This article is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner.
Early childhood – a brief summary
In order to move on to the second developmental phase of the child lets just recap what happens during the early years. So we see that there are some important aspects to consider when one looks at the development of the young child. The most important activities that the young child has to come to terms with in the early years are walking, speaking and thinking. When one closely observes these actions one realizes that there is much more going on than what is outwardly visible. We see that there are inner processes working inside the child’s body, soul and spirit that in turns connect with the physical and spiritual forces of the outside world. These forces emanating from the child’s being need to find a harmonious way of interaction with the outside forces of the universe. We have looked at how the young child from birth to the first dentition lives in a kind of a – and I quote Steiner – “bodily religion”. The child is a completely sensory and imitative being and learns through imitation. The little body has to come to terms with the dynamic and static forces of the universe inside itself and adjust itself accordingly and it does so through imitation. The child will not follow words, instructions, moral explanations etc. They will follow and imitate the adults actions, moves and speech. The development of speech grows out of the movement and doing of the child and thinking in turn develops from speech. We also see that thinking is not yet logical but a pictorial reproduction of the outer world. There is also an individual quality in the way a child engages with the world that sets the tone of its destiny. If one observes closely one can see it in the way the children start to walk and how they use their hands and fingers. Children’s actions arise from what is most spiritual in their being.
When the child learns to speak it enters a wider circle of relationships and it begins to merge with the native tongue and the folk soul of the particular ethnic group it is born in. When the child learns to think it is no longer restricted to a particular ethnic group but with thinking the child enters into the realm of humanity as a whole. This is just a very brief mention of the factors that determine the young child’s developing relationships to the outer world and the resulting formation of its future destiny. If you would like to explore further I suggest the reading of Steiner’s work for a more in depth understanding of his philosophy on the nature of these relationships.
The first dentition to puberty
With the first change of teeth the child changes completely. The pious, bodily, imitative and sensory qualities of the young child withdraw to a deeper part of its being and a more pictorial quality enters. Up to the first dentition the child has reproduced the world around it pictorially in its inner world through its thinking processes. Now with the first dentition the child begins to understand content presented to them in an external picture. This is why it is so important to teach the child using pictures as much as possible. Children between the first dentition and puberty cannot comprehend intellectual concepts as yet. They only truly understand when something is presented to them in picture form. Everything brought to the child through language should be imbued with a pictorial element. Children cannot think logically and therefore rejects logic. Intellectual brilliance has very little effect on them if any. They simply don’t relate or understand. Children want to live in pictures.
Children will respond to soul qualities of kindness and warmth. Now, after their imitative period, for the first time, they are not only looking at the activities around them but is opening up to more. A tender voice, softly spoken with love will touch them deeply. Words of praise and appreciation and approval will reach the child’s soul. Steiner says: “Now a new openness awakens to what adults say with the natural authority they have developed. This reveals the most characteristic element inherent in the child between the change of teeth and puberty.”
Although Steiner didn’t advocate authoritarian principles in general he stresses that authority is an important element during this time. It is absolutely necessary for the child to voluntarily accept authority during this developmental phase. Children who hasn’t learned to look up with a natural sense of surrender to the adults bringing them up and educating them, will have difficulty later in life to live a life of freedom.
Language and the spoken word belongs to the spiritual realm. As Steiner has said and I quote: ‘…language is only a link in a long chain of soul experiences.” When one speaks, each word has an emotional reaction and refers to a deeper soul experience. What imitation is to the first years in a child’s life, language is to the child after the first dentition. They will follow what is being said. If you think how the little child dreamily follows the activity around him/her you will gain an understanding of how the child after the change of teeth follows spoken language. This element of spoken language needs to be imbued with pictures in all aspects concerning teaching.
If one keeps in mind the spiritual quality of language one comes to an understanding of the spiritual content that flows deeply into the child’s being through the spoken word shaping the child’s being. It becomes clear that great care needs to be taken what spoken content is given to the child. Explaining something factually is pointless. For instance to explain how the water cycle works with mere facts will have no impact. The child cannot understand it any more than what the ear can understand the word ‘music’. The music needs to be heard in order to gain comprehension. Now if you bring in soul and artistic elements and tell the child of the journey of a little water drop called Samantha and her adventures. How she fell from the sky, how she traveled to the sea and had many adventures and met many friends on her way. How she finally returned home to her cloud in the sky much wiser than before – you will have reached the child’s soul and captured its imagination. Steiner says: “Between the second dentition and puberty, children live in what comes through language, with its artistic and pictorial element. Thus, only what is immersed in imagery will reach the child. This is why the development of a child’s memory is particularly strong at this age.”
Steiner says that the memory in the early years undergo a change with the change of teeth. Where previously memory had to do with the forming of an ‘inner habit’ within the physical body, this forming of inner habit moves to a soul level during the change of teeth. Steiner says it is important to differentiate between inner habit within the physical world and habit within the soul world. Habit forming within the soul realm is what we would call memory. The fact that a child can begin to understand content represented with pictures when the change of teeth occurs as opposed to just reproducing pictures of the outside world, links with the memory of the child undergoing the change from habit forming in the physical world to habit forming in the realm of the soul. The newly emerged memory also links with the pictorial element and works mainly with images as well.
During the ninth and tenth year another development takes place. The child wakes up to the musical element in life. The child’s ability to embrace and grasp musical concepts becomes visible and expresses itself through dancing and movement. However, one needs to cultivate a musical approach before the ninth year in the appropriate way in order to make sure that when the child becomes more aware of the musical forces during the ninth and tenth year, it will not be too overwhelming.
The pictorial and soul elements present in the inner being of children after the change of teeth will be one of the fundamental principles underlying the pedagogical methodology when structuring and creating lesson content to introduce and teach numbers and arithmetic to children. This also brings us to another important element in Waldorf education. Waldorf has a threefold approach to teaching. In order to reach and to teach a child’s whole being a teacher communicates lesson content in such a way that it speaks to the child on three levels – these levels being thinking, feeling and willing or also widely referred to as head, heart and hands. Thinking refers to the intellect, feeling refers to emotional experience and willing refers to physical action. I will dedicate a blog in future on the threefold approach in the Waldorf classroom. These fundamental principles translates into dynamic creative activities in the classroom that both children and adults find fun and enjoyable. There is a very good reason why children in Waldorf schools love to learn. Learning comes as naturally as life itself when you meet the child’s true need.
Steiner, R, 1996. The Child’s Changing Consciousness As the basis of pedagogical practice. 1st ed. New York, USA: Anthroposophic Press.