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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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GA 307

VIII. Reading, Writing and Nature Study

Ilkley, 13th August, 1923

In the previous lectures I have shown that when the child reaches the usual school age (after the change of teeth) all teaching should be given in an artistic, pictorial form. To-day, I propose to carry further the ideas already put before you and to show how this method appeals directly to the child's sentient life, the foundation from which all teaching must now proceed.

Let us take a few characteristic examples to show how writing can be derived from the artistic element of painting and drawing. I have already said that if a system of education is to harmonize with the natural development of the human organism, the child must be taught to write before he learns to read. The reason for this is that in writing the whole being is more active than is the case in reading. You will say: Yes, but writing entails the movement of only one particular member. That is quite true, but fundamentally speaking, the forces of the whole being must lend themselves to this movement. In reading only the head and the intellect are engaged, and in a truly organic system of education we must draw that which is to develop from the whole being of the child.

We will assume that we have been able to give the child some idea of flowing water; he has learnt to form a mental picture of waves and flowing water. We now call the child's attention to the initial sound, the initial letter of the word ‘wave.’

Diagram 1

We indicate that the surface of water rising into waves follows this line:

Diagram 2

Then we lead the child from the drawing of this line over to the sign W derived from it. The child is thus introduced to the form of the letter ‘W’ in writing. The W has arisen from the picture of a wave. In the first place the child is given a mental picture which can lead over to the letter which he then learns to write. Or we may let the child draw the form of the mouth:—

Diagram 3

and then we introduce to him the first letter of the word “Mouth.” In one of our evening talks [Between the lectures there were meetings for discussion and questions at which Rudolf Steiner was often present.] I gave you another example. The child draws the form of a fish; when the fundamental form is firmly in his mind, we pass on to the initial letter of the word “fish.”

Diagram 4

A great many letters can be treated in this way; others will have to be derived somewhat differently. Suppose, for instance, we give the child an imaginative idea of the sound of the wind. Obviously the possibilities are many, but this particular way is the best for very young children. We picture to the child the raging of the wind and then we allow the child to imitate and to arrive at this form:—

Diagram 5

By drawing the child's attention to definite contours, to movements, or even to actual activities, all of which can be expressed in drawing or painting, we can develop nearly all the consonants. In the case of the vowels we must turn rather to gesture, for the vowels are an expression of man's inner being. ‘A’ (ah), for example, inevitably contains an element of wonder, of astonishment. Eurhythmy will prove to be of great assistance here for there we have gestures that truly correspond to feeling. The ‘I’ the ‘A’ and all the other vowels can be drawn from the corresponding gesture in Eurhythmy, for the vowels must be derived from movements that are an expression of the inner life of the human soul.

In this way we can approach the abstract nature of writing by way of the more concrete elements contained in painting and drawing. We succeed in making the child start from the feeling called up by a picture; he then becomes able to relate to the actual letters the quality of soul contained in the feeling. The principle underlying writing thus arises from the sentient life of the soul.

When we come to reading, our efforts must simply be in the direction of making the child aware, and this time in his head, of what has already been elaborated by the bodily forces as a whole. Reading is then grasped mentally, because it is recognized in the child's mind as an activity in which he has already been employed. This is of the very greatest significance. The whole process of development is hindered if the child is led straight away to what is abstract, if he is taught, that is, from the beginning to carry out any special activity by means of a purely mental concept. On the other hand, a healthy growth will always ensue if the activity is first of all undertaken, and then the mental idea afterwards unfolded as a result of the activity. Reading is essentially a mental act. Therefore if reading is taught before, and not after writing the child is prematurely involved in a process of development exclusively concerned with the head instead of with the forces of his whole being.

By such methods as these all instruction can be guided into a sphere that embraces the whole man, into the realm of art. This must indeed be the aim of all our teaching up to the age of about nine-and-a-half; picture, rhythm, measure, these qualities must pervade all our teaching. Everything else is premature.

It is for this reason utterly impossible before this age to convey anything to the child in which definite distinction is made between himself and the outer world. The child only begins to realize himself as a being apart from the outer world between the ninth and tenth years. Hence when he first comes to school, we must make all outer things appear living. We should speak of the plants as holding converse with us and with each other in such a way that the child's outlook on Nature and man is filled with imagination. The plants, the trees, the clouds all speak to him, and at this age he must feel no separation between himself and this living outer world. We must give him the feeling that just as he himself can speak, so everything that surrounds him also speaks.

