Waldorf Daycare for Ages 0–3. Educational Mission and Concept

Claudia Grah-Wittich, Brigitte Huisinga, Annika Kern

Last update: 01.09.2021


After pregnancy, the first years of a child’s life are the most sensitive and formative for the entire course of the child’s life. During the acquisition of necessary life functions the child is dependent on the protection of level-headed adults and it is decisive whether or not the child is provided with an age-appropriate environment and appreciation for his or her autonomous learning. Unlike in the family, daycare centers require a professional orientation and a meaningful, manageable and comprehensible concept committed to the child, in which the adults, as the child’s first environment, have learned to repeatedly self-reflect. The necessary foundation for the child to take hold of his or her physical body and have well-cared-for vital forces is provided by establishing a reliable rhythm in the daily routine, accompanying the child’s exploration, and cultivating a relationship with him or her. This is implemented methodically-didactically through facilitating movement and play, handling caregiving and speaking appropriately, enabling the child to settle in, and cultivating the relationship that the educators have with the child’s parents.


Since the beginning of the 21st century, for socio-political reasons, children have increasingly been spending the developmental period which is decisive for their health and biography – the first three years – in childcare facilities. Parents today have the choice of whether to leave their child in the protection of their own home environment or not. They decide to entrust their child to an institution mainly for professional or personal reasons.

From current discussion and research in developmental psychology it has become clear that the child’s own activity is the basis for his or her development in the interplay between environmental influences and hereditary dispositions. This is to recognize the child as an independent being, whose dignity and rights must be respected. These rights were laid down in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 (1). The quality of childcare facilities must be measured by whether they provide children with both reliable protection and space for their free development. The people caring for the children need the ability to observe children and to consequently create an environment conducive to their development. This perceiving of the children, the inner presence of the adults, their self-education and willingness to learn, all these form prerequisites for any childcare concept in the Waldorf art of healing education (2).

Institutions providing institutional care of children under the age of three require their own concept based on an inner understanding of this age group, which must take into account the fact that the group situation in the institution differs substantially from a family situation. The focus is on individual development before the age of three. Only considerably later – at pre-school age – do community-building aspects become important. The design of the environment, the structure of the daily routine, the inner attitude of the caregivers and the continuity of the reference persons support the best possible development of the child’s personality. The Waldorf guidelines for childhood from birth to the age of three were revised in a second edition in 2016 and have since been translated into several languages (3). Institutions that wish to work on the basis of Waldorf education face the challenge of developing a concept adapted to the actual circumstances within the framework of the guidelines. Adopting an individual approach to each child requires individual adaptation.

Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical impulse encourages actual perception of children and self-education of adults and offers numerous publications on spiritual-scientific research regarding the laws of human development. Practical implementations for the earliest years of childhood, supplemented by the empirical findings of the Hungarian doctor Emmi Pikler, have been developed in recent years.

Healthy development and institutional support  

Anthroposophic anthropology and the latest findings of developmental psychology and medicine agree that the first three years of a child’s life are decisive for the child’s entire biography and health. For example, how the child’s great potential for development unfolds through learning to walk, speak and think is decisive for his or her later development into an independent personality. The structure of the child’s organs and their individual formation are shaped at the beginning of life by what the child does independently. The feeling and thinking child gradually makes the body inherited from his or her parents into a home. For health it is beneficial for the child to individualize this physical body with the imprint of his or her inner being. The professional task of institutional support is to support the child in doing this.

Physical development

The physical body with all its faculties and organs is formed during pregnancy. In the womb it has a dependent relationship with its environment, the maternal organism. After birth, adults must create the conditions that the child needs for development (4). Everything that is brought to the child from the environment and that he or she takes in through the senses shapes the child’s body. The goal of development is the greatest possible self-development and fulfillment of potential (5).

