Differences Between “The Well-Trained Mind” and Waldorf: The Early Years

Someone pointed out to me that The Well-Trained Mind encourages art and stories within their curriculum as well, so what is so different about the two curriculums?  This was a person with very little experience in Waldorf who had never seen a Main Lesson Book or seen how the children create throughout a three-day rhythm in a Waldorf environment as they learn, but I still thought it was an interesting question.

I would like to take moment to address this question here in this post for you all.  This first table is for the pre-school years of The Well-Trained Mind, which encompasses the Waldorf Kindergarten Years of ages 3-6.

  The Well-Trained Mind Waldorf
How to Teach Reading “Talk, talk, talk – adult talk, not baby talk.  Talk to her while you’re walking in the park, while you’re riding in the care, while you’re fixing dinner.” (page  27)
”Read, read, read.  Start reading chunky baby books to your baby in her crib.  Give her sturdy books that she can look at alone. (A torn book or two is a small price to pay for literacy).  Read picture books, pointing at the words with your finger.  Read the same books over and over’; repetition builds literacy…..Read books onto tapes, along with the child’s comments, so that she can listen to you read over and over again.” (page 27, TWTM, page 27)
”After you read to your toddler, ask her questions about the story.  Why did the gingerbread man run away from the little old woman?  Why did all the dogs want to go to the top of the tree in Go, Dog, Go?  Why did Bananas Gorilla take all the bananas?” (Page 27)
Steiner did not advocate teaching reading to children still within the first seven-year cycle.  The child is seen as needing their energy for growth and development of the physical body until the forces are  freed for memorization.  It is not that the child cannot learn reading at this age, but that the child ‘s growth and development should be protected at this point by the adult.  Steiner felt early memorization, instruction and such came at a price to the child’s future health as an adult.
”Accomplishments that come with forces that are available later on should never be forced into  an earlier stage, unless we are prepared to ruin the physical organism.” Steiner, page 116, Soul Economy.Talking for the sake of talking is not seen as promoting the vital concept of warmth and is also seen as pulling the child into their head with lots of verbal play; but singing, verses, pictorial imagery, oral storytelling  is strongly encouraged.  Talking to your child is encouraged, just perhaps not the running commentary of what you are doing every minute the way TWTM suggests.
Picture books are limited so the child can make pictures in their own mind, and the same picture books and fairy tales and nature stories are told over and over for weeks or a month at a time to work deeply on the child’s soul.  The child memorizes the stories, songs and verses from the repetition, and the stories come out in the child’s play
Use of Television and Videos Limit television and videos. Same, no television or videos preferable
Writing “Very young children (under two) will pick up a pencil and imitate scribbling.  Teach a child from the beginning to  hold the pencil correctly.  Draw lots of circles and loops in a counterclockwise direction……Teach your three year old basic dot-to-dot skills by drawing your own dot-to-dot picture…” (pages 28-29) Some Waldorf Kindergartens do  artistic drawing, but none teach letters or do dot-to-dot diagrams within the Kindergarten ages of 3-6.  Letter and handwriting are taught in First Grade through such artistic activities as form drawing, modeling the letters, drawing objects that begin with a letter and seeing how that turns into the abstract letter.  Pictures that the child draws, such as a house, is seen on an archtypical level.
Math “Start to make your child “mathematically literate” in the toddler years…..Bring numbers into everyday life as often as possible….Once the child is comfortable counting, you can start working on simple math sums – usually during the K-4 and K-5 years.” (page 29) Pre-mathematics literacy is laid early through oral stories, fingerplays, rhymes.  Qualities of numbers, all four math processes, Roman numerals, all are introduced in Grade One.
“kindergarten” for four and five year olds “….it’s a rare five year old who’s ready to do very much paper-and-pencil work at a desk, and a six year old who hasn’t done a formal kindergarten program can easily begin first-grade work.”
”Kindergarten for four year olds accomplishes even less.  Most four year olds have microscopic attention spans, immature hand-eye coordination, and a bad case of the wiggles.”
”In about thirty minutes per day, you can teach your child beginning reading, writing, and math concepts, all without workbooks or teacher’s manuals.” (page 30).
Waldorf Kindergarten does not focus on reading or writing or math per say at this early age, but strives to lay healthy foundations for these subjects through a variety of sensory and practical life experiences for when the student is ready for academic work in Grade One.  Each year of Kindergarten the student has more complex stories, projects and responsibilities.

Students in Waldorf kindergarten certainly do learn colors, shapes, things such as above, below, on, weights and measurements, pre-mathematical literacy.  Some Waldorf Kindergarteners can read if they have taught themselves, but the focus really is on the BODY at this young age.

