The breathing day of the small child

By Philipp Gelitz, January 2013

Life in a Waldorf kindergarten is strongly marked by rhythm. Activities such as baking and crafts are repeated rhythmically as are also the activities in weekly and annual rhythms. Alongside this, the course of the day with its alternation of free play and guidance as well as of playing inside and in the garden is of central importance.

© Charlotte Fischer

The same as always

The same thing happens every morning: Anna gets up, dresses, has breakfast and at eight goes with her mother to kindergarten. When she arrives there, she sees the kindergarten teacher involved in some homely activity, says goodbye to her mother with always the same gesture, then helps for a little while with the baking, chopping vegetables, sawing or cleaning and then dips into free play which is not guided by anyone. When the kindergarten teacher tidies up her workplace, she notices that soon thereafter everyone tidies up and the course of the day continues with finger and singing games and a joint breakfast. Then everyone goes out into the garden where Anna becomes completely involved in her free play with sand and earth. When it is time to go back inside, everyone washes their hands and listens eagerly to the same story as yesterday.

Rhythm gives security

The security which this creates only sets in through the daily repetition of the always similar actions. Here it is totally irrelevant whether kindergarten starts in the house or in the garden, whether a child attends kindergarten only in the morning or for the whole day. The crucial factor is the daily repetition and thus the unconscious recognition of the chronological structure of the day. The strength which would otherwise be needed to adjust to changing attractions which might possibly change every day can be used wholly for unconscious physical learning: playing, balancing, falling over, getting up again, holding a spoon, clapping and singing. Thus everything that needs to be learnt is learnt under the protection of the security lent by a structured day – and it is done without any explanation.

Secure in recurrence

The day is particularly healthy for small children if the change between house and garden as well as between free play and guided activity is not just restricted to the morning. If parents wish to continue to maintain this strength-giving rhythm at home as well, it is to be recommended that going out and being inside is kept in a healthy balance in the afternoons and at weekends. Here care should be taken to ensure that the afternoons always remain similar in their chronological structure to give the child security. If there is always a quiet time at the beginning for resting or a sleep, followed by something light to eat, and then going outside to play in nature, a simple basic structure has been found in which the children can pursue their play freely while at the same time being secure in a breathing structure.

Too much form or too much freedom?

In order to bring up children as healthily as possible in kindergarten and the home, it is worthwhile taking a self-critical look at the way in which too much form and guidance and too much lack of them can prevent a healthy rhythm to the day. If in the all-day kindergarten all the activities take place in the morning and nothing happens in the afternoon except waiting for mum, something needs to be corrected. Or if at home too much fondness for free play leads to the complete absence of a calming period between lunch and evening meal through a joint snack or a game together, then the afternoon does not have a breathing rhythm but has disappeared before we know it.

A breathing rhythm in education

Rudolf Steiner wanted Waldorf educators to take the following to heart: “Among all the ways in which human beings relate to the external world, breathing is the most important.” But “the child cannot yet breathe properly inwardly and education has to consist of teaching the child to breathe properly.” Furthermore, the connection of spirit and soul with the body in human beings depends on “proper” breathing and on the relationship between sleeping and waking. Steiner says. With regard to pre-school education, bringing rhythm into the day means that children have a regular alternation between free play and guided activities, as well as between house and garden. Children then learn to breathe – the “principle of breathing” – as an external process and develop their bodily nature in imitation of the model of the day with its breathing rhythm. Imitation is so strong in the first few years that physical development is dependent on what happens in the surroundings. A seamlessly rhythmically structured day, connected with homely rhythmical activities, rhythmical language and rhythmical singing provides the best foundation for the development of a healthy cardiac and respiratory system – and at a later stage for being able to observe and concentrate in school. The ability required in school and later life to take in and reproduce, to focus and relax, turn outwards in action and inwards in conceptualisation, depends strongly on a daily rhythm as a small child and in kindergarten. This is where the physical foundation for later mental focus and relaxation is laid.

