Elisabeth von Grunelius. The first kindergarten teacher

Tomáš Zdražil

Be it the pastor Johannes Geyer who worked as a class teacher; be it the foreign language teacher Rudolf Treichler who subsequently became a class teacher; be it Robert Killian and Christoph Boy who brought their experience of progressive education from the country reform school in Haubinda and the Odenwald School; be it the painter and craft teacher Max Wolffhügel, the handwork teacher Hedwig Hauck, the mathematician Hermann von Baravalle and the gym teacher Fritz Graf von Bothmer to name but a few.

Below we will portray a lady in conclusion of this series of articles about the founding college of teachers who was there from the first school year but who tends to be forgotten due to her inconspicuous presence: Elisabeth von Grunelius.

At Easter 1920, the setting up of a kindergarten in the school grounds was under discussion. It related to a larger group of children who were to join class 1 after the summer holidays. The search was on for premises for the kindergarten, but evidently in vain because in May 1920 the attempt was abandoned after a brief stopgap solution.

Rudolf Steiner had invited Elisabeth von Grunelius to become the kindergarten teacher; she was a delicate young woman whom he had known since 1914 when she came to Dornach as a nineteen-year-old to work on the wooden sculptures of the first Goetheanum. Born in Kolbsheim in Alsace, she had graduated from the Comenius Kindergarten Teacher Training Seminar in Bonn in 1914 with the desire to go on to study psychology. After eighteen months, she took leave of absence from Dornach to undertake a practice year at a kindergarten, daycare centre  and in social welfare in Berlin and acquire the youth leader diploma from the Pestalozzi Fröbel Seminar. This also qualified her as a trainer of placement students.

When she returned to her home town after the War, which had meanwhile become French, Rudolf Steiner’s request reached her. She responded to his call but only worked for a time as a substitute teacher at the school. In the second school year, Elisabeth von Grunelius supported Leonie von Mirbach in her lessons; the first hour of main lesson was given by von Mirbach, the other one by von Grunelius. When the former’s class with 52 pupils was divided in the third school year, von Grunelius took on one half, but only for a year. Since the establishment of a kindergarten was still not in sight, she went to Dornach to study eurythmy and painting.

It was not until 1924 that through the forceful action of Herbert Hahn the remotest corner of the  gym exercise ground was made available for a kindergarten hut which was put  up in 1926. Elisabeth von Grunelius expanded the kindergarten at Uhlandshöhe, founded the international Waldorf kindergarten movement and, without direct advice and close support from Rudolf Steiner, inventively and independently laid the foundations for Waldorf education in the first seven years of life. She headed the kindergarten until it was closed by the Nazis in 1938.

In 1940 she moved to the USA where she founded the first Waldorf kindergarten in the country in Kimberton in 1941; another one followed on Long Island in 1948. Her Waldorf classic Early Childhood and the Waldorf School Plan was published in 1950. It appeared in several editions and languages. In 1954 she returned to Europe, founded a Waldorf kindergarten in Paris and lived as a consultant in Dornach from 1970 to 1988. She died in Schopfheim in 1989 at the advanced age of 94 as the last member of the original college of teachers.

About the author: Prof. Dr Tomáš Zdražil is a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy.