Movement is education and education is movement

By Matthias Jeuken, August 2022

Movement is of utmost importance for humans. This applies to external, physical movement as well as to our inner life: we feel excited and attracted by a person, an image, a group or an environment, or we feel aversion, it tends to push us away from a thing or a fellow human being. In our feelings, in the emotions, we are constantly moving in the area of tension between sympathy and antipathy. Sometimes we succeed better in empathising with a situation or another person – and sometimes, unfortunately, not so well.

Current research shows that the physical activity levels of children and young people have declined sharply in recent decades. This has consequences for the movement abilities of the children and young people, but also for their health. Obesity, degenerative and metabolic diseases, but also allergies are on the increase. And what's more, increasing numbers of young people are finding it difficult to connect positively with their own shape and to experience themselves as self-efficacious. Initial research suggests that the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated these trends through the isolation into which children and young people in particular were forced. They had little opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances, sport and exercise in groups was hardly possible and children and young people also moved much less when on their own.1

Waldorf education incorporates the inner, emotional movement into its work. Pupils should laugh once and cry once in every lesson, Rudolf Steiner advised Waldorf teachers in a teachers’ meeting in 1923. He drew attention to the importance of once moving beyond ourselves (in humour) and withdrawing into ourselves (in the serious mood).2

But we also have to deal with movement in our thought life. Do I succeed in grasping a thought – and pursuing it further? Am I able to put myself in another person's thought process, to adopt their perspective – and to think like them? And – not least: can I perceive a goal I have set myself and then pursue it?

We know from psychological research that our physical movements are connected to mental emotions and vice versa. The movements in the young child's environment have a beneficial effect: a broad spectrum of movement results in faster and more differentiated language acquisition. But the children's own movements are also important: a few days (or sometimes weeks) before children speak a new word, they point to the object: the pointing gesture is followed by the spoken naming!3 However, the potential of movement is by no means exhausted with the acquisition of the mother tongue or when children reach school age. Psychological studies in recent years have shown that children demonstrably learn better when teachers accompany their lessons with gestures (appropriate to the learning content). And pupils learn even better when they accompany the learning process themselves with their own gestures.4

We incorporate movement elements in the Waldorf school not only to support cognitive learning. In addition to gymnastic play and the proper gymnastics and eurythmy lessons, the pupils also engagement in movement in the handicraft and horticulture lessons, in drama, handwork and musical activities. Movement is also used in teaching situations where this might seem rather unusual at first glance. It not (only) serves to support the abstract thoughts, but the content itself is conveyed through the movement created and experienced by the children. In 1922, Rudolf Steiner encouraged teachers not to give additional tutoring specifically to children who have difficulties understanding abstract content, but to work from a different angle: he recommended painting and doing gymnastic exercises with them in order to support their mental abilities from the bodily-physical level.

However, the inner qualities of the movements are also important: studies by US psychologists show that students need to "understand" gestures in order for them to be effective in the learning process.

The importance attached to the qualities of movements is particularly evident in the movement subjects. From the first day of school, Rudolf Steiner established eurythmy as a regular school subject for all classes. It is taken for granted that it is part of the Waldorf school's canon of subjects. But when he speaks in public about the new system of education, he never tires of mentioning eurythmy – and of making clear why "gymnastics with the soul" is integrated into the curriculum.5 In Waldorf education, it still complements physical education lessons today, which will be discussed below. How can gymnastics with the soul succeed? Here are three examples from eurythmy lessons.

In the first classes, the lessons are movement stories: together with the teacher, the pupils move in the large eurythmy room – and gradually slip into all the roles. Of course, the characters move very differently: as a queen we walk differently from when we have turned into a little mouse. And how differently does a dove fly from an eagle. Guided by the teacher, all the children slip into the gestures – and fill them from within, from the soul experience of the different roles. The inner movement shapes the bodily movements – and lets us become skilful and sensitive. And at the same time a very satisfying sense of self can emerge. I can transform myself into anything. I can become anything!

In the middle school classes, the lessons have a different style: we develop virtuoso dexterity and courage in the rod exercises, move purposefully and confidently through geometric shapes and learn to move precisely in relation to music and speech, but also in relation to our classmates. Whereas in lower school the ability of transformation was in the foreground, it is now about placing ourselves in relation to the world around us and to ourselves through movement.

In upper school classes, the young people can use the eurythmy movements with increasing confidence and independence to express their own intentions and interests: what do I want to say – and how do I want to express it? The outwardly visible movements express my personality, my intentions and goals. Physical, mental and spiritual expression have become one.

But gymnastics lessons, too, are extended on the basis of the understanding of the human being in Waldorf education. For gymnastics, which at the time of the founding of the first Waldorf school was still strongly influenced by military traditions, Fritz von Bothmer developed a large canon of gymnastic exercises that are still used today in the physical education lessons of Waldorf education. Starting with playful round dances for the younger ones, von Bothmer developed exercises in which the pupils experience themselves as shaping the different spatial directions and their forces. In the Bothmer gymnastics exercises, the movement between heaviness and lightness, the breathing between interior and exterior, the polarity of up and down, the tension between dynamic and static creates a special body feeling and awareness of the quality of human movements and spatial directions.

Bothmer gymnastics and eurythmy complement each other: in gymnastics we consciously place ourselves with our own body in the space around us, in eurythmy we experience more strongly the movements of our spirit and soul in their physical expression.

In each case, the physical movements in the school context point beyond themselves. They are not only intended to make us healthy, skilful and strong, but also to contribute to the education of soul and spirit.


1. gesundheit/ Called up on 30 April 2022

2.     Rudolf Steiner (2019): Konferenzen mit den Lehrern der ersten Waldorfschule 1919–1924 (GA 300b). Dornach, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, see i.a. p. 388.

3.     Rainer Patzlaff (2017): Sprache. Das Lebenselixir des Kindes. Stuttgart, Verlag Freies Geistesleben

4.     Susan Goldin-Meadow (2011): Learning through gesture Called up on 30 April 2022

5.     Rudolf Steiner (1991): Die geistig seelischen Grundkräfte der Erziehungskunst (GA 305). Dornach, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, p. 252

Author: Matthias Jeuken, born 1963, professor of eurythmy education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy


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