Rudolf Steiner (1861 to 1925) was born in what is now Croatia but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a mystical philosopher, a social reformer, a literary critic and much more. He was extraordinarily prolific: his collected writings run to more than 40 volumes, including books, plays, poetry and an autobiography. In his lifetime his books sold by the tens of thousands and he lectured to large audiences across Europe.
In 1919, the industrialist Emil Molt invited Steiner to create a school for the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. This school, known as the Waldorf School, was the start of a worldwide educational movement. There are now over 1000 Steiner / Waldorf schools (the names are interchangeable), as well as over 2000 kindergartens and 600 institutes for special education in 60 countries.
Steiner's educational work was rooted in Anthroposophy, the name he gave to his system of spiritual ideas. Steiner's mystical thinking was complex and not always consistent; some of his ideas have been discredited and others have fallen by the wayside. However, his educational work has been hugely influential and has inspired an educational movement that has grown and developed ever since.
Steiner felt that teachers have "a sacred task in helping each child's soul and spirit grow". This ethos was expressed through distinctive educational practices: a particular view of children's developmental stages; a focus on play, stories and song in the early years; a balance between academic study, artistic expression and skilled crafts; a reverence for nature and the use of natural materials; and the celebration of festivals to mark the turning of the year.