The world in my hand

By Ute Stockinger-Seitz, June 2012

It is Monday morning. I am standing in the classroom of class three. Silence still reigns. Thirty-six lumps of clay lie ready prepared, one for every child. The pupils stream into the classroom and quickly the space fills with voices. There is laughter and calling, but not everyone appears to be in a good mood. Some look tired or keyed up.

Copyright: Ute Stockinger-Seitz

The eyes of the children reflect their state of mind: curious, open, temperamental, but also absent and closed looks. The task now is to grasp hold of these children, to allow them to arrive back after an often over-active weekend and to make them receptive for lessons again. 

The size of the challenge becomes clear to me with the first question. “What are we modelling today?” Immediately they want to answer their own question: “robots”, “aeroplanes”, “castle”, “monster” – all of these things ready-formed in their imagination. Such “head focus” in the children, everything already visually determined, makes me fear that they will not enter into the exercise which requires them to feel their way forward through their sense of touch.

It is not a matter of copying a shape or allowing free run to their imagination, as in the colour stories of water-colour painting for example. I want to get them to use differentiated movements of the whole hand and encourage them to enter into a process free of the restriction of an idea. They are to work on the clay in a series of exercises which always start from a sphere. The aim is to find various new forms through the metamorphosis of the basic shape – purely by doing. Other than in copying the form of which they already have an idea, I want them to develop a living, direct feeling of form.

Fixed ideas become free

The ease with which the children can in fact free themselves from their ideas is revealed as soon as they start kneading the clay. They do so enthusiastically in accordance with their temperament. Some touch the lump very gently, almost stroking it, others dig their fingers into it with great force and energy. The weekend, too, appears to be being dealt with here.

The various needs of the temperaments are revealed: a phlegmatic-seeming girl pleasurably digs both her hands into the wet clay, while a boy with sanguine tendencies picks at his clay with his finger tips. The further the exercise progresses, the more the pupils are immersed in what they are doing, abandon themselves to the creative urge of their hands. Trustingly they follow my instruction to close their eyes, settle down, and their expressions show that they are enjoying this experience of feeling their way.

“I can feel more now!” a boy says spontaneously in surprise, who has been very quiet so far. When they open their eyes again on my quiet instruction they look at the form which has been created in their hand with a wakeful, clear gaze, surprised that the same shape has been made by all of them almost as if by itself. The moment when I walk around the classroom, seeking eye contact with each individual pupil, praise her or him and encourage them to gently correct the form, is marked by great intensity. I experience the children at rest, back within themselves. A relaxed state which makes the pupils receptive for the further course of lessons. On the following Monday we repeat the modelling of a sphere and then shape it slowly and with closed eyes into an oval. In the third week, the children – always starting again from the sphere – are guided via the oval to the metamorphosis into a saddle. All the work during these exercises takes place wholly on the basis of the experience of touch, of directly experienced doing.

Modelling harmonises the will

That the children can “arrive” in their soul after as little as 20 minutes of methodical clay modelling surprises me every time, but also confirms what is revealed in conversations with experts from the various educational fields and areas of therapy and medicine, as well as in my own work as a sculptor. The present time demands a new look at the possibilities which have been given to Waldorf teachers as educational tools: that applies in particular also to elementary, sculptural creation which, in contrast to the other arts, does not have a firm place in lessons.

That it should, however, occupy a firm place in the artistic exercises of the lower classes in Waldorf schools, to supplement painting and drawing as the third art form, is shown by its effect on the human being: drawing acts on the forces of imagination, painting on the feeling and modelling on the will forces and harmonises them (Eva Mees-Christeller). That is why Rudolf Steiner called for lower school pupils to do clay modelling alongside water-colour painting and form drawing: “Modelling should start earlier than year nine; spheres, then other things and so on. In modelling, too, we should work wholly out of the form.”

Steiner’s teaching about the senses states that the experience of touch with the whole hand, including the palm, is the prerequisite for the development of the I. The experience of touch helps us to assure ourselves of existence and strengthens our trust in existence. In that way we become aware of our physical self – which forms the foundation of the sense of I and allows us to perceive other human beings. Children today often lack a well-developed sensory system. And although that lack is familiar to many Waldorf teachers, the healing power of elementary clay modelling has still not been included as a counter-measure in the curricula of the lower classes. Although Hella Löwe has shown the importance of modelling in the education of the lower classes and in the 1980s started to develop her own sequence of modelling exercises as a class teacher, her approach has not been included as a basic element in the training of class teachers or of the curriculum. Yet today more than ever methodical modelling should be undertaken throughout the year on a weekly basis in the first three years of school until it can be supplemented by the modelling of objects in class four. Because the constitution of many first class pupils shows how much they need a hold, order and structure.

Healing through the hands

In his time, Rudolf Steiner did not yet have to take physically manifesting symptoms such as allergies, atopic dermatitis and ADHD into account. But his thought that education is like a healing process is more relevant than ever. The inclusion of elementary sculptural creation in lessons allows the children the experience of getting into contact with themselves in a new way. The “mantle” is strengthened, regeneration and restorative protection are stimulated, which means that they can feel more comfortable again in their skin. The immersion of the concentration in the hands relieves the heads of children which are brim full with images – the mind comes to rest. An invisible bond is created in which the teacher senses the complete presence of his or her pupils and the latter can feel themselves just as much the subject of his or her full attention. Such a “golden moment” creates an atmosphere of trust which can support the further course of lessons. But the strengthening action of methodical modelling can only fully unfold if it is undertaken weekly. Because, like all training, it requires regularity and rhythmical repetition – in the case of clay modelling best on Mondays throughout the school year. Such inhalation of the soul at the start of the week can set a counterpoint to the exhalation of the soul during water-colour painting at the end of the week: outflowing painting using the wet-on-wet technique is accompanied by concentrating, shape-giving modelling with clay.

This contribution is based on a diploma thesis submitted to the Seminar for Waldorf Education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart.




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