Pre-school education

By Philipp Gelitz, January 2014

Before the years of schooling start, it is young children’s physical development which requires all their strength. Education has to take account of that.

Small children learn the most from primary experiences. Photo: © Lorenzo Ravagli

When children are born, they can do almost nothing except breath to begin with. They cannot regulate their body temperature, they cannot do anything except digest breast milk, they cannot walk, they cannot speak, cannot do sums or read, and they cannot do what is most essentially human: think! Yet there is a breath of magic around each newborn baby. Almost everyone starts to move more carefully in their presence, speak more quietly and also the thoughts around the infant are less anxious.

Seven years later: children walk on stilts, skip, swim in cold lakes and warm up again immediately afterwards. They can eat everything, talk perfectly and effortlessly link ideas, recognise letters and master the number space up to 20 (and often higher than that). Few people still feel the need to tiptoe into a child’s room or talk quietly. Happy and sad thoughts about the child occur in equal measure and special consideration is hard to discern. As the years pass, something from the periphery seems to enter into the physical body. We can talk to children better and more directly. The personality has firmly arrived in the body at the end of the kindergarten period.

Children learn with their senses

Two great themes dominate this period of the first septennium. The first is the experience of the world through the senses. To begin with, children exclusively familiarise themselves with the world by means of sensory perception. It would occur to no one to try and explain in words to an infant the meaning of rough and smooth. The latter are experienced directly and without thinking about it through touching and sucking. It is essential for small children to have many different natural sensory experiences in order to get to know the world and their own bodies. Touch, vision, smell, taste, hearing: all these things must be directly experienced in many different ways without intellectual preparation. Such sensory experiences must, however, be consciously organised. If the colours surrounding the child are not too gaudy and the wallpaper is not too colourful, the eye can take its time to come to terms with the things in its immediate environment. If the food is not too exotic, the taste of the individual dish can be perceived much more clearly. And if wood, wool, pine cones, sand and stones are the main materials for play, then the sense of touch is addressed in quite a different way than if plastic and metal – smooth and cool – dominate the world of experience. The same applies to smells and sounds: perfume and radio disrupt peaceful sensory perception.

Alongside these familiar five senses, we can highlight another three senses with their fields of experience which arise in the first years of life.

The first is the sense of life with which we perceive our wellbeing or lack of it, our hunger and thirst. This requires an environment in which the child can articulate how he or she feels which is then lovingly perceived by the adult.

The next thing is the perception of the position of the limbs, the sense of own movement. Falling over, standing up, bumping into something – all these things are important for becoming acquainted with the limits of one’s body. Everyone who permits that to happen is doing the child a favour.

The third one is the sense of balance. Children love to practice climbing and balancing: let us grant them these experience as often as possible! The result is self-assurance in their own body.

Microwave and freezer are counterproductive

The second major subject is how to root the life processes in the body. Breathing, temperature, food, excretion, conservation, growth and generation – all these things must first be laboriously rooted in the physical body. They are not yet autonomous. The life processes need a protected space in the early years in order to make the body increasingly stronger and independent of the care-taking environment.

In practice that means: the vital functions must not be overwhelmed. Children need dependability and rhythm. They should be protected from shock experiences. That has a health-giving effect on the respiration. They need warm clothing which supports the insufficient blood circulation (the head must be covered, above all).

They need role models who grow physically warm through work and activity and who can grow emotionally enthusiastic about something. They must be introduced to the various foods in a careful way and regular mealtimes are required if the intake of food and excretion are to come into a healthy rhythm. Children love nothing more than to help with the cooking and baking. Putting something in the microwave or getting something out of the freezer does not do children any good. Quite apart from the worse quality, the external preparatory activity is absent which in itself stimulates the digestion!

Thinking diverts vitality

We all know the feeling: when we are ill we cannot cope with complicated ideas or remember things precisely – we are thrown back on our physical body. But this is the state of small children. They are completely taken up with their vital functions.

It is here that the importance of education becomes clear. Do we leave the child in peace as it seeks to take ownership of its vital processes or do we keep making demands on these forces to develop mental activity? It is one of the central findings of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being that the vital forces which are active in our body are the same forces with which we have ideas, remember things, think – just the effect is different. And to the degree that these thinking forces are already taken up in childhood they are unavailable for forming the organism in respiration, blood circulation and nutrition – the children become cool, pale and lacking in drive. Whether or not vital processes take hold of the child’s body in a healthy way is not just dependent on a rhythmical structure to the day, on woolly jumpers and organic food, it is also crucially dependent on the avoidance mental overload.

How example influences the child’s organism

But how, then, do children learn in the first seven years if not through explanation? They learn almost exclusively through example and imitation! The younger the child, the clearer this is. Children simply imitate. We can only guess at the immense responsibility which lies in the way we use gestures or speak. But it is not just the things which are outwardly observable to a greater extent which influence the development of the child’s organism, but also the way in which we do things, our ordinary way of life: the example we present of a breathing, rhythmical structure to the day influences the respiration and pulse of the child. The example we present of inner and outer enthusiasm for something determines the extent to which the child’s organism warms through. And the example we present of the inner association with and involvement in an activity or a subject influences the digestion of the child.

All these things are part of the daily practice in Waldorf kindergartens. Together with the careful choice of colours, forms and textures in the spatial environment and play materials, their other feature is that the day is always structured in a rhythmical way. In other words, particular attention is not just paid to looking after the senses, but also the quality of the processes and activities. Like breathing, phases of free play alternate with phases of quietness in finger games, stories and meals together. Furthermore, outward activities are presented which have a healthy effect on the child’s body because the child imitates them. Be it baking, cooking and household or craft work (warming through), cleaning, repairing and looking after things (regeneration), everything is made to come alive as a work process in front of and with the children – and all of it as rhythmically as possible (respiration). What we see externally as work has a strengthening effect on the vital processes in the child’s organism as a result of imitation.

The core of Waldorf education in kindergarten

The goal of Waldorf education in the first septennium is to take ownership of one’s body and its vital functions as the physical basis for soul and spiritual development. And this is done not because the aim is to bring up a loyal citizen or educate a winner in the capitalist system, but to educate the child to freedom. But structuring one’s life in freedom and autonomy – that is, including independently of expectations – can only be done by someone who in early childhood has been allowed to develop their physical body in a healthy way. Otherwise human beings run the risk of becoming puppets of unreflected necessity or expectations.

But anyone who was allowed to develop a healthy awareness of their body in their pre-school years has the physical prerequisites to realise themselves and not an abstract, externally determined something.

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



No comments

Add comment

* - required field