Reading for four and five year olds “You should continue to immerse four and five year olds in language, just as you’ve been doing since birth.  Read with them in the “real world”….Get them books on tape…….Susan’s three year old and five year old listened to all of Kipling’s Just So Stories, the original Jungle Book, all of Edith Nesbit’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, Barrie’s densely written Peter Pan…….” (page 32) Steiner believed children of this age should be in their bodies and reading should come later.The stories mentioned in the WTM quote to the left are wonderful works of literature, but included much later in the Waldorf curriculum at a time when those types of stories would be seen as speaking to a child….A child under the age of seven is living in a world of connection and oneness with things, and stories with strong protagonists the child can identify with (as opposed to the archetypal figures of fairy tales), do not come in until later.
Method of teaching reading for four and five year olds Recommends “The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading, by Jessie Wise, contains clear step-by-step instructions on how to teach reading from the very beginning stages, starting with letter sounds and moving systematically through blending sounds into reading real words and sentences.” (page 33)
”Remember, you want the child to read quickly, easily, and early.  Many children are ready to read long before they have the muscular coordination to write.  Why delay reading until the muscles of the hand and eye catch up?” (page 38)
Live singing, live music, storytelling, drama, all lay a strong foundation for language literacyAnd for the record, Waldorf does not teach reading through a strictly phonetic approach where the child must read three letter words with only short “A” in them to start – the Waldorf approach to reading is whole word, whole language with the letter sounds included.  See below.  The letter sounds are introduced in First Grade, with letter emphasis on word families and reading from the written word of things the child knows very well – songs and verses
Math for four and five year olds Real world math, and “your public library should have a colorful selection of kindergarten-level math books- easy problems worked out with photographed objects.  Get a book every week, and read through it.” See above.

Steiner recommended rapid introduction to the numbers in the First Grade with rapid transition into introducing all four math processes.

Science for the four and five year old “You can supplement beginning reading, writing, and math by doing a science experiment once or twice a week; more formal science study isn’t necessary at this age.” The child is considered from a developmental standpoint  one with nature; the connection between nature and the child is fostered through outside time, building with natural materials, preparing for festivals, reverence for living things
Art and Music Not mentioned The child has a variety of musical and  artistic experiences through wet-on-wet watercolor painting, modeling, play outside with natural materials, music with lyre, singing, Circle Time throughout the day
Gross Motor Skills not mentioned Continually fostered through almost every activity in the kindergarten, including very active Circle times and outside time where building with natural materials is encouraged, nature walks of longer duration
Practical Life Skills not mentioned Fostered through preparation of snack, bread making, gardening, wood working, housekeeping and other experiences
Spirituality Not mentioned in preschool section; mentioned on page 204 as part of Grades section.  “Education cannot be neutral when it comes to faith; it is either supportive or destructive.  The topic of education is humanity, its accomplishments, its discoveries, its savage treatment of its own kind, its willingness to endure self-sacrifice.  And you cannot learn- or teach- about humanity without considering God.” The child is assumed to be a spiritual being from a spiritual place; reverence is instilled through verses and songs, preparation for festivals, gardening and being outside daily in all kinds of weather
The festivals celebrated often have a Christian-Judeo background, but all the world religions are taught within the curriculum throughout the years.   For more information please see post entitled “Refreshed and Renewed.”
Emphasis on Rhythm, Protection of the 12 Senses Not mentioned Very unique to Waldorf and seen as vital to a child’s health – there are many posts on this blog about rhythm!

Protection is a big factor within the early years, with repetition and reverence being hallmarks toward that, along with warmth of the teacher, warm foods, warmth in  the  environment

The role of the teacher  I couldn’t find any direct quotes really, perhaps someone else more familiar with this work can? “Children are entrusted to us for their education.  They are a sacred trust we receive.” (From Soul Economy). 
The view of the child’s academic ability To be filled by the teacher through exposure to print books, to audio books, to concepts and counting The teacher is a guide, an observer and a leader in setting rhythm and health as the child’s development and maturation unfolds.



As you can see, Waldorf and The Well-Trained Mind have very different premises about what the young child needs in the early years for future health and academic success, although there is brief  overlap on such things as limiting media exposure.  However, the things Waldorf views as most important for the small child – less words, more singing, music, oral stories, outside time, getting children in their bodies, rhythm, protection of the senses, REPETITION of the same stories and things is wanted and promoted – is not even mentioned by The Well-Trained Mind.

They are just very different approaches, in my opinion.  As Melisa Nielsen says, TWTM is a wonderful product if that is the way you want to go.  My addition to this thought though is to make sure this is the way you want to go, the way you see your homeschooling experience reflecting your values and priorities for your child.

Food for thought,



3 thoughts on “Differences Between “The Well-Trained Mind” and Waldorf: The Early Years

  1. This is a great chart! I’m continually amazed at the differences between Waldorf and other methods. I just can’t imagine even considering literacy for an infant. TWTM is so abstract and head-oriented. I don’t see where the experiential aspect comes in outside of parental chatter and reading.

  2. Thanks for this post…Waldorf is often compared to this and Montessori, and I find that Waldorf is not like either of these methods…Thanks so much for stating the difference between these two…

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