The more we enable the child thus to flow out into his whole environment, the more vividly we describe plant, animal and stone, so that weaving, articulate spirituality seems to be wafted towards him, the more adequately do we respond to the demands of his innermost being in these early years. They are years when the sentient life of the soul must flow into the processes of breathing and of the circulation of the blood and into the whole vascular system, indeed into the whole human organism. If we educate in this sense, the child's life of feeling will unfold itself organically and naturally in a form suited to the requirements of our times.

It is of incalculable benefit to the child if we develop this element of feeling in writing and then allow a faint echo of the intellect to enter as he re-discovers in reading what he has already experienced in writing. This is the very best way of leading the child on towards his ninth year.

Between the ages of seven and nine-and-a-half, it is therefore essential that all the teaching shall make a direct appeal to the element of feeling. The child must learn to feel the forms of the various letters. This is very important. We harden the child's nature unduly, we over-strengthen the forces of bones and cartilage and sinew in relation to the rest of the organism, if we teach him to write mechanically, making him trace arbitrary curves and lines for the letters, making use only of his bodily mechanism without calling upon the eye as well.

If we also call upon the eye—and the eye is of course connected with the movements of the hand—by developing the letters in an artistic way, so that the letter does not spring from merely mechanical movements of the hand, it will then have an individual character in which the eye itself will take pleasure. Qualities of the soul are thus brought into play and the life of feeling develops at an age when it can best flow into the physical organism with health-giving power.

I wonder what you would say if you were to see someone with a plate of fish in front of him, carefully cutting away the flesh and consuming the bones! You would certainly be afraid the bones might choke him and that in any case he would not be able to digest them. On another level, the level of the soul, exactly the same thing happens when we give the child dry, abstract ideas instead of living pictures, instead of something that engages the activities of his whole being. These dry, abstract concepts must only be there as a kind of support for the pictures that are to arise in the soul.

When we make use of this imaginative, pictorial method in education in the way I have described, we so orientate the child's nature that his concepts will always be living and vital. We shall find that when he has passed the age of nine or nine-and-a-half, we can lead him on to a really vital understanding of an outer world in which he must of necessity learn to distinguish himself from his environment.

When we have given sufficient time to speaking of the plant world in living pictures, we can then introduce something he can learn in the best possible way between the ninth and tenth years, gradually carrying it further during the eleventh and twelfth.

The child is now ready to form ideas about the plant world. But naturally, in any system of education aiming at the living development of the human being, the way in which the plants are described must be very different from such methods as are used for no other reason than that they were usual in our own school days. To give the child a plant or flower and then make him learn its name, the number of its stamens, the petals and so forth, has absolutely no meaning for human life, or at most only a conventional one.

Whatever is taught the child in this way remains quite foreign to him. He is merely aware of being forced to learn it, and those who teach botany to a child of eleven or twelve in this way have no true knowledge of the real connections of Nature. To study some particular plant by itself, to have it in the specimen box at home for study is just as though we were to pull out a single hair and observe it as it lay there before us. The hair by itself is nothing; it cannot grow of itself and has no meaning apart from the human head. Its meaning lies simply and solely in the fact that it grows on the head of a man, or on the skin of an animal. Only in its connections has it any living import. Similarly, the plant only has meaning in its relation to the earth, to the forces of the sun and, as I shall presently show, to other forces also. In teaching children about a plant therefore, we must always begin by showing how it is related to the earth and to the sun.

I can only make a rough sketch here of something that can be illustrated in pictures in a number of lessons. Here (drawing on the blackboard) is the earth; the roots of the plant are intimately bound up with the earth and belong to it. The chief thought to awaken in the child is that the earth and the root belong to one another and that the blossom is drawn forth from the plant by the rays of the sun. The child is thus led out into the Cosmos in a living way.

If the teacher has sufficient inner vitality it is easy to give the child at this particular age a living conception of the plant in its cosmic existence. To begin with, we can awaken a feeling of how the earth-substances permeate the root; the root then tears itself away from the earth and sends a shoot upwards; this shoot is born of the earth and unfolds into leaf and flower by the light and warmth of the sun. The sun draws out the blossoms and the earth retains the root.

Then we call the child's attention to the fact that a moist earth, earth inwardly watery in nature, works quite differently upon the root from what a dry earth does; that the roots become shrivelled up in a dry soil and are filled with living sap in a moist, watery earth.

Again, we explain how the rays of the sun, falling perpendicularly to the earth, call forth flowers of plants like yellow dandelions, buttercups and roses. When the rays of the sun fall obliquely, we have plants like the mauve autumn crocus, and so on. Everywhere we can point to living connections between root and earth, between blossom and sun.

