Not uniform but multifaceted

By Helmut Eller, October 2021

Rudolf Steiner based Waldorf education on a teaching of so-called anthropological threefoldness. It includes not only the division of the human being into body, soul and spirit, but also the associated activities of thinking, feeling and volition. As a class teacher, how can we find an approach to it and become educationally effective in such a way that the children can feel at home in their body, soul and spirit?

Photo: © hui-buh /

The significance of Rudolf Steiner’s threefoldness idea for the class teacher

During my forty years as a class teacher, I was able to experience four times how interesting it can be to introduce parents phenomenologically to the “threefoldness idea” by means of the development of our three soul forces of “volition – feeling – thinking” and thus create a common basis for work. After all, every child goes through developmental phases that we can understand much better if we look at them with the help of this idea.1 (See Figure 1)

Immediately after birth we can observe three abilities in three regions of the body

  • Through our head we can absorb the world and do so most conspicuously at first by sucking in food, but also by absorbing sensory impressions (arrows pointing inwards).
  • In the torso, our bodily centre, we begin our earthly life with breathing, which goes in both directions (inhaling and exhaling – arrows in both directions).
  • With our limbs we act into the surroundings, first by kicking (outward arrows). This is a first triad that is easy to follow.

Let us observe other triads in the first year of life:

  • Full of activity, the child wants to stand up on their own. After a few weeks, they try to lift their head and learn to look at the same time.
  • In a second step, they learn to sit and to grasp objects they see with their hands. They learn to coordinate both abilities.
  • Finally they take control of their legs and can then stand upright and walk around freely without help.

The child first grasps the head, then the torso, finally the legs, which become (movable) pillars, straightens up and walks. What an act of will!


Head               Sucking

Torso               Grasping

Limbs               Walking

Figure 1: The first year of life

The following two years can be seen as further steps in a three-step process that can be described as an upward movement from the legs to the head:

  • In the second year of life, the mobility of the limbs in the chest area transforms into a mental mobility, the ability to speak and differentiated feeling.
  • In the third year, this inner movement metamorphoses into an intellectual ability in the head: thinking.

Walking, speaking, thinking are three abilities of the soul that we acquire through our own activity by imitating the people around us in the first years.

They are the expression of our three soul forces of volition, feeling and thinking: an archetypal motif.

                                    First year                     Second Year                Third Year

Head                                                                                                   Thinking

Torso                                                               Speaking

Limbs                           Walking

Figure 2: The first three years

Up to now it has been three steps that we have assigned to the three body regions of head, torso and limbs, but not yet from the perspective of threefoldness: this states that in an organism the whole is reflected in each of its parts. This means: we can discover in the human head not only the principle of the head, but also the principle of the middle and the limbs. The upper and lower jaws, for example, are metamorphosed limbs. Interestingly, every small child has as many teeth in their mouth as we have toes and fingers. On the foot, the toes reflect the principle of the limbs, the heel that of the head and the flexing arch of the foot in between reflects the rhythmical centre.

We call the principle of the head the “sensory and nervous system”, that of the middle the “rhythmical system” and that of the limbs the “metabolic and limb system”. Step by step we familiarise ourselves with this way of looking at things and in doing so will be amazed to notice that the human being is not only a threefold being in their body but also in the soul and spirit.2 Knowledge of the three soul forces, volition – feeling – thinking, which we first became acquainted with as the acquired soul abilities of walking – speaking – thinking, is of the greatest importance for the further development of the child.

We can also look at the first seven years from the aspect of this triad, with each phase lasting about a third of this time.

Birth                                                                                                    7 years

                                    Walking           Speaking         Thinking

                                    Volition           Feeling            Thinking

Figure 3: The triad in the first seven-year period

The same can be observed in the second and third seven-year period. Each of these phases begins with volition. The second phase is always related to feeling and the third to thinking.


Volition           Feeling            Thinking

W = V

F = F

D = T

Figure 4: Triads in the first three seven-year periods

“Will is the power of action in doing” is how Ernst-Michael Kranich characterised this human ability that is not easy to understand. The child lives by doing, learns by doing, in which the forces of will are at work. Their doing is accompanied by feelings, their heart is in it, and thinking understanding is the third step. Pestalozzi’s “head-heart-hand system of education” expresses the same three-step process and Piaget came to the same conclusion empirically.

It is of utmost importance that we give children the opportunity to do a lot with their limbs, to practise the dexterity of their hands and to strengthen their will in this way! The fact that children knit in the first year of school at the Waldorf School has an effect on the ability to think.

These fundamental aspects also include suggestions such as:

  • If we consciously repeat something, that is let the child do the same thing several times, we strengthen their willpower.
  • If we let the child practise unconsciously, we affect their feeling. What we do only once affects only our conceptual life (head).3
  • In all artistic activities (painting, making music, etc.), we particularly affect the will, but at the same time are involved with our feeling (heart) as well as thinking and observation (head). This is why the Waldorf curriculum contains so many arts.
  • If we love the child, we affect their will; if we think a lot about the child, we affect their powers of intellect.

