf enough.” Becca at Cedar Ring Mama shared this giggle-inducing quiz to determine whether you are a “Waldorf poser,” “too Steiner for this blog,” or somewhere in between. Carrie of The Parenting Passageway wrote an insightful post on this topic, and I agree that there is usually an underlying feeling of guilt when the question of “Waldorf Enough” arises. She mentions that you never hear someone questioning whether they are “Montessori enough.” Is it because what underlies Waldorf education spreads so far beyond the realm of education? As parents on this path—homeschooling or not—we are encouraged to create environments and experiences for our children that are suited to a very deep understanding of human development. We are encouraged to provide particular forms of nourishment for our families. We are encouraged to delve into a journey of inner work that involves a lot of weighty discoveries and endeavors.*

So what does it mean when we find ourselves asking, “Is this toy Waldorf enough?” “Is this book Waldorf enough?” “Am I Waldorf enough?” Does it mean we are substituting an external framework for our own internal compass? Does it mean we are seeking to fit into a mold set by someone else? Does it mean we are tired mamas and papas, and sometimes it’s easier to ask whether this or that is “Waldorf” than seek a free, inner truth about our own thoughts on it?

I also think comparison plays a role here too. There are blogs, e-mail lists, books, and other people in one’s community giving lovely views of what Waldorf education looks like in their lives. But we are all so vastly different in our talents, interests, and a slew of other characteristics that comparison can be a formula for anxiety. Some of us love handwork. Others enjoy painting, or story, or drama. Embracing that thing that is alive in each of us is a gift of being human. How can we encourage each other to do embrace what  nourishes us, instead of wishing we were more like so-and-so?

An Upside of “Waldorf” as an Adjective

While I have posed questions above about our true intention when we describe things or people as “Waldorf,” I don’t believe the term has been co-opted negatively or misused across the board. Something that has been hugely valuable for me is the connecting power of Waldorf. It’s a magic search word that can help you find inspiration and community, if only because others are using it too. It’s a common label (for lack of a better term) that we can use to connect with other people, particularly other parents, with similar values.

And that—connecting—is a big deal when we are often very different from mainstream culture and the people around us.


Note: I am an editor by profession and a lover of language, which may be why this is a question that comes up a lot for me. In no part of this post am I implying any negative judgement of anyone else’s language or opinions. 

*Anyone wishing to further their understanding of the spiritual aspects of Waldorf education may wish to read some works by Steiner. A good first book is At the Gates of Spiritual Science (available for free here).

1 Comment

  1. Michelle

    Wonderful post, Lindsay, as always. Blessings to you…

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