Learning to grasp the body

By Philipp Gelitz, November 2016

When there is talk about education in early childhood it can make us wince inwardly because what is meant by that is early learning. People talks about “support” in a well-meaning way.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Yet in the years before school education means something quite different from the utilisation of resources or accumulation of skills and knowledge. We need a living inner picture of the nature of small children which is formed out of spiritual understanding if we are to be able to provide a mantle and motivation for the children in an age-appropriate way.

Everything is open

The development of the infant and small child proceeds at a speed in the first two to three years which is never again achieved in any subsequent developmental phase. Yet at the beginning of their life children cannot do any of the things we actually consider to be unmistakeably human: maintaining a constant body temperature, digesting, walking upright, speaking as well as developing ideas and linking experiences in their thinking.

Although the development of neural networks is greatest in the very first period of life, which means that we “learn” the most, children have to start out in life with comparatively few innate skills. Animals are born with many more skills: no fish has to “learn” for a year to be able to swim, no horse has to roll and crawl for months until it can finally stand on its own.

Yet despite this initial inability with regard to motor and cognitive abilities, each newborn has a mysterious magic about them. Because there is more! A soul and spiritual being wishes to make itself at home in a body which is not defined and open in all directions. And we can perceive this when we see an infant. (Almost) nothing is already predetermined here, (almost) everything is still open.

Infants are much less determined by heredity than any animal and can acquire an infinite number of additional abilities. And so we see in the infant always also the potential of future possibilities. We see their human potential, we see the developing person! Incidentally, the word person is derived from the Latin personare = to resound – what a perspective!

Arrived in the body

Shortly after school enrolment: the child can walk on stilts, skip with a skipping rope, swim in a cold lake and warm up again immediately afterwards. They can eat everything, speak perfectly, recognise letters and have securely mastered numbers to twenty and often beyond. Hardly anyone would think of tiptoeing into the child’s room or speaking in hushed tones. Special consideration is really hardly in evidence any longer.

What has happened? Something seems to have made itself at home in the body over the years. The child can be addressed increasingly directly. The individuality has firmly arrived in the body when school starts. The child has made itself at home. Something different now resounds in their appearance.

No blank sheet

Children do not come into the world as a blank sheet. They incarnate out of a pre-earthly existence, they bring their spirit into the fleshly body. This raises great questions of freedom and destiny. Levelling the path for the child’s own destiny, which has more to do with themselves than with the expectations of their surroundings, is a leitmotif of Waldorf education.

This motif is ultimately served by the subjects of free play, cultivating the senses through natural play materials, and a rhythmical course to the day. They help the child to anchor themselves in the body with their individuality in order then to be able to develop emotionally and spiritually throughout life.

This is the inner side of Waldorf education which is indivisibly connected with the outer side of organic food and wooden toys.

The open curtain

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna which hangs in almost every Waldorf kindergarten puts in pictorial form something that is not always spoken about: a view of the path of the human being from heaven to earth. In this painting the curtain between the earthly and spiritual worlds has been opened.

Behind the mother with child we can see shadowy faces in the world behind the curtain. And in the foreground the representatives of the earthly world are waiting for the child, not in eagerness to educate him and with school books but in reverence and restraint.

Furthermore, in most Waldorf kindergartens a story is told on the birthday of each child which starts something like this:

“It is now (…) years ago, that it happened that an angel was sent into the largest hall in heaven – the one where all the small children play. He walked about until he found the particular child he was looking for and carefully took the child with him. When the midnight hour arrived, the child looked down to earth: and the child saw stones and mountains, flowers and trees, lakes, rivers and oceans, the many animals and the human beings. And the sun spreading its warm light over everything.

“And among the people the child saw a mother and a father who were so much longing for a child. They had already prepared everything. There was a cot and the child could see that it was still empty. Little tops and trousers lay ready in the wardrobe, and nappies, and the child longed to be there. That is where I want to live – the child told the angel, and he nodded and said – then follow me. (…)”

In this story, too, it becomes clear that Waldorf education includes the spiritual side of the human being. Human beings are not just physical in origin but also have a soul and spiritual home.

The envelopes of the developing body

The arrival on earth – and thus the individuality making itself at home in its own body – of course already starts during pregnancy. At the beginning, it is particularly the amnion and the yolk sac which are in evidence in the first days after the fertilised ovum has been implanted in the uterus.

In the second week after fertilisation these two envelopes surround the actual body of the child, the so-called embryonic disc, like two balloons before being partly taken back into the differentiating body from the third week. The embryonic disc lying between these envelopes, which is quite small relative to the overall size, only slowly begins to differentiate from  the third week.

In addition it is the development of the placenta which becomes particularly prominent alongside these two envelopes around the actual body. In the course of embryonic development the foetus then significantly grows in size in relation to its envelopes; but the embryo continues to float in the amniotic fluid within the protective skin of the amniotic sac until birth and remains connected to the last moment with the placenta through the umbilical cord which from beginning to end of the pregnancy feeds the small body and filters out many harmful substances.

Life thus begins within a protective and nurturing envelope which nature provides in the womb.

Enveloping education

After birth we are called upon as educators to provide age-appropriate nurture, protection and envelopment – and at the right moment to let go what wants to be born. Arrival on earth is dependent on the way we as adults now create a nurturing envelope around the child. Not any longer by nature but out of a conscious process for a healthy start to life; by culture, we might say.

A  rhythmical course to the day and free play help the arrival – an intellectual approach and lack of movement are potential obstacles. Just as the child was physically enveloped before birth, so it is now the task of their educators to allow the life force of the child to be used for the development of the physical body. This life force – the etheric body in anthroposophical terminology – should not yet be diverted by explicit learning, appeals to the memory or reason, or through excessive stimulation. On the path of incarnation into our own ever more skilful body it is still needed for building up the physical body.

Thus education in early childhood can be seen – contrary to the normal definition – as something which should be thought of as being rather more connected with physical self-realisation than the development of cognitive abilities.

About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a state accredited child care worker and Waldorf child care worker, and works as a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf kindergarten in the Bildungshaus of the Kassel Free Waldorf School.


Barbara Audley, 12.04.23 02:04

I loved the use of the word "enveloped," lovely imagery to work with.

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