The seven life processes. Foundations of learning

By Philipp Gelitz, February 2015

How are the life functions such as breathing or nutrition connected with attentiveness or interest? Learning in school is based on physical prerequisites. Some comments on a central thought of Waldorf education.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

With rapid and shallow breathing, a three-year-old boy rushes into his kindergarten group. He draws a picture for thirty seconds, “helps” for a minute to cut up apples and subsequently plays for a short time in almost every corner of the room. The words of the adult passed him by completely. He cannot tidy up, he hardly appears to perceive the finger games and talks incessantly during mealtimes.

Three-and-a-half years later the same boy walks quietly through the door, shakes the hand of the adult, quietly paints a picture, takes a deep breath and then continues his work from yesterday at the workbench. Here he asks precisely what needs to be done and happily puts the suggestions into practice. During the finger games he endeavours to do everything just like the adults. What has happened? Something has come to appearance in the child which was not visible beforehand. A study of the transformation of the human being at around the age of seven enables us to obtain a deeper understanding of this.

The metamorphosis of life forces

The life processes in the child’s organism require time to mature. Deep breathing, good circulation of the blood, a regular intake of food and digestion first have to sort themselves out and order themselves. It is only once these life processes, which start with the second dentition, begin to metamorphose that the soul abilities which are required for school are initiated. If the life forces are not deflected through explanations, intellectual enquiries or a wrongly understood premature learning, they can work on building the body in order subsequently to free themselves from the bodily organisation.

Now, at about the age of seven, we can make demands of the imagination, thinking and memory which no longer place a burden on the organism. The possibility of school learning, interest, the willingness to assimilate new things and form ideas arises through life forces which previously built the child’s body and have now been liberated.

The seven life processes

An important aspect of these life forces is the observation of the different processes which constantly stream through us and keep us alive.

The first of these processes which sets in immediately after birth is breathing. All the other life processes are dependent on it from birth since we would not stay alive without breathing. This refers both to the respiration of the lungs and the rhythmical processes in the digestion and organic rhythms.

The second fundamental life process is warmth. We can warm up and cool down. We are constantly compensating for the temperature in our environment and maintaining our own body temperature. This process is a continuous adjustment and maintenance of a relationship. The possibility of warming up as we work and the regulatory mechanisms such as sweating are also part of this.

Two other life processes are nutrition and excretory processes. These two processes are closely connected when we eat. More detailed observation can, however, distinguish between taking in and crushing – nutrition – and sorting, retaining, secreting – excretion.

The next life process is preservation. This refers to the ability of the organism to preserve its forms and functions, that is, to protect them against decay. This is a kind of “form memory” which also includes wound healing.

Growth also belongs to the life processes: if certain functions and forms exist, they can also grow. Thus bones in children which are fully formed still have the ability to grow; equally the different organs do not retain their size as at birth but grow without thereby giving up their form or function.

The last life process is generation. There are constant generative or reproductive processes in the body when individual substances, certain cells or specific organ functions are regenerated. Reproduction based on the maturing of the sexual organs is the most visible result of this life process. If we accept the thought that these seven life processes, which are initially tied to the body, are an important component of the vitality which streams through us, then we can ask further which soul abilities are liberated at school age from their anchorage in the life processes during the infant and kindergarten period.

The interaction between life processes and soul abilities

In order to understand the interrelationship between autonomous life processes and liberated soul abilities it is worth looking at situations in which vital functions are impaired. There are children and adults whose breathing is weak. In the majority of cases it is also possible to observe a problematical relationship with observation and attentiveness. Anyone who is completely out of breath after a sporting exertion can see this connection immediately: listening quietly and attentively to an explanation with a heartbeat of 180 is a little difficult. And a certain lack of interest and the ability to become enthusiastic about something can often be observed in children and adults who constantly have cold feet and are pale. Anyone who is ill and lies in bed shivering or sweating will be aware of this problem.

Such a relationship with soul abilities can be found in all life processes. Searching for such relationships offers a wealth of opportunities to understand when certain basic soul abilities in children in the first years of school are less well-developed. It is then often the case that life processes have not yet been sufficiently anchored in the body. Yet attentiveness and interest are then often already called upon although they have not yet been fully “born”.

Tasks in kindergarten and school

Anchoring the life process of breathing creates perceptual ability and attentiveness, and with sufficient warmth also concentration. It is the task of kindergarten and school to strengthen the breathing as the physical and functional basis of attentiveness via imitation through a rhythmical course to the day, rhythmical working and rhythmical language, through smooth transitions, singing – and in school recorder playing and a good timetable. Warmth, too, has to establish itself in the body in the first years of life. If an infant still needs a hat on even in summer, school children can already run barefoot through the snow. The body’s temperature regulation provides the basis for interest, the capacity for enthusiasm and emotional adaptability.

Kindergarten has the task of maintaining such warmth processes in the environment of the children so that they act on the latter: that is, baking, working, lighting candles and, not least, the enthusiasm of the adults. The children imitate that inwardly. If schools display a certain lack of interest, the same applies. Becoming enthusiastic about something also means igniting the imagination. Artistic and, above all, pictorial teaching which gives the children the opportunity to become active themselves is a proven way of warming them to something; in other words, to create enthusiasm in them.

The metabolic sphere with nutrition, excretion and preservation is represented in kindergarten particularly well through cooking, tidying and repair. Once these life processes have matured in the body, children assimilate and connect themselves inwardly with things (nutrition), can create order and sort out (excretion), and remember increasingly well (preservation). In school, too, a lot can still be done to strengthen the physical and functional side as the basis of emotional development. “Preheated” lessons instead of a cold intellectual approach, keeping workbooks in order, cleaning the blackboard and sweeping the classroom – all of these things help to strengthen the life structure as the basis of the readiness to learn.

The life processes of growth and generation must also be cared for. Emotional growth arises from physical growth, the willingness to practice and perfect something. Physical generation creates the soul ability to form ideas. If we follow growth in nature and the growth of learning stages in kindergarten and the early years in school, and when in all fields – from laying the table through crafts to the independent production of everyday objects – as well as in artistic activity we practice producing something, then the child assimilates a lot through his or her powers of imitation which contributes to strengthening these two life processes.

Much can still be done in school to carry on helping the life processes in the body to mature. Imitation is merely overlaid through voluntarily looking up to an authority and, from puberty, independent judgement. But it is retained also at this age as an ability.

About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf kindergarten of the Kassel Free Waldorf School.

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