Care and development of the life forces

Purely in terms of its material composition, the human body is not alive. It disintegrates when life leaves it. The child’s vital forces, which become independent when the umbilical cord is cut, are reflected in processes of circulation and time. The vital forces control all rhythmic processes, the pulsating circulation of blood, all growth and reproduction. Anthroposophic anthropology calls these forces the life body or etheric body. It is something that humans have in common with animals. (See also https://www.anthromedics.org/BAS-0347-EN)  

A person’s physical-etheric nature must be developed into a reliable basis in the first years of life. Since educators assume tasks of the parental home, they must have the care of the vital forces in mind to protect and strengthen them. Rhythm in the daily routine serves to promote physical-etheric development in children. The aim is to help the development of the child’s personality to a good foundation. Just as the physical body develops protected in the womb, so in the first seven years there must be protection for developing the vital forces. This process is comparable to the pregnancy period in that there is a decreasing state of dependency. In an institution, this space must be nurtured in accordance with the forces that are to flourish in it.

In organic nature, the rhythm of life is determined by the principles of expansion and contraction. These principles are gestures that are reflected in the rhythm of an institution’s daily routine. The educational goals – self-determination and relationship skills – are also based on these gestures of the vital forces: expansion in play and movement, contraction in relationship building and mindful caregiving. The methodology and didactics of early childhood daycare institutions thus work with the principles of expansion and contraction and through ensuring time for both free activity and bonding.


Basically, the gentle process of adjusting to the new situation should be shaped by a clear procedure and concept. Both parents and children need time to get used to the childcare facility. The educators must get to know the child, his or her parents and their common habits, and establish a connection. This means that the method and timing of each step in familiarization can be individually adapted to the child and his or her family. The child and parents must go through a major adjustment process, the effort of which can easily be underestimated. The structuring of the familiarization process must be read by the educators from the child, agreed with the parents and also discussed with colleagues in the context of the group situation.

The environment

The environment represents a protective space for the child to live and develop. How the adults shape the child’s environment and how they behave towards the child has a decisive influence on whether the child can find his or her individual path in life and develop his or her potential. Decisive here are the conditions in the room and the inner attitude of the adults. 

  • The adults

Adults shape the child’s first environment. Their professional attitude enables them to approach children with real interest and to perceive each child in his or her individuality. Profound knowledge about the development of small children gives the basis for seeing the individuality in each child.

Organizing a regular daily routine not only gives the children orientation, it also makes work easier for the caregivers. The routine becomes self-understood for both sides.

It is up to the adults to create the necessary conditions for the development of free, independent play and the associated learning and educational processes (6, p. 15). For a child to develop his or her own activity and play freely at all, his or her physical needs must be met and he or she must feel in a state of emotional balance. A child achieves this balance through having a good relationship with his or her caregiver, one which makes him or her feel safe and secure. Even during play it is important to maintain indirect contact with the children and to accompany them inwardly, i.e., to be inwardly present and to show interest and sympathy (7, p. 11, 27).

The educator is mostly in the background without interfering with the children’s play or preempting their independent solutions. Only when necessary does he or she provide help and support or offer protection in conflict situations (8). The attitude of the educator is therefore characterized by confidence in the child’s abilities. The educator attentively observes the child’s activities, self-education processes and developmental steps. Again and again it can be observed that children will reassure themselves of the presence of their reference person. In joyful situations, when they have succeeded in doing something, it is often enough to share a glance that expresses appreciation and confirmation. In conflict situations children need helping words and gestures. It is not useful for caregivers to join in the play or act as animators. As active adults, they are occupied with everyday tasks and, in this way, they serve as models for the children for their own activity.

  • The space

In addition to the influence that adults have on child development, the spatial environment is also important (3, p. 63). On the one hand, we have the atmosphere of the rooms, which gives the children a protected space; on the other hand, we have the environment designed and prepared by the educators which forms the basis for movement development and free play.

For small children, the world is easier to grasp in a quiet, familiar atmosphere than in a constantly changing, stimulus-filled environment (9, p. 67f). The space with its materials gives children incentives and choices for exploring. It is a prepared environment that positively influences and actively promotes childhood development by awakening the children’s mental and creative powers (10, p. 9f). The children must feel safe and at the same time be challenged to reach for the next stage of development. The more age-appropriately the environment is designed, the more the child can develop curiosity and an independent will to learn. Play material consists mainly of simple objects that allow free experimentation and do not overstimulate the children with optical or acoustic stimulation (10, p. 31). Outside, in the yard or garden, the children encounter nature and the elements and gather many different sensory experiences.

