What are Waldorf toys?
You may have seen a toy described as a ‘Waldorf-inspired toy’ and wondered what an earth that means! I use the Waldorf principles to design toys at Quirky Earth and I’ve been asked a few times so I thought that I’d write a blog post on the subject.
So what exactly is a Waldorf toy? Before we get into that I first need to say a little about the Waldorf approach itself.
The Waldorf name
The Waldorf educational philosophy was founded by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th Century. Steiner visited the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette company in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919 and talked to the employees there about his vision. The owner was so impressed by Steiner’s philosophy that he asked him to open a school for his employees' children to attend. Steiner accepted and the name ‘Waldorf’ originates from this first school that opened the same year of his visit.
Today Waldorf education is one of the fastest growing independent educational movements, with an estimated 1,000 Waldorf schools globally and countless other organisations and homeschoolers using the Waldorf principles.
Steiner was an Austrian philosopher, artist, and scientist who believed in a holistic approach to education. Steiner’s teachings sought to develop the whole person by bringing out and nurturing a child’s unique capabilities. The academic, emotional, physical, artistic, and spiritual needs of a child are considered equally and as a whole. Creativity and imagination are encouraged and are seen as integral to learning.
Themes of nature
In a Steiner educational environment children typically spend considerable amounts of time outdoors in all weathers playing, exploring, and learning about nature. This instills an early connection between the child and nature and how they fit into the world around them. Many believe that this bond with nature grows with the child and makes them more likely to be a good steward of their environment in the future.
"Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves". Stephen Moss.
A typical Waldorf classroom emulates the home environment, it’s cosy, furnished with wood, with lots of natural light, and surrounded with natural materials; silk curtains, and wool rugs. In contrast to mainstream classrooms full of primary colours and plastic, a Waldorf space uses muted colours, organic decor, and natural teaching resources such as acorns, pebbles, leaves etc. or household objects. A great deal of consideration is placed upon the aesthetic nature of the objects and resources. The aim is to nourish a child’s senses with different textures, materials, and for them to be inspired by the beauty of such objects, want to explore them, and learn from them.
‘To a healthy child, playing is not only a pleasurable pastime, but also an absolutely serious activity. Play flows in real earnest out of the child’s entire organism.’ Rudolf Steiner.
Learning through play is also considered central to a child’s development. The emphasis is on imaginative and creative play which research has shown offers countless cognitive, behavioural, social, and physical developmental benefits. Child-led free play allows children to learn through discovery and experimentation.
In a Waldorf environment toys are simple and few. Open-ended toys that can be used in multiple ways dominate e.g. wooden blocks. Open-ended toys encourage children to use their imagination as they can be used in many different ways. For example a blue silk scarf could be a flowing waterfall, or a superhero cape. Whereas a superhero costume can only ever be a superhero costume! A wooden block could be a car, a rock, a house, a staircase, and whatever the child wants it to be during their play.
Building on these principles, Waldorf-inspired toys are often simple, made with natural materials such as wood, felt, and cotton. In contrast to noisy battery-operated toys, or the cartoon-like faces painted on plastic figures, Waldorf toys hope to inspire creative play and imagination. For example, if a doll is painted with a permanent grin on its face this dictates the child’s play to some extent. What if the child wanted to convey other emotions? Waldorf toys tend to have minimal features or facial expressions so that there’s no limitations or bounds to creative and open-ended play. The child can take the play in whatever direction they want, express their emotions, and use their imagination to the fullest.
Waldorf toys also tend to have soft lines that emulate nature. For example the smooth rounded surface of a wooden toy feels good in the child’s hand and the texture is a connection to nature. Wooden toys feel warm and are robust in contrast to synthetic materials such as plastic, which feel cold to the touch, and can be brittle. Toys made from natural materials are renewable, eco-friendly, and therefore sustainable. This again is a further link back to nature and instills a kinship, understanding of nature, and hopefully a motive to preserve nature.
Quirky Earth toys
Although I came to hear about Waldorf a little too late for my little one, I really love the principles behind it. As a family we have a very balanced attitude towards toys and play and we have both wooden toys and plastic. However, when I started to make the first prototypes for Eco Surprise™. I found it fascinating to find my daughter playing with them for much, much longer than I’d ever seen her play with anything else! She was most definitely using her imagination too, and her play was very creative. So I did definitely observe a difference in the way that she played with them.
The inspiration for my toys also comes from nature, lifecycles, animals, plants, trees, the elements etc. I love to create toys from wood with smooth rounded edges which feel great for a child to hold. I hope that the combination of the natural material and the figure will create a connection to nature for the child. I hope that children are able to use the toys to emulate nature, explore, and learn through play. I also hope that this will strengthen their connection to nature and help them be become good stewards of our planet.