Chronobiology and educational practice

The results of research in chronobiology provide valuable knowledge about bringing rhythm into the day. First, there is the recurring cycle in which we experience a slight low every 90 minutes which makes us slightly drowsy and we have a greater propensity to fall asleep. In between, also every 90 minutes, we reach a peak of greatest concentration. These 90  minute rhythms are deeply anchored in human life. In sleep research they are also described as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycles in which deep sleep alternates with movement and dreaming. Every work unit, every lecture and also the learning-intensive double lessons in school unconsciously take account of this 90-minute rhythm. It is difficult to concentrate for longer without a break. And this is where it becomes interesting with regard to kindergar­ten: how long do the individual phases last? How long is the guided phase from tidying up, the games and breakfast to putting on our outdoor clothes? How long should free play last? How long should the afternoon rest last? How long should we go outside in the afternoon again? And equally at home: how is free play in the garden or “in the street” replaced by something else at the right time? For how long does Sunday morning in the living room at home extend? If we take such questions into account, we can look at the chronological structure of the alternation between leaving alone and guidance with even greater precision.

Performance high and midday low

All studies show that there is a performance low at about two in the morning, a midday low at about two in the afternoon, a first performance high at about ten in the forenoon and a second one at about five in the afternoon. Even if practical experience shows that these things occur a little earlier in small children and there are pronounced early risers (“larks”) and late risers (“owls”), the forenoon performance high, the midday low and the high in the afternoon are always there. So let us not overexert the children with any tasks in the period after lunch! Let them rest! Their life forces are needed elsewhere, namely in the digestive tract. And just as we adults need to make a mighty effort at about two in the afternoon if we want to achieve anything, small children often become agitated, jumpy and very extensive in their games if they have not had enough rest. But once the children have had their rest, we can move towards the second performance high at full strength. If as educators we can, in the vicinity of the child, prepare something in the afternoon that is needed for the next morning, then the arc of the breathing rhythm has even been consciously maintained from one day to the next. In this way a memory of yesterday and a feeling of morning and afternoon can be awoken through life without explicitly referring to them.

Endogenous and exogenous rhythms

There are two functional body rhythms (endogenous) which we should take into account as educators – the 90-minute rhythm and the performance throughout the day with its midday low. These two rhythms are a given. They are natural. Against this background we can then introduce the two rhythms which are educationally guided from the outside (exogenous) – the alternation between free play and form as well as the alternation between inside and outside. These rhythms are “artificial” but necessary for the healthy development of the child.


In the daily rhythm, the transitions represent the problematical moments in kindergarten. We can use tidying up as an example. This is one of the greater challenges for the teacher. It introduces the transition from free play to a guided phase of the day. It is healthy if the transition is seamless. That means if the kindergarten teacher first starts to tidy her workplace, then starts to tidy up here or there and the children then imitate her and join in. Always singing the same song can also sometimes help to signal to the children without appealing to their intellect that it is time to tidy up. Incidentally, the line between the healthy ritualisation of tidy-up time and a sudden break in the course of the day through the signal “it’s tidy-up time – now!” is very fine here. All we need to do is observe ourselves when we do it! That applies both to kindergarten and at home.

Other “critical” transitions are the morning leave-taking from the parents, going from the breakfast table to the cloakroom, from outside back into the house and, in the all-day groups, very particularly the transition from lunch, via brushing the teeth, to the rest period and after rest or sleep back into play. Our own breathing rhythm can serve as a model for healthy transitions. Just observe the transition from breathing in to breathing out. It is something quite different from a bellows. At the end of the inward breath, the breathing at first weakens, then there is a short slack point, then the outward breath gains in power and only then do we fully breathe out. If we take that as an inner image, we will manage to have fewer interruptions in the course of the day and achieve more seamless transitions. Then everything happens in waves. And what happens in waves is filled with life!

About the author: Philipp Gelitz, Waldorf pre-school teacher, works as a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf kindergarten of the Kassel Free Waldorf School, father of one daughter.


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