Methodology and didactics

All four body senses – the sense of touch, sense of life, sense of movement and sense of balance – experience their greatest response in free play, in movement development and when being cared for (11). In terms of sensory development and care, these areas are of great importance in the methodological concept and didactics of a daycare center.


Caregiving situations serve to build a relationship between the caregiver and the child. The child experiences the majority of his or her social experiences when eating, diaper changing, dressing and undressing. The way in which things are done is crucial to building stable, reliable relationships. When doing something for the child, the adult gives the child his or her undivided attention and individual care in one-on-one contact. This forms the basis for building a mutual relationship (12). In addition, mindfulness and loving attention through touch have positive effects on the child’s body, self-image and self-esteem. The child thus experiences his or her body and self as being worthy of love and protection (12, 13). At the same time, cooperation between the adult and the child plays an important role in ensuring that the child does not become a mere object of care. The children are always offered opportunities to help shape the care situation of their own accord and thus experience their own activity and competence, as well as the joy of independent action. Cooperation can only develop if the child and his or her reactions are attentively perceived. Attention is paid to the physical reactions of the child when he or she expresses resistance by cramping his or her muscles or crying. If the child directs his or her attention towards something, the adult will share in this interest (14, p. 44ff).

Certain basic conditions and a well-thought-out daily routine are necessary to arrange the caregiving situations in the daycare center according to the above-mentioned aspects. The caregiving area is separated from the play area by a latticed partition, so that an undisturbed caregiving situation can be created and at the same time the educator does not lose sight of the other children. The caregiver and child should meet at eye level so that they can relate to each other, interact and cooperate (14, p. 47ff). Children are usually lying on their back when their diapers are changed. From a certain point in development onwards, this no longer corresponds to a child’s need for movement. Children turn over or stand up. In order not to force them onto their backs against their impulses, we must design a safe diaper-changing area. A lattice will protect the children, give them freedom of movement and relieve the educator of worrying that the child might fall. Even when the child’s positions change, our dialogue need not be interrupted. It is always a great joy to experience when a child starts to reach out with his arm or stretches out a leg while standing at the bars.

The time factor is also particularly important. The care that is given should be individual and it should be time that is exclusively dedicated to this child – no hasty changing of diapers or giving of food (9, p. 64). Only a child who is cared for calmly and attentively can build a trusting and reliable relationship with the adult.

Transitional situations in the daily routine are of particular importance. These create opportunities for relationship-filled, intensive encounters between the educator and the child when dressing and undressing, going in or out, putting the child to bed for a nap, changing diapers and eating. Such mindful care requires perceptiveness and inner presence of the educator, which comes with professional practice: inner presence, not drifting away with one’s thoughts, calm gentle hands that speak to the child through gestures, accompanying one’s actions with loving language that announces what is going to happen, but also responds to the child’s own gestural and vocal expressions.


Most of early childhood movement development takes place between the ages of 0 and 3. It is therefore important to leave enough space for movement during the time in the daycare center. Often it can be observed how parents and also educators want to influence and promote the development of movement from the outside. However, by forcing a child to perform movements that he is not yet able to do on his own, e.g., holding the child’s hands while walking, or by carrying him although he is able to achieve a goal on his own, we risk that the child will not achieve enough certainty in the movement sequences concerned. Muscular tension and postural defects are more frequently observed in children whose movement development is influenced from outside. They tire more quickly, and fall and injure themselves relatively often (9, p. 21f). Moreover, these children hardly develop any joy in movement and remain rather passive. They do not discover the feeling of autonomy and self-efficacy, as they remain dependent on the help of adults for many changes of position or for getting around. Only when a child is able to try out every sort of movement does she develop security and confidence in the respective movement and improve its quality, until she trusts herself sufficiently to take a new step in development (7, p. 16f).

Most of the children who have settled into a childcare center can already walk on their own. Children who are still crawling about on the ground need areas delimited by play grids so that they can practice autonomously without being disturbed by running children. Depending on age and stage of development, the respective group rooms should be individually adapted to the needs of the children and offer enough space and stimuli so that the children’s urge to move can also be lived out in running, jumping and climbing. Of particularly high quality are natural spaces, gardens or outdoor areas designed close to nature, with various surfaces, inclined levels, steps and possibilities for climbing.

