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Waldorf Gnomes ~ Mathematics

Math Manipulatives

Every subject in Waldorf Education is accentuated with imagination. With children under 7 (and you can stretch that to about 9), it is helpful to have a pictoral and active demonstration of abstract mathematical notions.  Pictured above  are examples of objects you can use and easily make by hand for your children, most of these items (not all) are used in a waldorf settings.

Math Gnomes

Prior to starting this block,  I had noticed on other waldorf comment boards and sites, the mention of math gnomes. I thought the idea was so sweet and could bring a magical story form representation to such a normally linear subject like math. These gnomes, 4 of them, representing the four symbols of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, where colored each in their own primary colours of red, blue or yellow, the fourth one is green, held much more meaning behind what I initially understood.

Each gnome held a personality of its own, whether it be fiery and commanding, swift and alert, soulful and empathetic or precise and thorough. Rudolph Steiner is known to have studied personality traits which he called temperaments. Everyone seems to have a dominant one and perhaps in some cases a secondary underlining one. When I made these gnomes, I copied the symbols used with each colour without really giving it a second thought. But when I first offered the lesson to Tristan back in 2006, telling him the story of each, the personality came to fit the symbol that was embroidered on its chest. I was absolutely amazed. Here’s what I know about Rudolph Steiner’s four temperaments. Each are represented with the four earth elements of fire, air, earth and water.

Phlegmatic; Easy going, logical, assesses a situation with precision and is very thorough, can get discouraged easily, has a tendancy to be lazy.

Melancholic; Thoughful, empathetic, understands what you are feeling, determined, can get disapointed easily, has tendancy to see the negative.

Choleric;  Leadership, commanding, knows where he’s at and where he’s going, fair but direct, can have a fiery personality, could anger easily.

Sanguine; Alert, quick to notice detail, has many ideas and wants to try them all, can be easily distracted, can be disorganized.

In history the four temperaments known as ‘humours’ (french for mood) where associated with bodily functions. The three great philosophers Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle used these medicinally for the treatments of various illnesses. To keep the body healthy they believed it necessary to have an equilibrium associated by these humours. This theory got me a little confused because the colours associated with each gnome in a waldorf program was Red=Choleric, Yellow=Sanguine, Blue=Melancholic and Green= Phlegmatic, did not match the four “medieval” humours of Sanguine=blood=air, Choleric=yellow bile=fire, Phlegmatic=phlegm=water and Melancholic=black bile=earth. If colours were to be associated with each, they would consist of; Sanguine=red (sang means blood in french), Choleric=yellow (because of the bile and fire) Phlegmatic= blue (since it’s associated with water) and Melancholic =green (for earth).  But then the symbols would not match the mathematical temperaments. It’s still a gentle form to be applied to math.

Humour Body substance produced by Element Qualities Complexion and Body type Personality
Sanguine blood liver air hot and moist red-cheeked, corpulent amorous, happy, generous, optimistic, irresponsible
Choleric yellow bile spleen fire hot and dry red-haired, thin violent, vengeful, short-tempered, ambitious
Phlegmatic phlegm lungs water cold and moist corpulent Sluggish, pallid, cowardly
Melancholic black bile gall bladder earth cold and dry sallow, thin Introspective, sentimental, gluttonous

The Four Humours, classic Greek, Medieval and Renaissance history,  follow this link to learn more…

Gnomes personalities…

Addition counts one,  and one and one and one. Sometimes she needs to go back and try counting it again. She wants to make sure she has it all right and nothing has been missed. She loves to have a big heap of jewels. She is very precise but it can take a long time before she is done counting. Sometimes she takes naps and has a little snack before continuing to count. (Phlegmatic)

Subtraction is Additions’ twin brother,  he undoes what she counts. When he is asked to bring jewels to the king, he may drop some along the way or may loose some from his pockets full of holes. He is always concerned about others not having any jewels, so he always remembers to give to those who do not have any. (Melancholic)