For the class teacher, in addition to all these fundamental aspects, there is a whole series of methodological suggestions which are much better understood when the idea of threefoldness is considered in a living way. Let us pick out a few.

In the so-called “supplementary course” 4 Rudolf Steiner suggests

  • paying attention to a healthy alternation between contemplative activity and self-activity in every lesson. This means that after a long story we let the children do something with their hands or recite or sing something. And this in rhythmical alternation. The lessons should breathe.
  • If in a geography main lesson we led the children into the wide world, the next main lesson should lead them more inwards, for example in German.
  • When planning lessons, care should be taken to ensure that a subject that stimulates the children’s self-activity is followed by a subject that requires contemplative activity.

We will have noticed that self-activity appeals to the will, the limbs, and contemplative activity to the head. For German, in which we class teachers have to deal with the whole of grammar with the children, there has for many years been a simple little booklet called Grammatik (Grammar).5 Working through it, we cannot help but be amazed: Heinz Zimmermann shows that in our language every single chapter is based on a threefold principle. It is fascinating to read, easy to understand and also a treasure trove for foreign language teachers.

A small sample: The three types of word – noun, adjective and verb – have an inner relationship to the three soul forces: the noun to thinking, the adjective to feeling, the verb to volition.

When we practise these parts of speech with the children in the third year of school, they want to

  • immediately carry out the corresponding activities (e.g. “jump”) when naming verbs;
  • name the opposite when listing adjectives (e.g. “high – low”);
  • when naming nouns, it remains very quiet (“blackboard”, “door”).

Some main lessons in middle school can be prepared and taught by the class teacher in a much more targeted way if they discover the aspects of threefoldness in them.

In the seventh year of school we teach “nutritional science”, look at the plant world from the point of view of threefoldness and find that there is a relationship between

  • the root and our head, or more precisely, the “sensory and nervous system”;
  • stem and leaf and our “rhythmical system”;
  • flower as well as fruit and our “metabolic and limb system”.

The children learn to understand that each plant has its typical formation and there develops its characteristic effect most strongly – the carrot in the root, the nettle in the leaf, the rose in the blossom – up to and including the nourishing and healing forces for humans.

When discussing digestion, the children can easily understand that it begins in the mouth when chewing, continues in the stomach and is completed in the lower abdomen in the intestines: a three-step process! In the mouth we experience digestion consciously, in the stomach only dreamily, and what happens in the intestines we sleep through.

It should be mentioned that in zoology in class 5 and possibly 6, threefoldness plays a very important role. Wolfgang Schad succeeded years ago in showing how the three groups of mammals are related to the threefold human being:

  • the rodents with our nervous and sensory system;
  • the predators, seals and whales with our rhythmical system;
  • the ungulates with our metabolic and limb system.

When we look at the rock world of the earth at the end of a geography main lesson in the sixth year of school, it is important for us class teachers to know that the primary rock, granite, is also threefold. German has a saying to help to remember the three substances better: “Feldspar, quartz and mica, I’ll never forget them. Quartz is light, mica is black (darkness) and feldspar is coloured.”

Now we could continue with a consideration of colour theory and painting lessons, but will stay with the main lessons and note that we also find connections with threefoldness in class 7 chemistry, e.g. in the topic acid – alkali – salt.

When the pupils in the eighth year of school learn about our skeleton in the anatomy main lesson and draw individual bones with a black pencil or charcoal, they will learn to see threefoldness clearly in our skeleton and find it confirmed by their own experience!

And don’t forget: Rudolf Steiner’s “social threefolding” should be dealt with in history lessons in the eighth year of school.

This aphoristic overview may suffice to realise that the study of threefoldness is of particular relevance for the class teacher. Once we have found a beginning, we will always discover new aspects and never come to an end, but remain a constant learner. The pupils need the learning person in order to be able to educate themselves on them.


1 Helmut Eller: Entwicklungsstufen des werdenden Menschen. Stuttgart 2021.

2 Lothar Vogel: Der dreigliedrige Mensch. Morphologische Grundlagen einer allgemeinen Menschenkunde, Dornach 2005.

3 Rudolf Steiner: CW 293, lecture 4.  

4 Rudolf Steiner: CW 302, lecture 1.

5 Heinz Zimmermann: Grammatik. Spiel von Bewegung und Form, Dornach 1997

About the author: Helmut Eller was a class teacher at Hamburg Waldorf schools for forty years, held a lectureship in Waldorf education at Hamburg University for twenty-five years, has since then been involved in Waldorf teacher training and gives lectures and courses.


No comments

Add comment

* - required field