It is important for educators to have confidence in the independent development of their children, not to constantly warn or admonish them, otherwise the children can easily become frightened, insecure or anxious (9, p. 44). We can avoid movement prohibitions by creating safe environments indoors and outdoors that are appropriate for development. Children learn to take responsibility for themselves and their abilities when from the beginning they are not disturbed in their experimental urge to move.


In many daycare centers it can be observed that educators interact with the children through play, take up the children’s ideas and activities, develop and create games together and offer new suggestions. The play instinct – like the development of movement – is inherent in children from birth and does not need to be stimulated or directed (9, p. 76, 15, p. 174). Playing already begins when babies occupy themselves with their own hands in infancy. Grasping and examining objects, touching, turning, shaking, passing from one hand to the other, throwing away and picking things up again are also part of a small child’s play. Later, the child will discover characteristics, differences and connections between different toys (6, p. 18ff). As soon as a child can handle several objects, he or she begins to collect things. The child selects objects, compares and arranges them. Later he or she searches specifically for things needed for building or role-playing (16, p. 89). Here it becomes clear how eager to experiment, how circumspect and persistent a child can be in dealing with the world (15, p. 175). Consequently, the basic principle is that adults never directly influence the child, thereby interrupting the child’s play and natural exploration. Free play allows children to switch independently between activity and rest phases and thus develop their ability to regulate themselves and their stamina (8). It is amazing to observe how curious and interested children are in discovering the world, how they are always developing new ideas and pursuing the most diverse activities. Even the youngest are concentrated and absorbed.

At this early age, the children initially play next to each other, rather individually, but they enjoy the company and activities of the other children and educators. They absorb and imitate what they experience in their environment.


Speech development is a natural process in early childhood that involves much more than just language acquisition. Many children who come to a daycare center cannot yet speak, but even the very youngest ones listen attentively to the speaking going on around them as if they were being fed by it (17, p. 10). Adult speech has an effect on children; children must hear adults speak in order to understand and learn to speak. It is about being in dialogue with the child. It is not enough for the child to only hear what is spoken in his or her vicinity. It is crucial to speak honestly and personally with the child. The message lies in being addressed: “I take you seriously, I am talking to you, I’m here with you.” Children need time to respond and they react differently depending on their age and possibilities, perhaps with a slight movement, a small gesture, a smile or with sounds. By responding to these signals, we create an exchange, even if the child cannot yet speak. Being in conversation with the child is not only important for the child’s relationship and self-esteem, it is also crucial for language development. Children learn to speak from adults, so it matters how they are spoken to – i.e., not emphatically slowly or exaggeratedly clearly, not childishly or in the third person. Our language should be understandable, grammatically correct, simple, fluently calm and friendly – always trusting that the child will understand (18, p. 18f). The decisive factor is therefore what is said, when, how and where. This simultaneously develops our sense for the dignity of the small child (17, p. 12). It is an art to surround a child with language, to enfold it in language. As if thinking aloud, the adult tells the child what she is doing, what she wants from him and what will follow next (18, p. 18). Suitable situations are ones in which we have direct contact with the child, e.g., during caregiving, dressing or eating. Language is an important means of giving children a sense of security. Announcing our actions, e.g., that we are leaving the room, or speaking reassuring, comforting words, or simply talking about what is happening enables orientation and reassures the child that he or she will not be abandoned (19, p. 110ff).

The more words that a child can speak, the more he or she wants to communicate. The child may even name her body parts, her clothing, what she is seeing, what she is doing, what she has experienced. It is a matter of sensitivity, of trying to understand what the child wants to say. By repeating the child’s sentences without pointing out mistakes or correcting pronunciation, we give the child the feeling of being heard and taken seriously and this maintains the child’s joy in communicating and acquiring language.