Having given the child a mental picture of the plant in its cosmic setting, we pass on to describe how the whole of its growth is finally concentrated in the seed vessels from which the new plant is to grow.

Then—and here I must to some extent anticipate the future—in a form suited to the age of the child we must begin to disclose a truth of which it is difficult as yet to speak openly, because modern science regards it as pure superstition or so much fantastic mysticism. Nevertheless it is indeed a fact that just as the sun draws the coloured blossom out of the plant, so is it the forces of the moon which develop the seed-vessels. Seed is brought forth by the forces of the moon. In this way we place the plant in a living setting of the forces of the sun, moon and earth. True, one cannot enter deeply into this working of the moon forces, for if the children were to say at home that they had been taught about the connection between seeds and the moon, their parents might easily be prevailed upon by scientific friends to remove them from such a school—even if the parents themselves were willing to accept such things! We shall have to be somewhat reticent on this subject and on many others too, in these materialistic days.

By this radical example I wished, however, to show you how necessary it is to develop living ideas, ideas that are drawn from actual reality and not from something that has no existence in itself. For in itself, without the sun and the earth, the plant has no existence.

We must now show the child something further. Here (drawing on the blackboard) is the earth; the earth sprouts forth, as it were, produces a hillock (swelling); this hillock is penetrated by the forces of air and sun. It remains earth substance no longer; it changes into something that lies between the sappy leaf and the root in the dry soil—into the trunk of a tree. On this plant that has grown out of the earth, other plants grow—the branches. The child thus realizes that the trunk of the tree is really earth-substance carried upwards. This also gives an idea of the inner kinship between the earth and all that finally becomes earthy. In order to bring this fully home to the child, we show him how the wood decays, becoming more and more earthy till it finally falls into dust. In this condition the wood becomes earth once more. Then we can explain how sand and stone have their origin in what was once really destined for the plants, how the earth is like one huge plant, a giant tree out of which the various plants grow like branches.

Here we develop an idea intelligible to the child; the whole earth as a living being of which the plants are an integral part.

It is all important that the child should not get into his head the false ideas suggested by modern geology—that the earth consists merely of mineral substances and mineral forces. For the plants belong to the earth as much as do the minerals. And now another point of great significance. To begin with, we avoid speaking of the mineral as such. The child is curious about many things but we shall find that he is no longer anxious to know what the stones are if we have conveyed to him a living idea of the plants as an integral part of the earth, drawn forth from the earth by the sun.

The child has no real interest in the mineral as such. And it is very much to the good if up to the eleventh or twelfth years he is not introduced to the dead mineral substances but can think of the earth as a living being, as a tree that has already crumbled to dust, from which the plants grow like branches.

From this point of view it is easy to pass on to the different plants. For instance, I say to the child: The root of such and such a plant is trying to find soil; its blossoms, remember, are drawn forth by the sun. Suppose that some roots cannot find any soil but only decaying earth, then the result will be that the sun cannot draw out the blossoms. Then we have a plant with no real root in the soil and no flower—a fungus, or mushroom-like growth. We now explain how a plant like a fungus, having found no proper soil in the earth, is able to take root in something partly earth, partly plant, that is, in the trunk of a tree. Thus it becomes a tree-lichen, that greyish-green lichen which one finds on the bark of a tree, a parasite.

From a study of the living, weaving forces of the earth itself, we can lead on to a characterization of all the different plants. And when the child has been given living ideas of the growth of the plants, we can pass on from this study of the living plant to a conception of the whole surface of the earth.

In some regions yellow flowers abound; in others the plants are stunted in their growth, and in each case the face of the earth is different. Thus we reach geography, which can play a great part in the child's development if we lead up to it from the plants.

We should try to give an idea of the face of the earth by connecting the forces at work on its surface with the varied plant-life we find in the different regions. Then we unfold a living instead of a dead intellectual faculty in the child. The very best age for this is the time between the ninth or tenth and the eleventh or twelfth years. If we can give the child this conception of the weaving activity of the earth whose inner life brings forth the different forms of the plants, we give him living and not dead ideas, ideas which have the same characteristics as a limb of the human body. A limb has to develop in earliest youth. If we enclosed a hand for instance in an iron glove, it could not grow. Yet it is constantly being said that the ideas we give to children should be as definite as possible, they should be definitions and the children ought always to be learning them. But nothing is more hurtful to the child than definitions and rigid ideas, for these have no quality of growth. Now the human being must grow as his organism grows. The child must be given mobile concepts, concepts whose form is constantly changing as he becomes more mature. If we have a certain idea when we are forty years of age, it should not be a mere repetition of something we learnt at ten years of age. It ought to have changed its form, just as our limbs and the whole of our organism have changed.

