Rudolf Steiner and the Developmental Phases of Childhood: Puberty to Twenty One.


The sadness of our present day intellectual culture is that it has totally estranged adults from the soul of a child. A fully intellectualized adult has no idea or connection to a child’s soul’s experience or thinking. In order to educate a child, adults need to find the way back to a child’s world and the way to do this is to study each developmental phase thoroughly.

We looked previously at the first two developmental phases of childhood as defined by Rudolf Steiner. The first  developmental phase is from birth to the first dentition and the second phase is from the first dentition up to puberty. There is much more to say on both these topics and I will deal with them in more depth when I am explaining the practical application of Steiner’s insights in the classroom. As I said before, my area of focus will be particularly on the period from the first dentition until puberty and how arithmetic should be introduced and presented to children in order to create a solid basis and a love for numbers in primary school.

Age Nine

Before we move on to puberty which starts around twelve, there is another smaller change we need to look at when the child turns nine. Up to the age of nine the child experiences itself  as one with the world. At age nine a separation takes place. All of a sudden the child starts to experience its separateness from the world around him/her. Where previously children wanted to be actively part of the drawing process, children between ages 9 and 12 become more receptive to external pictures presented to them. Where the child before might have accepted the authority of the teacher unquestionably now the children need to be reassured that the teacher is indeed an accurate representation of the outside world. Steiner says: “The child wants to see the world as living behind the teacher, who must not fail now to confirm the student’s heartfelt conviction that the teacher is properly attuned to the world, and embodies truth, beauty, and goodness. At this stage, the unconscious nature of children tests the teacher as never before. They want to discover whether the teacher is truly worthy of representing the entire world.”  It is important that the teacher or parent at this stage doesn’t make the mistake trying to prove this to the child. Rather an off hand remark pointing and suggesting to the children that the teacher or the parent has hidden resources and abilities that until now haven’t been revealed, will be much more effective and convincing. The children will believe that they have much more to learn from this figure in front of them. More about this later.


In order to understand Steiner’s explanation of what happens at puberty we need to have a brief look at Steiner’s model of the human being. According to Steiner the human being consists of different bodies. There are the physical body, the etheric body, the astral body and a I-being or Ego (ego in this context doesn’t have the same meaning as the selfish attributes of the false self that are often referred to as ego). The physical body presents the physical world and are born into this world at birth. The etheric body permeates our physical existence. It contains the forces of life, growth and metamorphosis that maintain and develop the physical body. The astral body is the bearer of all pleasure and suffering, joy and pain, instincts, impulses, passions, desires, sensations and ideas. It also carries all concepts of what we designate as moral ideals and so on. The I-being or the Ego is the faculty that endows us with self-consciousness and separates us from the animal kingdom. We can call ourselves ‘I’ and so gain a new independence. 

Until the change of teeth, young children are essentially large ‘sense-organs’ and embody a body-religion and learn through imitation. The etheric body and all other forces present are all engaged in working on the child’s physical body. When the change of teeth occur, the bodily-religion subside and a pictorial element comes into existence and enables the child to learn in another way. With puberty the astral body is born and it gains independent existence from that time onward. The I-being only fully comes into existence at the age of twenty one.

With the onset of puberty a new consciousness is born. Up to the twelfth year children do not think in terms of cause and effect. This is why concepts to children under the age of twelve need to be introduced in a fluid mobile form. Cause and effect make no sense to them. At the age of twelve an understanding of causality gradually emerges. Their thinking comes to life. The ability to have their own independent thoughts and opinions about things emerge. They become able to form judgements. From the change of teeth to puberty the child primarily resides in the realm of feeling. Before the change of teeth children exist in the realm of will and the surrounding world is experienced on a physical sense level. During these early years there are also a moral and spiritual forces that enters the child physical being and these forces – according to Steiner – is the reason why the children before twelve are unable to grasp any content containing causality. This is why concepts dealing with the causal nature of the mineral kingdom and physics for example should only be introduced around the twelfth year.

On the other hand, one will find that the twelfth year old finds it impossible to understand the intricate interconnections of history. Rather should one concentrate on vibrant and interesting stories about prominent historical figures that evoke feelings of sympathy and antipathy. Historical content at this stage should still appeal primarily to children’s feelings. Causal links between earlier and later historical events should only be taught after the fourteenth year.

If one teaches children about causality before the birth of the astral body the effects can be very damaging in later life. Before the birth of the astral body, there is only the etheric body. Towards the twelfth year the astral body starts its birth process and it only reaches completion at the end of puberty. If you guide students into making value judgements – saying yes or no on the basis of causality prematurely, these judgements enter the etheric body instead of the astral. (Evoking feelings of sympathy and antipathy is something different though and does play a central role in the teaching process before puberty.) The astral body is the vehicle that carries human love. Love is of course present before, but it hasn’t reached full maturity and independent existence yet. When critical judgements are introduced at the right time the astral body’s capacity for love and benevolence will become part of judgements and criticisms. The etheric body on the other hand does not have this benevolent quality and in this context can become destructive if ‘yes’ or ‘no’ judgements based on causality are introduced too early. Steiner says :”If the power of judging is developed too early, the judgments of others are received with a latent destructive force rather than with benevolence. These things demonstrate the importance of doing the right thing at the right time.”

Until the twelfth year the child cannot stand a description of a human being. However  around the twelfth year this changes. Children start seeing themselves as mirrors reflecting the world around them. They do this through ideas and concepts. This is when the animal kingdom can be introduced. Each animal should be introduced as a different version of a human being where one aspect of the body has been developed above all else, for instance a giraffe with his long neck, and elephant with an elongated upper lip etc. The whole of the animal kingdom should explained in terms of an ‘extended human being’.

Puberty until twenty one is a time of emotional expansion, a growing independence and a search for a life purpose. It is a time of testing of social and personal limitations as well as a growing awareness of a flowering sexuality. Most parents and children experience this period as traumatic because of conflict arising especially as the teenager develops his/her own opinions and grows more and more to independence. This is a normal developmental aspect of this period and should be handled with truth, wisdom, patience and constraint. At twenty one a new developmental phase as an independent adult begins with the birth of the I-being or the Ego.



Steiner, R, 1996. The Child’s Changing Consciousness As the basis of pedagogical practice. 1st ed. New York, USA: Anthroposophic Press.


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