Waldorf education is founded on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner as extended by the research and work of teachers and pedagogues since Steiner's time. The Waldorf school curriculum focuses on developmental stages articulated by Steiner, who divided childhood into three seven-year phases: early childhood, when he believed learning (language and skill acquisition) is largely experiential, imitative and sensory-based; the middle, elementary school years, when he believed learning naturally occurs through the imagination and feelings and is best aided by creative, especially artistic, activity; and adolescence, when he believed the capacity for abstraction, conceptual judgments and intellectual rigor awakens.

The education of head or Intellect, heart or feeling life, and hands or practical skills is differentiated over the course of schooling as follows: The Waldorf approach to early childhood education (through age 6/7) emphasizes learning through doing (imitation of practical activities); the approach to the elementary years (ages 7-12 or 7-14) emphasizes learning through the feeling life, with the goal of making all of education artistic in these years, and the Waldorf approach to the middle (12-14 years) and high school (14-18 years) emphasizes learning through intellectual understanding. (Schools vary in how distinctly they differentiate a middle school.) There is an attempt to integrate practical, artistic and intellectual approaches into the teaching of all subjects, especially through providing artistic and practical experiences of academic subjects.