The First Waldorf Kindergarten: The Beginnings of Our Waldorf Early Childhood Movement

By Susan Howard from Waldorf Today

The first “official” Waldorf kindergarten opened at the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart in 1926, a year and a half after the death of Rudolf Steiner. However, there was actually an early first attempt that is less known. I have looked through various articles, unpublished manuscripts and notes from conversations to piece together the following story of the very beginnings of our Waldorf early childhood movement:

Even before the opening of the first Waldorf School in 1919, Rudolf Steiner had spoken about the importance of the first seven years of life and his regret that the class teachers would receive the children only after this formative period was complete.

“The teachers will take on children to educate who are already at a certain age; and they must consider thereby that they are taking on these children after they have already experienced the education – or perhaps the miseducation – of their parents in the very first stage of their lives. What we are striving for will only be able to be accomplished completely when humanity has progressed so far that parents understand that even in the first period of upbringing, modern humanity has special educational needs.” (Opening lecture in The Study of Man, or Foundations of Human Experience).

Elizabeth Grunelius and the children of the Stuttgart Kindergarten, 1934

Five years earlier, in 1914, Rudolf Steiner had met Elizabeth Grunelius, a 19-year-old from the Alsace region of Germany, who had just completed her state kindergarten training in Bonn. Elizabeth had read Theosophy by Steiner, and decided to help with the building of the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. She joined a group of artists working under Steiner’s direction on wood relief sculptures for the new building. Elizabeth stayed in Dornach for 18 months, working on the woodcarvings and attending lectures by Rudolf Steiner, before resuming her early childhood studies at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Seminar in Berlin. Afterwards, she was drawn to the newly developing Waldorf school in Stuttgart.

Once the first Waldorf School opened in 1919, Rudolf Steiner asked the teachers to free up a room for a kindergarten, but it was not possible. Finances were strained and the faculty chose to use every available space for additional grade school classes. Later, in 1920, Rudolf Steiner spoke again with the faculty about the importance of the kindergarten: ”It is true that it would be better if you could have the children in kindergarten. The longer you have them, the better. Thus you could admit children who are not yet old enough to come to school. …It would be very nice if we could bring in some children in the first seven years of early childhood education. In the end, we must have them somewhat younger; it is much less important when they are older.”

After a visit to an elementary class, he was heard to exclaim, “We need kindergartens! We need kindergartens!”

He asked the teachers to free up a classroom for a kindergarten, but again they said it was not possible. According to a later comment by Elizabeth Grunelius, the teachers did not seem to grasp the importance of the kindergarten.

Steiner remembered Elizabeth from Dornach, and asked her to write a 60-page proposal for how one would work with 3- to 5-year-olds. She tried, but felt she could not do it, since she had not had any direct experience with young children.

“I felt I had to have experience first. One could not sit at a table and figure it all out. Today it is perhaps difficult to imagine a time when no one had worked consciously with the imitative capacities of the child. We need to remember that class teachers teach, but the kindergarten teacher must show what should be done through her life and being.” (from an unpublished article, Rudolf Steiner Asks for Kindergartens, by Elizabeth Grunelius)

Then, in the spring of 1920, a new government regulation changed the beginning of the school year from Easter to September. This meant that the children who would have begun first grade at Easter now had no teacher until September. On Good Friday, 1920, Rudolf Steiner asked Elizabeth Grunelius if she would take on a kindergarten group from Easter to September. She later described this moment as follows:

“I was now finished my (state) training and was very certain that on no account did I want to work with children! I wanted to study medicine. I answered Rudolf Steiner, “I must think about that further”, and stood there looking down in thought. As I stood there, he also remained standing, as if he was waiting for an outer answer from me. When I looked up, I was puzzled that he was still there. I thought, well, if Rudolf Steiner is there and helps, then perhaps I can carry this out! And I answered, “If you will stand behind me, then I can.”

A week later, they began. But it was hardly an ideal beginning!

She met for three hours each afternoon with about 20 pre-first-graders. The room was used for the eighth grade in the morning, with fixed benches running along the walls, and heavy table-desks that could not be moved, and the floor was painted black!