Multiplication is very quick and alert. In fact you barely see her go by. She runs this way and that, to not miss a thing. She has X-tra special speed which allows her to count twice as much in half the time as her little sister Additon does. Because of her speed, she can check to see if Addition forgot to include some jewels before she has finished counting. (Sanguine)

Division is Multiplication’s twin brother. He is very fair. When he counts he makes sure everyone has their fair share. He normally leads his brother and sisters, and divides each one to their duty. (Choleric)

In Donna Simmons Christopherus program, she chose the use of squirrels instead of Gnomes, which has become a stagnant form in Waldorf circles, as she explains. Using squirrels gives it a fresh way to approach a story. They are normally  found everywhere, can easily be seen in your yard by your children, which offers not only a whimsical association with nature but a deeper understanding of what the squirrels do during the day. In addition, after making your four squirrels, you can spend time with a seasonal activity in fall, collecting nuts and acorns that have fallen to the ground. This making for a very personal and distinguishable activity, which you will both cherish for years to come.

These nuts then become counters for mathematical blocks in the future.

10 Responses to Waldorf Gnomes ~ Mathematics

  1. Sue

    This is a wonderful discussion for me to crystalise my thoughts before teaching Years 2 and 3s in a public school in Australia! I am doing the practical part of my training and finding out how I can integrate the Steiner insights into a mainstream setting- am also a mother of now adult children so am bringing my life experience into a new realm.

    I am so interested to hear about Waldorf-inspired education in inner city Oakland as I spent 7 years of my owb childhood in Marin before moving here. I love the idea of global networking to continue the quest of bringing a spiritually and artistically informed method of teaching to as many children as possible! 🙂

  2. Hazel

    Thank you for a wonderful explanatory description of what the gnomes represents according to temperaments. I have read so many gnome tales and I feel that though the stories are different the temperament should be associated with what the gnome mathematical tale that the math symbol represents.

    • Stephanie

      Your welcome Hazel, i’m happy you enjoyed my thoughts on the Waldorf gnomes. However, it’s all up to interpretation. I was just sharing what resonating with me. It just made sense to link the temperaments with the math symbols.

  3. Angelaclaire


    Thank you for sharing such an amazing and helpful site for Waldorf teachers. I am looking to make Gnomes for my first grade. Can you tell me how to make the Gnomes in the picture please?


    • Stephanie

      Hi Angelaclaire,

      They are simple to make using basic geometric shapes as templates. The hat is a cone shape sewn together at the back. The head is made up of a 1 1/2″ wooden bead with a hole in it center. The top part of the clothing is a circle folded in half and the bottom half is a long and thin rectangle folded in half with a slit cut almost to the top (to create each leg). The inside body I used two pipe cleaners to make a frame that can bend. I have intentions of offering some video tutorials once we are done building our home. Thanks for leaving a message, I love reading your comments.

      Stephanie xxx

  4. Lucy

    Thank you for this post!!
    I was just wondering where you got those beautiful wooden boxes from?
    Thank you!
    Lucy x

    • Stephanie

      Hi Lucy,

      The boxes were unfinished and bought from a dollar store. I painted them inspired by the waldorf gnomes. Thank you, Stephanie

  5. Kathryn

    Thank you for sharing! I just began teaching in a Waldorf inspired school in inner city Oakland. I am creating the math stories in 2nd grade and I really appreciate your writing and knowledge. I’m just beginning my Waldorf learning.

    • Stephanie

      It’s my pleasure, Kathryn. I’m happy you visited. Waldorf pedagogy is really about a spiritual journey continually metamorphosing. I’ve been using this form of education for almost 7 years now and my perception of it has changed. I believe all public schools should adopt this form of learning, it would benefit not only the children but the teachers as well. It truly is fitted for our 21st century era, Rudolph Steiner teachings are therapeudic and enlightened. I wish you well on your journey. I hope you visit us again.


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