The International House of Waldorf-Steiner Nurtures the Heart, Hands and Mind

When you first walk into a classroom at the International House of Waldorf-Steiner, it immediately becomes clear that it is not a typical learning environment. Instead of flashy wall decals of apples, balloons, and cats intended to teach children their ABCs, you’re met with neutral colors and felted toys. The lavender candles and homey furniture create a calming environment designed to meet the sensory needs of each child, preparing their minds for learning. 

These spaces have been meticulously crafted by the school’s founder to make learning as accessible and natural as possible. Using her 30 years of experience with Waldorf-Steiner education, Tokue Nagashima has brought English-taught Waldorf to Japan in hopes of helping more children grow in this holistic educational philosophy. 

In the 1990s, Nagashima went to the United States in order to explore growing trends in education, specifically Montessori and Waldorf-Steiner. Her background in psychology and special education made these approaches to early childhood education particularly intriguing as both philosophies claim to be beneficial to children with special needs. Waldorf immediately stood out to her due to its impressive statistics surrounding student outcomes. As Waldorf students were achieving above average standardized test scores and high percentages of Waldorf graduates were pursuing medicine or law, she quickly realized that something about the approach was helping students to reach their full potential. Nagashima decided to visit a small Waldorf daycare in a somewhat troubled neighborhood in Michigan to see what made the Waldorf philosophy so special. 

Built around Trust

Despite the harsh environment and the possibly unstable households the children faced outside the school’s pale pink walls, Nagashima found a classroom of thriving students who were eager to learn. She witnessed the teacher using a variety of methods to teach each concept, inviting the children to engage with the content physically, emotionally, and artistically. This gave each individual student the opportunity to learn in the most effective manner for them. She watched as the children developed a connection to their own hearts, hands, and minds. It became clear that the strength of a Waldorf education was directly linked to its ability to nurture every facet of a child, rather than simply the academic one. 

After her initial encounter with Waldorf classrooms, Nagashima grew eager to learn more about the teaching method. During her time working as a research assistant in New York, she visited every Waldorf-Steiner school she could access. At each one, she was met with similar neutral colors, natural teaching materials and toys, and creative students who had a desire to learn. The teachers often began instruction with demonstrations that students could imitate. This model is in line with many accepted developmental theories that show imitation as being one of the most effective ways of teaching children who have limited verbal communication skills. The teachers focused on leading children to the answer, rather than simply telling them what it is, thus allowing the children to think through subjects in a way that makes sense to them. 

Nagashima also noted a trusting atmosphere within the classrooms. Teachers trusted their students to fully engage with the material and seek opportunities to grow. Students trusted their teachers to adapt to their needs and provide a safe environment for growth. This trust allowed the classroom to become an extension of the home where teachers could nurture students’ creativity and independence. 

More Than One Way to Learn

Of course, during her research on Waldorf-Steiner education, Nagashima-san encountered many people who had their reservations about the philosophy. Waldorf schools may appear unstructured and wild to someone who has only experienced traditional classrooms. With lessons being taught through storytelling, dancing, and painting (sometimes simultaneously), it’s no wonder why this misconception is so common. 

This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Waldorf classrooms are simply structured differently. While traditional schools tend to use one method to teach a concept, Waldorf schools acknowledge that each child learns differently. The teachers allow students to use different strategies for learning, ensuring each student gains understanding for themself. So, while one student uses block toys to practice addition and subtraction, their classmate may act out a story that demonstrates the same concept. This structure celebrates each child’s creativity and individuality in a way that traditional education cannot. 

Nagashima also worked to find exactly what differentiates Waldorf-Steiner from the more well-known Montessori education. She found that, while many of the techniques and approaches are similar, Waldorf education was unique in its encouragement of creativity and imagination. For instance, while both Montessori and Waldorf develop the child’s motor skills and spatial awareness through practicing pouring water from a pitcher, Montessori students will be instructed to hold the pitcher a certain way. Waldorf students, on the other hand, are allowed to hold it in whichever way is most comfortable for them and try out different techniques. This freedom of choice and individuality was present in every Waldorf classroom Nagashima visited across the United States, demonstrating the unique and incredible benefits of a Waldorf education.

Upon returning to Japan, she noticed a desire for Waldorf-Steiner education within the English-speaking expatriate community. Although there were some Waldorf schools in Japan, none provided opportunities for non-Japanese families. Nagashima decided to use her experience in the States as inspiration to create the International House of Waldorf-Steiner. Featuring classrooms and curriculum modeled after Waldorf schools abroad, the school offers a research-based approach to holistic childhood education. With hopes to expand their curriculum to accommodate students through high school, Nagashima is dedicated to nurturing the heart, hands, and mind of each pupil.

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