Living ideas cannot be roused if we only give the child what is nowadays called “science,” the dead knowledge which we so often find teaches us nothing! Rather must we give the child an idea of what is living in Nature. Then he will develop in a body which grows as Nature herself grows. We shall not then be guilty, as educational systems so often are, of implanting in a body engaged in a process of natural development, elements of soul-life that are dead and incapable of growth. We shall foster a living growing soul in harmony with a living, growing physical organism and this alone can lead to a true development.

This true development can best be induced by studying the life of plants in intimate connection with the configuration of the earth. The child should feel the life of the earth and the life of the plants as a unity: knowledge of the earth should be at the same time a knowledge of the world of the plants.

The child should first of all be shown how the lifeless mineral is a residue of life, for the tree decays and falls into dust. At the particular age of which I am now speaking, nothing in the way of mineralogy should be taught the child. He must first be given ideas and concepts of what is living. That is an essential thing.

Just as the world of the plants should be related to the earth and the child should learn to think of it as the offspring of a living earth-organism, so should the animal-world as a whole be related to man. The child is thus enabled in a living way to find his own place in Nature and in the world. He begins to understand that the plant-tapestry belongs to the living earth. On the other hand, however, we teach him to realize that the various animals spread over the world represent, in a certain sense, stages of a path to the human state. That the plants have kinship to the earth, the animals to man—this should be the basis from which we start. I can only justify it here as a principle; the actual details of what is taught to a child of ten, eleven or twelve years concerning the animal world must be worked out with true artistic feeling.

In a very simple, very elementary way, we begin by calling the child's attention to the nature of man. This is quite possible if the preliminary artistic foundations have already been laid. The child will learn to understand, in however simple a sense, that man has a threefold organization. First, there is the head. A hard shell encloses the system of nerves and the softer parts that lie within it. The head may thus be compared with the round earth within the Cosmos. We shall do our utmost to give the child a concrete, artistic understanding of the head-system and then lead on to the second member, the rhythmic system which includes the organs of breathing and circulation of the blood. Having spoken of the artistic modelling of the cup-like formation of the skull which encloses the soft parts of the brain, we pass on to consider the series of bones in the spinal column and the branching ribs. We shall study the characteristics of the chest, with its breathing and circulatory systems, that is, the human rhythmic system in its essential nature. Then we reach the third member, the system of metabolism and limbs. As organs of movement, the limbs really maintain and support the metabolism of the body, for the processes of combustion are regulated by their activities. The limbs are connected with metabolism. Limbs and metabolism must be taken together; they constitute the third member of man's being.

To begin with, then, we make this threefold division of man. If our teaching is pervaded with the necessary artistic feeling and is given in the form of pictures, it is quite possible to convey to the child this conception of man as a threefold being.

We now draw the child's attention to the different animal species spread over the earth. We begin with the lowest forms of animal life, with creatures whose inner parts are soft and are surrounded by shell-like formations. Certain members of the lower animal species consist, strictly speaking, merely of a sheath surrounding the protoplasm. We show the child how these lower creatures image in a primitive way the form of the human head.

Our head is the lower animal raised to the very highest degree of development. The head, and more particularly the nervous system, must not be correlated with the mammals or the apes, but with the lowest forms of animal life. We must go far, far back in the earth's history, to the most ancient forms of animal life, and there we find creatures which are wholly a kind of elementary head. Thus we try to make the lower animal world intelligible to the child as a primitive head-organization.

We then take the animals somewhat higher in the scale, the fishes and their allied species. Here the spinal column is especially developed and we explain that these “half-way” animals are beings in whom the human rhythmic system has developed, the other members being stunted. In the lowest animals, then, we find at an elementary stage, the organization corresponding to the human head. In the animal species grouped round the fishes, we find a one-sided development of the human chest-organization, and the system comprising the limbs and metabolism brings us finally to the higher animals.

The organs of movement are developed in great diversity of form in the higher animals. The mechanism of a horse's foot, a lion's pad, or the feet of the wading animals, all these give us a golden opportunity for artistic description. Or again, we can compare the limbs of man with the one-sided development we find in the limbs of the ape. In short, we begin to understand the higher animals by studying the plastic structure of the organs of movement, or the digestive organs.

