Children in the present

By Michaela Glöckler, September 2015

Development of physical, mental and spiritual health.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Children live in the present. They are happy when we see them, are interested in them and are open to what they experience and say. The same applies to everything we call “health” because health is pure presentness – it is created anew at each moment. If I am healthy today that does not necessarily mean that I will be tomorrow. Hence it is important to know how health can be promoted and what damages it.  

Three factors determine the development of physical, mental and spiritual health:

• The genetic, natural predisposition which determines the “reaction norms”; for example, in the first year of life attention is concentrated on obtaining upright physical posture, in the second year on speech. It is not the acquired abilities which are inherited but the disposition to learn them. That is why age-appropriate learning facilities are needed.
• The environmental influences which directly influence the physical development of the child through the diversity of sensory impressions and their experience. The child can only imitate what it gets to see. If there is an absence of impressions and experiences then certain abilities cannot develop.
• The individuality of the child which co-determines both their physical disposition and milieu through active involvement. We know from resilience research how accurate Steiner was when he said that the child had to be paid loving attention and “summoned into” the body – and through the latter into the world – through our interested involvement. The more the child experiences that they are “wanted” and “accepted”, the more strongly they follow the call and endeavour to be “there” for themselves and the people around them. That is how it was possible for some children to develop into healthy, life-affirming people although they had a genetic disorder or came from a traumatic background while others did not manage and due to lack of attention and interest became prone to violence, petty criminals, alcoholics or drug addicts.

These three factors – genetic predisposition, environmental influences and the incarnating unique individuality – determine the degree of physical, mental and spiritual health in the course of development.

Every child deals individually with its genetic predisposition and environment. The task accrues to parents and educators to perceive what the child respectively needs, what it can and wants to learn. Here the fundamental approach characterised by Steiner applies, that we should consider “upbringing” to be a learning process actively instigated and controlled by the child which the adult can support, promote and accompany but which the latter should not seek to influence in a conditioning way. The better this is understood and put into practice, the more the child can develop and achieve the milestones in their physical, mental and spiritual development in a self-determined and “authentic” way.

Matrix of development

The three main functional systems – the nervous and sensory system, the rhythmical transport and distribution system, and the metabolic and limb system – do not mature simultaneously but typically in chronological order one after the other:

• The maturation of the sensory functions and about 90 percent of the capacities of the central nervous system reaches full functional capability as early as in the first eight or nine years of life.
• The development and stabilisation of the biological rhythms, including the maturation of the frequency coordination of the cardiorespiratory rhythms, has been concluded at the age of 15 or 16.
• The growth of the skeletal system into adult form and the stabilisation of the metabolic processes and hormone balance last from the age of 18 to 23 depending on skin colour and genetic predisposition.

Physical health in the first septennium

The more the nervous system and sensorimotor coordination – i.e. the linkage of sensory functions with muscular activity – are actively used and practiced, the more healthily and efficiently they will be differentiated. The young child experiments with the greatest variety of movements, learns to stand upright and discovers the world with their senses. Hence it is important to create space for movement and play in which children can move and become active on their own initiative in an age-appropriate way.

The musical and rhythmical singing games so popular at this age also lay the foundation for the ability to listen and harmonious team play so necessary for socialisation. Brain research has shown that the young child experiences a state of greatest excitement 20 to 50 times a day. This leads to the activation of the centres for emotional experience in the brain which causes the child to repeat and do ever better the things they undertake with enthusiasm.

