Thinking, Feeling and Willing in Waldorf Education

Waldorf education is an educational journey that works with and builds upon the stages of child development.  What a child needs at age 6 is entirely different from what a child needs at age 10 or 15.  Along with this comes the acknowledgement that every individual has something inherent to offer.  Often, when hearing of Waldorf education, one hears the words: thinking, feeling and willing, or head, heart and hands.  For many parents, these concepts resonate in a natural way.  It makes sense to consider the entire human being in regards to education.  But still, many questions remain: how do we educate in such a way?  How do we know what is needed when?  While thinking, feeling and willing serve as an inspiration and a succinct way to describe what we do, they only scratch the surface.  To understand these words more fully it is helpful to associate each with the phase of life in which its development is most prevalent.

Buttercups The years of early childhood, ages 0-7, are very active years in a child’s life.  Think of the effort it takes a child to learn to walk.  This massive achievement comes out of the child’s own volition: out of observation, repeated efforts and a willingness to fall down and get back up again.  It requires a tremendous amount of will effort- something the young child has in abundance.  Children of this age learn by doing.  They are constantly on the move, touching things, banging them, tasting them and generally exploring their surroundings.  They are determined and willing to keep trying until they have mastered something.

In our early childhood classrooms, we strive to recognize and support the healthy development of the will by creating safe and interesting classrooms for the children to explore.  We provide plenty of opportunity for free play and times for meaningful work.    We encourage what is naturally developing in the child and then we support it through education.  This comes in the form of the classroom routines, repetition of seasonal songs and poems, consistent expectations and meaningful work.  When will development is supported, children are able to carry that strength into their adulthood in the form of determination, experimentation, problem-solving skills, follow-through and being able to put ideas into action.


esc-give Children in elementary school are not finished developing their wills, but rather are building upon the foundation of the early years.  Once they have transitioned to first grade, the educational focus shifts to support the emergence of the inner life of feelings.  If we pay attention to this age group, there is always an undercurrent of feeling in how they relate to things.  When we make learning interesting and relevant, and allow children to have a feeling relationship to their school work, children learn more.  This approach also allows children to feel recognized, that their feeling life is an important part of being human.

Just like with the will, we also have to educate the feeling life.  On one side we do this by developing compassion and empathy through social interactions, games and community-building.  Additionally, throughout the grade school years, we tell our students the story of humanity.  We begin with folk tales and mythologies from around the world, then move onto a story-oriented telling of history.  We teach history through biographies and narratives that make the experiences come alive for children.  We allow them to feel the passion, despair, indignation, and exultation of people in times past, sharing it in such a way that children develop a real, lively relationship to what they are learning.

In science and math, which are naturally less feeling -oriented, we focus instead on the child’s powers of observation.  For example, in science classes, we have students perform an experiment first, make careful observations, and then discuss and discover for themselves what laws of nature the experiment is revealing.  Similarly in math, in addition to building skills, we give students problems to solve and ask them to explain their thinking clearly and be able to share it with others.  This type of discovery is still very personal and relevant for the child.  They feel part of it because we are asking them, not only to take something in and understand it for themselves, but also to contribute.


hs-3 In high school, our focus shifts from an emphasis on students’ feeling relationship to their work, to their intellectual development.  Adolescents want to understand things, to analyze, argue, philosophize and hypothesize.  But, just like willing and feeling, the ability to think critically for oneself develops in stages and with work.  We give our students important works of literature to discuss, more challenging math concepts to understand and explain, and they build upon and deepen their scientific discoveries from middle school.  Now the will is directed toward proving theorems and writing lengthy papers, and their feeling lives are tapped to add depth and meaning to their work.

High school teachers build their classroom discussions and expectations around the development of students’ thinking capacity.  In 9th and 10th grade, students learn how to articulate their own thoughts, then move on to articulating the thoughts of others.  From there, they can develop the kind of flexibility in their thinking that allows them to shift perspectives, respond to their surroundings and see things from all sides.

The elements of thinking, feeling and willing all interweave.  Not only do we consider them in the way laid out here, but every lesson from early childhood through high school has all three components in it.  When we plan our lessons, we make sure that students are able to do all three, even in a short 40 minute period.  It is this balanced approach that allows for the holistic development of the child, that gives her all of the tools she needs: intellectual, emotional and organizational, so that she may create her own way in the world.