Beasts of prey differ from the ruminants in that the latter have a very long intestinal track, whereas in the former, while the intestinal coil is short, all that connects the heart and blood circulation with the digestive processes is strongly and powerfully developed. A study of the organization of the higher animals shows at once how one-sided is its development in comparison with the system of limbs and metabolism in man. We can give a concrete picture of how the front part of the spine in the animal is really nothing but head. The whole digestive system is continued right on into the head. The animal's head belongs essentially to the digestive organs, to the stomach and intestines. In man, on the other hand, that which has remained, as it were, in the virginal state—the soft parts of the brain with their enclosing, protecting shell of bone—is placed above the limb and metabolic system. The head organization in man is thus raised a stage higher than in the animal, in which, as we have seen, it is merely a continuation of the metabolism. Yet man, in so far as his head organization is concerned, preserves the simplest, most fundamental principles of form, namely, soft substance within surrounded by a cup-like bony formation.

One can show too how in certain animals the structure of the jaw can best be understood if the upper and under jaw are regarded as the foremost limbs. This best explains the animal head. In this way, the human being emerges as a synthesis of three systems—head system, chest system, system of limbs and metabolism. In the animal world there is a one-sided development of the one or other system. Thus we have first, the lower animals, the crustaceans, for example, but also others; then the mammals, birds and so on, where the chest system is predominantly developed; and finally the species of fishes, reptiles and so on.

Diagram 6

We see, as it were, the animal kingdom as a human being spread out in diversity over the earth. We relate the world of the plants to the earth, and the diverse animal species to man who is, in fact, the synthesis of the entire animal world. Taking our start from man's physical organization, we give the child, in a simple way, an idea of the threefold nature of his being. Passing to the animals, we explain how in the different species there is always a one-sided development of certain organs, whereas in man these organs are united into one harmonious whole. This one-sided specialized development is manifested by the chest organs in certain animals; in others by the lower intestines, and in others again, by the upper organs of digestion. In many forms of animal life, birds for instance, we find metamorphoses of certain organs; the organs of digestion become the crop, and so forth.

We can characterize each animal species as representing a one-sided development of an organic system in man, so that the whole animal world appears as the being of man spread over the earth in diversity of forms, man himself being the synthesis of the animal kingdom.

When it has been made clear to the child that the animal world is the one-sided expression of the bodily organs of man, that one system of organs comes to expression as one species, another as a different species, then we can pass on to study man himself. This should be when the child is approaching his twelfth year, for he can then understand that because man bears the spirit within him, he is an artistic synthesis of the separate parts of his being, which are mirrored in the various species of animals. Only because man bears the spirit within him can he thus unite the lower forms of animal life in a harmonious unity. The human head and chest organizations arise as complex metamorphosis of animal forms, all of which have evolved in such a way that they fit in with the other parts of his body.

Thus he bears within himself that which is manifested in the fishes and that which is manifested in the higher animals but harmonized into a limb. The separate fragments of man's being scattered over the world in the realm of the animals are in man gathered together by the spirit into unity; man is their synthesis. Thus we relate man with the animal world, but he is at the same time raised above the animals because he is the bearer of the spirit.

Botany, taught in the way I have indicated, brings life into the child's world of ideas so that he stands rightly in the world through wisdom. A living intelligence will then enable him to become efficient in life and to find his place in the world.

His will is strengthened if he has acquired an equally living conception of his own relation to the animal world.

You will naturally realize that what I have had to discuss here in some twenty minutes or so must be developed stage by stage for a long period of time; the child must gradually unite these ideas with his inmost nature. Then they will play no small part in the position a man may take in the world by virtue of his strength of will. The will grows inwardly strong if a man realizes that by the grace of the living spirit he himself is the perfecting and the synthesis of the animal kingdom.

And so the aim of educational work must be net merely to teach facts about the plants and animals, but also to develop character, to develop the whole nature of the child. A true understanding of the life of plants brings wisdom, and a living conception of his relation to the animals strengthens the will of the child. If we have succeeded in this, the child has entered between the ninth and tenth years, into a relationship with the other living creatures of the earth such that he will be able to find his own way and place in the world through wisdom on the one hand and on the other through a purposeful strength of will.

The one great object of education is to enable the human being to find his way through life by his intelligence and will. These two will develop from the life of feeling that has unfolded in the child between the ages of seven and nine-and-a-half. Thinking, feeling and willing are then brought into a right relationship instead of developing in a chaotic way. Everything is rooted in feeling. We must therefore begin with the child's sentient life and from feeling engender the faculty of thought through a comprehension of the kingdom of the plants. For the life of the plants will never admit of dead conceptions. The will is developed if we lead the child to a knowledge of his connection with the animals and of the human spirit that lifts man above them.

Thus we strive to impart sound wisdom and strength of will; to the human being. This indeed is our task in education, for this alone will make him fully man and the evolution of the full manhood is the goal of all education.