Pictures which nourish the soul. Why Waldorf teachers tell parables

By Bernd Kettel, May 2014

Between the change of teeth and puberty, children imitate the pictures of the world which the teacher describes to them with the awakening powers of their imagination. If these pictures are spiritually vivid, they support the healthy development of their faculties.

When children reach school age, there is a transformation in their forces which were until then occupied with the development of the body and they become free. The outer sign of that is the change of teeth. What happens in the organism from that point onwards is essentially growth and regeneration but no longer any new structures. The surplus “formative forces” can be used for something else. They are used, among other things, for developing the imagination. Now the task of the Waldorf teacher consists of bringing these forces into a regulated activity. The formative forces are part of a greater context of forces which Rudolf Steiner called the “etheric body”. It is the agent in all the vital functions of our organism. Let us imagine a large basin of water with several dents in it. If we agitate the water in the bays and thus keep all of the water in a rhythmical movement, then the changes in the small bays are transferred to the whole basin. Something similar happens with the etheric body. Anything that occurs in the powers of imagination is transferred to the whole of the etheric body. And since the latter is responsible for maintaining bodily functions, teaching has an effect as far as into the life processes.

How pictures come about

Let us take writing, for example. All the letters are developed out of pictures which arise from the nature of the sound concerned. Thus for example we can use the image of the wind blowing through the grass in a meadow or the stalks of grain in a field for “W”, a fricative which is formed with the lower lip and teeth. The shape of the letter “W” can thus be obtained from the wave-like movement. The “S”, in contrast, can easily be experience in the winding movement of a snake which additionally gives us the hissing quality of the sound. The humming, tasting, mediating character of “M” can easily be found in the curved contours of the lips.

The pictures must fit. We should not seek to develop the ponderous “B” from the active, humming bee or the hard, upright “K” from the picture of the potato (“Kartoffel” in German). The “C” is particularly interesting because it has a different sound depending on the letters next to it and appears to refuse to be captured in an image. Here the chameleon can help us because this animal adapts its appearance to its environment. We can have it sitting on a branch with its long tail hanging down in a “C” shape.

Main lessons in lower and middle school

If we look at the way that Steiner ordered the main lessons in the class teacher period, we can recognise a structure full of wisdom. Geography, meteorology and astronomy for example are main lessons which are inwardly connected. In the course of the years we can establish many different relationships between them and other main lessons such as for example zoology, botany and anthropology, but also history. That creates the picture of a comprehensive interrelatedness of the world which is penetrated and supported by an ordering will.

Take botany. The plant by nature is embedded in its environment. Its roots are in the earth from where it obtains water, its stem and leaves unfold in the air where photosynthesis takes place and the flower follows the sun.

We can experience the plant as a human being in reverse. Whereas the head in humans is oriented towards the sun and the sky and their reproductive organs towards the earth, the opposite is the case in plants: the root grows in the dark seclusion of the earth. It is the “resourceful” part of the plant because it seeks to find a way to water. This resourcefulness can be best compared with the activity of the head, nerves and senses in human beings, who develop “resourcefulness” in the dark seclusion of their skull. The seeds and fruits, in contrast, develop in the flower of the plant which is oriented towards the light as happens similarly in the human body in which the foetus develops which is then born as the child. It is quite possible to describe that to children without emphasising the fertilisation process, something which Steiner also thought inappropriate for this age (Erziehungskunst Seminarbesprechungen und Lehrplanvorträge, Ninth Seminar Discussion, Stuttgart, 30. August 1919).

The respiration and main nourishment of the plant takes place between the flower and root in the leaf section. That is where we find the lung in human beings. The human lung is similar to an upside down tree. There is also a close connection between the respiration of the plant and the respiration of humans. The plant releases oxygen during respiration which human beings need for life. Conversely, human beings release carbon dioxide when exhaling which is poisonous for us but is used by the plant for building up its body. This is often a surprising experience for the children and they get an idea that the picture of the “flower head” is not actually accurate.

In a further step we can put the plant in a greater context. We recognise the relatedness of different plants and come to a comprehensive view of the nature of plants. We place the rose and lily plants next to one another and go in search of the plants we know which are related to them. Thus we create the picture of a large family whose members are recognisable by their similarities. The large and small cycles in nature show us that earth, plants and people stand in a deep and indissoluble connection. This gradually creates the picture of an order on earth which reaches its crowning moment when we look up at the starry sky in which the planets follow their course. Since we have just spoken about lily and rose plants, we look at Mercury and Venus.

