Freedom gained. How small children acquire basic human skills

By Philipp Gelitz, September 2013

The exclusively human abilities of walking, speaking and thinking raise human beings above the animal kingdom. But they are not natural gifts and must be developed through hard work in early childhood. A development report.

Picture: © Charlotte Fischer

Essence and appearance

If as adults we look at a newborn child, a mood of reverence and humility arises with regard to the being behind the actual helpless figure. For in practical terms infants cannot physically do anything at all. They cannot digest, they cannot maintain their body temperature, they cannot speak and they cannot propel themselves. All movements are involuntary or the result of innate reflexes. Sucking, swallowing, grasping, the respiratory movements and many other things, such as for example the stepping reflex or certain sequences of movements on external stimuli are physical automatisms which have nothing whatsoever to do with human autonomy, freedom and self-determination. Nevertheless, we “see” through the appearance of the infant to the individuality which will in the coming years develop the general human abilities and personal individual talents.

Upright carriage has to be worked for

In the first year of life, the child rapidly learns to move. This can be observed in the first three months particularly in the head region: the eyes learn to fix on objects and the ability arises to hold the head without a supporting hand. The first smile also occurs during this time. The second three months sees infants playing with their hands in front of their chest while lying on their back and untiring rolling movements. On their stomach, the legs interestingly often still “hang” in the air when awake. The main activity lies in the arms and hands as well as the stomach and back muscles.

By the ninth or tenth month, the body has mostly been taken hold off down to the knees. The child pushes up his or her whole upper body and ends up on all fours. Although the chronological development becomes increasingly individual from now on, sitting up and “commando crawling” fall into the end of this period.

Crawling proper, pulling themselves up, standing and walking then develop after the tenth month of life. With the first step into the world between the twelfth and eighteenth month, the first stage of awakening to the world has been reached – sometimes as soon as nine months, sometimes not until 21 months. Here the people around the infant have the task of never intervening in the movemental development but simply being an upright walking model. Children only achieve a “secure footing” in the world through sequences of movements they have managed by themselves. Otherwise there is a risk of postural damage, uncertainty in the sequence of movements, or reflexes which have not been overcome and which later in school can turn into behavioural syndromes.

Speaking and movement fertilise one another

Simultaneously with the development of movement in the first year there is a continuous play with sounds. If initially children can only scream, they start over the months increasingly to echo sounds and imitate the sing-song of their mother tongue. But until approximately their first birthday this is merely becoming physically acquainted with the speech organs of larynx, tongue , lips and palate. Words filled with meaning which can then be used to give a proper name to something in the world is one of the main characteristics of the second year. This is when speaking words starts. Hundreds of words are heard, babbled and used in the right place. The discovery that not all men are called daddy and not everything spherical is a ball is also mostly made shortly before the second birthday. In the same way that the spectrum of movements in the next years expands with hopping, jumping and climbing, so language development becomes more differentiated in the following years until the school child can correctly use all prepositions, adverbial clauses and also complex subordinate clauses.

Particularly interesting is the much observed phenomenon that the development of movement stagnates or may even reverse in a phase when speaking is extensively practiced in order then to “leap ahead” again a few weeks later while the development of speech “pauses”. It is as if newly acquired sequences of movements come to expression in a transformed way in the power of speech and this power is then used more for speaking and less for new  movements.

In this second stage, too, the people around the child have the responsibility to speak properly to each other and the child. Any kind of word learning on the one hand or baby talk on the other hinders free and individual language acquisition.

Thinking emancipates the child from the body

When speech is fully underway, something starts directly which can no longer be observed externally but takes place inwardly in the child’s soul. Mostly clearly after the second birthday, the child might say something like the following: “Baker bakes b’ead, Mummy bakes b’ead, Mummy is baker.” We mean the ability to link thoughts in this way when we speak here of learning to think. It is not yet the ability of six and seven-year-olds who can develop ideas of their own, recall mental images and develop their memory.

This third stage of learning to think is, on closer inspection, already the first emancipation from the child’s own body. If he or she has previously lived exclusively in unconscious creation, the child now rises beyond his or her life in movement and speech. Our little people now take a concrete look at what they experience and link their experiences with their thinking. The rapid networking which occurs in the brain in the first two years by itself does not yet lead to the possibility of linking thoughts. It merely offers the physical basis for this free activity of the soul and spiritual entity. It is the person who thinks, not the brain. Hence children also starts to say “I” between their second and third birthday and to become defiant. Before that time, children call themselves by their name: “Paul hungry”. At about the age of two-and-a-half, this is replaced by a vigorous “I (don’t) want!” Ego consciousness has awoken. Here kind thoughts are the best environment for the two to three-year-old child. Even if it can be difficult during a tantrum...

Children learn by example

If we look at these three stages of childhood awakening, it becomes clear how outer movement is partly transformed into inner movement.

Once children can stand on their own, we can see how many things now move increasingly inside them. They search for words and we can observe the inner movement in their eyes and in the frequently calmer limbs. Once speech has been practiced and the most important things in the environment can be named, then the movement which the child acquires next is completely inward. He or she thinks.

This triad in the transformation of movement may still be experienced in kindergarten and the initial classes in school. Everything new is still tried out physically at first, then talked about – what it is good for – and often it is not until then that the thing is allocated its place in the world of familiar concepts.

Humans have a difficult path of development in comparison to animals in the course of which they have to work hard to acquire free movement, speech and thinking. But that gives them opportunities: opportunities of freedom and self-determination as well as opportunities to shape their destiny themselves, develop the motifs of their life and change the world through their thinking, feeling and action. Even if it is sometimes hard to believe: everything we learn – be it washing our hands, drying our feet, our pronunciation or our train of thought – is learned in the first few years through imitating models and not through explanations. Children incorporate everything through resonating with their surroundings. Anyone who understands this clearly will see the immense responsibility which we have as models with every single gesture we make. Observe on occasion the gait, pronunciation and clarity of thinking in children and their parents. Sometimes that reveals more than we want to see.

So let us examine in ourselves how and with what intention we move, how and what we say and how and what we think. They way that the child’s being can emerge is dependent on it.

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