Luckily, it was spring and summer time, and she could be outdoors with the children most of the time. She had no toys or play materials. She had only Rudolf Steiner’s statements that meditation should be the basis of life in the kindergarten, and that she was to work out of imitation – two entirely radical thoughts that she had never encountered before in her training for early childhood education!

She later remembered one little girl who slammed the door each day very hard. She had asked her several times to do it nicely, to no avail. On the third day, Elizabeth realized that she herself did not close the door completely. So when the little girl was watching, Elizabeth closed the door “nicely”, and after that, the little girl also closed it nicely every time. This was an incredible experience for Elizabeth at that time.

Once she showed Rudolf Steiner crayon drawings the children had made, and he said it would be even better to let them do watercolor painting with good, large brushes and flowing colors. “It is not the picture that is important, he said, but the children should imitate your “noble attitude – they will want to dab around (“nachpatschen”) with the color, rather than exactly copy your gestures”.  (from a conversation between Elizabeth and Danish kindergarten teacher Ingeborg Brockman at the World Kindergarten Conference in Dornach in 1984)

She also did clay modeling: “the children could hardly wait to plunge their hands into this sculptural material and start forming it”, she later wrote, and she told fairy tales.

The kindergarten continued until the end of the summer holidays, but then there was no real possibility to go on in that unsuitable room. There was also “an overflowing deficiency of money”, and still no real support from the class teachers.

Elizabeth Grunelius joined the College of Teachers and worked as a handwork teacher and substitute for class teachers until 1926. She returned to Dornach from time to time to work with artistic activities – eurythmy, speech, clay modeling, painting and anthroposophical studies – these experiences were her Waldorf kindergarten training.

During these years Rudolf Steiner continued to urge the teachers to open a kindergarten, and gave lectures such as The Roots of Education and the Essentials of Education, where he spoke of the work of the early childhood educator. Finally, in 1924, one of the teachers, Herbert Hahn, heard Rudolf Steiner’s call and decided to take up the challenge of having a kindergarten built on the school grounds.

The new kindergarten was finished in 1926, nearly 18 months after Rudolf Steiner’s death.  It was described as “barracks” with three rooms, one a eurythmy room painted “bluish pink like rose mallow”, a color Steiner had indicated for eurythmy. The room for painting was a dark blue, “darker than the sky”, and the playroom was carmine red. Rudolf Steiner had expressed how different color experiences for the children, according to whether they were restless, or slow, etc. would provide inwardly arising complementary color experiences to meet their different needs. For children with sleeping problems, for example, Steiner had suggested deep orange curtains around the bed. Outdoors there was a sandpit and a garden.

Elizabeth tried to build up kindergarten activities out of sensing in her fingertips what the children needed, working meditatively, and aspiring to work with imitation rather than  “pulling things out” of the children.

Once she invited a basket maker to come and work in the presence of the children. “He was a young man, and he had his shirt sleeves rolled up so that the children could see how strong he was. He had a big basket and he finished it with large branches. On the next day, in the cloak room, I saw reeds hanging from the coat hook of one of the children, a very inhibited girl.  I asked her why she needed the reeds. “To make baskets”, she replied. Then I immediately went out and bought reeds and bottoms for baskets and on the next day, all the four-year-olds made baskets. I wanted to help them, but they could do it themselves. They never could have done that if they had not seen the basket maker at work”.

Three years later, Klara Hatterman, a young woman from Hannover, Germany, who was eager to learn to be a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, approached Elizabeth Grunelius and urged her to offer a training course. But Elizabeth felt too inexperienced; reluctantly, she agreed to meet with a small group of four or five interested people. But when they arrived, she asked them all to leave, saying that she was not ready. They all left – except Klara, who became her intern and later her friend and colleague for life.

One could say that these two were the pioneers of our movement.

In 1931, Klara founded a small kindergarten in Hannover. The new Hannover Waldorf School was struggling spiritually and financially to establish itself, so the kindergarten had to be independent. Klara rented a two-room apartment and transformed one of the rooms into a space for the children each day. Here the work blossomed. For ten years, as many as 20 children visited the kindergarten each day.