From a geocentric perspective it looks as if the planets follow certain paths. And if it looks like that to use it is, of course, the same for the plants. Just look at the dandelion which during the day follows the path of the sun with its flower. Although we know that the sun does not really revolve around the earth, it does appear like that to our experience.

If it were possible to make the trajectories of the planets Mercury and Venus visible in the course of the weeks, months and years, rather like the traces of sparklers which we swish through the air, then we would see a unique picture. The track of Mercury would form a hexagram; in contrast the track of Venus would form a pentagram. Observatories have maps of the planetary trajectories from a geocentric perspective which confirm this.

And now we look back at the rose and lily plants and we see the mysterious similarity between the forms of the flowers and the paths of the planets. By this time at the latest, the children can think of other comparable phenomena: crystal forms, honeycombs or starfish for example. There is no need to deepen these observations further. It is sufficient to allow the feeling to arise that great laws are at work in the cosmos and there is a recognisable connection between its parts.


A deeper understanding of these processes arises if we include time and its rhythms. Because the activity of the etheric body takes place, like all living things, rhythmically in time.

An example: when children come home from school at lunchtime or in the afternoon they also do other things. The events in school fade and are forgotten. Only next day in school are the experiences of the previous day called back to consciousness and processed further. Night and sleep lie in between, the absence of the consciousness of self. When we are asleep we are not aware of ourselves. But these pictures which have been implanted continue to work during sleep. They lead a life of their own and influence our development, particularly the development of children. All of us have experienced going to bed in the evening with a problem or an unsolved question and waking up the next morning with the feeling of having a solution in sight or, indeed, knowing what to do next. It is not for nothing that the custom of sleeping on a matter before making an important decision is widespread everywhere. Waldorf education works with the effects of sleep. If a picture is taken up again the next day, it is like in a plant which is planted in the earth and whose growth we lovingly watch and care for day by day. In this way we study a subject for three or four weeks, bring it to a certain conclusion in that time and then allow it to rest for a longer period. Here, too, we work with forgetting so that what has been learnt can continue to work in the unconscious realms of the soul.

The beneficial action of sleep and forgetting is the action of the etheric body. That is what Steiner is referring to when in his basic course for teachers, The Study of Man, he characterises waking up in the morning as follows: “When the I passes over into the waking state in the morning, it penetrates the body; not the physical processes in the body, however, but the pictorial world which the body generates in its deepest recesses out of external events. That is how thinking cognition is transmitted to the I.” (sixth lecture, 27 August 1919).

A picture that continues to work: the story of Crookshanks

Steiner placed great value on children being told “thought-provoking stories”. By this he meant little myths such as my mother told me when I was about seven years old. It was her response to my question where I came from. I was deeply impressed by the story at the time. It is actually the only made-up story which I can still remember very well to the present day. “Once upon a time, there was a woman who went home from the fields each evening. On her way she heard plaintive crying in the darkness, as if from a small child. She followed the sound and a short while later came upon a little being in a mud puddle. It was a little angel who had fallen down from heaven and as he fell his wings had broken off. The woman picked up the little angle, comforted him and took him home as her child. There she brought him up and taught him everything that human beings need to know. But the little angel had injured his leg during his great fall and limped a  little. That is why she called him Crookshanks.”

Admittedly, an unusual answer to the question of a child. But as I grew older, this story kept entering my mind in the course of my life. It grew in the same measure as I gathered experience in life. Finally my imagination made a very important addition to the picture of Crookshanks.

“As Crookshanks grew older, he felt deep within himself that he had lost something important during his fall from heaven: the secret which he had brought with him from there. He felt a deep longing to set out into the world to rediscover his secret. He had to leave everything behind and face his great adventure. He did not even know where he should start and what precisely he was looking for, because he had forgotten everything as he fell.”

The children which are entrusted to our care can all be compared to this little angel. Each of them has forgotten something on their way from heaven down to earth for which they long in the deepest depths of their soul. Some of them may also have sustained a “sprain”. But the important thing is that each one of them carries the strength within himself or herself which enables them to surmount all obstacles. And this strength can be nourished by such a story.

About the author: Bernd Kettel is a class teacher at the Freie Georgenschule Reutlingen

Link: Freie Georgenschule