Supported, promoted and accompanied through:

• Encouragement of initiative through our own actions and “setting an example” instead of demanding things from the child.
• Play materials which support independent activity: simple objects and materials which leave room for the imagination and permit many different creative possibilities.
• Activating and care for the senses through correspondingly equipped play spaces.
• Laying the foundations for good habits through regular activity, small rituals in the morning, during meals and in the evening before going to sleep.
• Rhythmical structure to the course of the day, week, month and year.
• Moments of undivided attention for the child, for example when getting up or going to bed and in the course of the day. If our day is filled with many duties: keeping the child in our  consciousness, having them in our thoughts. Then the moments of being together are intensive and substantial.
• “Non-verbal” style of upbringing: not words but actions – setting an example – show what matters. Only in this way does the child experience itself as being left in freedom. Because they imitate of their own accord.
• Avoidance of multimedia products and technical toys because they hugely restrict sensory and physical activity.
• Showing joie de vivre and gratitude.
• Setting and “living” clear boundaries, this provides security and orientation.

Mental health in the second septennium

Physiologically the focus is on the development of the organs of the rhythmical system: lungs and cardiovascular system. This means that we are now dealing with a talking and feeling culture, with emotional and social maturation processes. Because every feeling that is stimulated in the interaction with the surroundings and the people at home and at school directly influences the maturation processes of these organ systems. Not just blushing and blanching, also the coldness or warmth of hands and feet can show us the state of the blood circulation and whether the breathing is faltering, has become shallow and irregular or deep and calm.

Supported, promoted and accompanied through:

• The “artistic” methods and teaching methodology recommended by Steiner.
• Experiencing a talking culture at home, in school and more broadly in society.
• Living with inner questions: how did our last conversation go? When did I have time and interest? Did I notice what was commendable, do I praise enough or do I tend to bring to expression what bothers me?
• Learning from mistakes: those who learn from their mistakes make sustained progress in their development – as does correspondingly a team of people working together. How do I deal with the mistakes and misconduct of children and young people at home and in school? How do I help them to learn from mistakes and draw positives from them? For as long as making mistakes is associated with fear and triggers feelings of shame, it gives rise to humiliation followed by an unwillingness to learn and blockage of learning. Criminal energies are also awoken in the form of thinking about deception and misrepresentation. Because people want to appear more competent than they actually are.
• Clear leadership in fundamental questions in daily routine with the inclusion of the wishes of the children. Making agreements and agreeing how they will be kept.
• Artistic activity, particularly learning a musical instrument, singing and making music with others.
• Controlled multimedia use at home and, where possible, discussion of what has been watched and experienced. In school the use of electronic media as a teaching aid should be avoided even more rigorously in favour of creative and humanly interactive learning and developmental processes.

Spiritual health in the third septennium

The development of the skeleton and metabolic system to the adult stage is best promoted through everything which “uplifts” and creates enthusiasm. Learning to set ourselves goals, follow ideals, being able to hope for something – adolescents reveal in the way they walk whether they have that or not. Drug addicts are recognised by dealers through the way they walk. Heat generation and activity of the digestive processes are supported through independent spiritual and mental processes.

Supported, promoted and accompanied through:

• Having time for conversation.
• Stimulating independent thinking, observation, investigation and analysis.
• Being a friend and companion, being interested in what occupies the young person.
• Respecting the growing consciousness of freedom and independence, setting aside own expectations.
• Holding “family councils”. Reaching joint agreements, analysing their success or lack of success and discussing what to do next.
• Learning to take pleasure in what is “completely different”, wanting to understand what moves the young person.
• Risking trust and signalling: I will stand by you – no matter what – and am excited to see how you will develop.
• Developing media competence through the deliberate use of electronic media where it makes age-appropriate sense and supports classes.

Movement and play particularly support the nervous system and its structures. The organ for spiritual activity needs physical activity for its healthy development. Soul activity and the maturation of the feelings in contrast stimulates the development of the rhythmical system which in turn forms the physical basis for the feeling life. Spiritual development and independent thinking support the healthy development of the metabolic and limb functions. Physical, mental and spiritual developmental processes thus interact with one another – just as these developmental processes also give rise to health.

About the author: Dr. med. Michaela Glöckler was a paediatrician at the Herdecke community hospital and the University Clinic in Bochum, worked as a school doctor at the Rudolf Steiner School in Witten and had led the Medical Section at the Goetheanum since 1988.