After small children have collected a variety of sensory impressions during play, they need time to process them. Ancient cultures always regarded the day side (external, visible events) and the night side (the hidden inner aspect as a phase of recovery) as a whole. The night rejuvenates and revitalizes us for a new day. In today’s performance-oriented society, however, we tend to neglect the night side as a time for rest, with the thought that sleeping represents a loss of time that would be valuable for learning and educational processes, and that children might also be less able to fall asleep in the evening if they sleep during the day. We therefore focus on the day side. However, unlike adults, children are not able to filter, sort or distance themselves from all the stimuli and impressions that they are confronted with in a morning of daycare. Sleeping is a basic need of children. The daycare facilities must be structured in such a way that, after an eventful morning, the children can get some rest and strength from the night side in order to be ready to actively experience another long afternoon. Being cared for attentively before being put to bed for a nap, without hurry or pressure, ensures quiet. Nap-time rituals, the atmosphere in the room, a ventilated sleeping area, prepared beds and subdued lighting are crucial. After waking up, providing thorough care ensures that the child has time to wake up properly: washing his or her face, applying cream and brushing his or her hair. We thus accompany the child back to the vitality of the afternoon.

A challenge in daycare centers is how to meet the sleeping needs of individual children. This is possible by adapting the daily routine to each child and not making them all sleep at the same time.

Daily routine

A familiar daily rhythm creates a feeling of security and is conducive to the child’s autonomy. Recurring, identical sequences make it easier for children to find orientation, thus supporting their ability to act (7, p. 20). At this point, the daily routine in the Wiegenstube daycare center at the “hof” in Frankfurt-Niederursel will be sketched as an example to give an idea of what a rhythmically arranged daily routine in a daycare center can look like.

In the morning, the children are received individually in the morning by their respective educator before playing freely in the garden or in the yard. Afterwards, the children are escorted one after the other to the group room in order to help them with undressing and hand washing in accordance with cultivating relationships in one-on-one situations. Before lunch, the children and educators can come together for a common seasonal song or finger play. While individual children continue their play in the group room, lunch is served in parallel, either alone or in small groups, depending on age and independence. After the meal, the children are taken one after the other for their nap. The diaper-changing area is separated from the group room by lattices, so that the educator can devote his or her attention to one child at a time. The cared-for children are put to bed individually in the bedroom. After their nap, the children need quiet and time for care in order to slowly come to their senses. After an afternoon snack, the children are taken one after the other to the outside area to play until they are picked up by their parents.

It is of eminent importance that the daily routine be structured in a flowing rhythm of exertion and letting go, as found in nature: the child explores in movement, in play, in the garden, in being on his own, in discovering the world. He can do this, and wants to, because he repeatedly experiences times when he is with a caregiver who nourishes his trust. So, the whole daily routine between caregiving and play follows this rhythm. Both – being together and being on one’s own – have their justification and must be made possible in the course of the day. Only in this way can the child find what he naturally needs in his environment.

Collaboration with parents

Even if parents have delegated some of the direct responsibility for their child and his or her development to a daycare center, they still hold decisive responsibility for the well-being of their children. That is why cooperation with parents is important for an institution.

There is of course a formal contract between the parental home and the childcare facility. In the best case, their ideals and pedagogical convictions will coincide. This only makes up about 1/8 of the real relationship, however. Much of the emotional relationship happens beneath the surface. Here feelings, needs, habits, (cultural and religious) values, group norms, images and energies play a decisive role. However, if this level of the relationship is not brought into awareness, it harbors great potential for causing conflict among the adults and, consequently, considerable impairments for the psychosocial development of the child. The child perceives very precisely below the surface how his parents feel about their relationship with the daycare center and the atmosphere there and he orients himself accordingly. Self-reflection and self-development are skills that need to be practiced and they are becoming increasingly important as tools for the pedagogical professions and for parents. Those who have learned to deal with their feelings attentively and respectfully can develop interest in a situation and, if necessary, interest in the otherness of the other person. This provides the inner basis for parental partnership and participation in institutions based on Waldorf education and anthroposophy. The quality of all cooperation is based on respectful interaction between adults, which should be a matter of course towards children.


Education of small children serves the development of each human being, the unfolding of his or her potential, autonomy and creativity, enabling this individual to later shape his or her own personal life and social conditions. A secure relationship is needed if the highest human good, that of freedom, is to come to fruition. Relationships and freedom, alternating in rhythmic harmony, promote human health and vitality. Against this background, the daycare center concept described here is beneficial, because it lays the foundation for relationship skills and self-determination later in life. The basic prerequisite for working with small children is the ability of the adults who are responsible for implementing this concept to self-reflect. In the future, this will increasingly have to be a skill that is practiced in training.


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