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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Renewal of Education
GA 301

XIII. Children's Play

10 May 1920, Basel

We have already seen that teaching history is beneficial only for developing children at about the age of twelve. Considering history is a kind of preparation for the period of life that begins with sexual maturity, that is, at about the age of fourteen or fifteen. Only at that time can human beings gain the capacity for independent reasoning. A capacity for reasoning, not simply intellectual reasoning, but a comprehensive reasoning in all directions, can only develop after puberty. With the passing of puberty, the supersensible aspect of human nature that carries the capacity of reason is born out of the remainder of human nature. You can call this what you like. In my books I have called it the astral body,but the name is unimportant. As I have said, it is not through intellectual judgment that this becomes noticeable, but through judgment in its broadest sense. You will perhaps be surprised that what I will now describe I also include in the realm of judgment. If we were to do a thorough study of psychology here, you would also see that what I have to say can also be proven psychologically.

When we attempt to have a child who is not yet past puberty recite something according to his or her own taste, we are harming the developmental forces within human nature. These forces will be harmed if an attempt is made to use them before the completion of puberty; they should only be used later. Independent judgments of taste are only possible after puberty. If a child before the age of fourteen or fifteen is to recite something, she should do so on the basis of what an accepted authority standing next to her has provided. This means she should find the way in which the authority has spoken pleasing. She should not be led astray to emphasize or not emphasize certain words, to form the rhythm out of what she thinks is pleasing, but instead she should be guided by the taste of the accepted authority. We should not attempt to guide that intimate area of the child’s life away from accepted authority before the completion of puberty. Notice that I always say “accepted authority” because I certainly do not mean a forced or blind authority. What I am saying is based upon the objective observation that from the change of teeth until puberty, a child has a desire to have an authority standing alongside her. The child demands this, longs for it, and we need to support this longing, which arises out of her individuality.

When you look at such things in a comprehensive way, you will see that in my outline of education here I have always taken the entire development of the human being into account. For this reason I have said that between the ages of seven and fourteen, we should only teach children what can be used in a fruitful way throughout life. We need to see how one stage of life affects another. In a moment I will give an example that speaks to this point. When a child is long past school age, has perhaps long since reached adulthood, this is when we can see what school has made of the child and what it has not. This is visible not only in a general abstract way but also in a very concrete way.

Let us look at children’s play from this perspective, particularly the kind of play that occurs in the youngest children from birth until the change of teeth. Of course, the play of such children is in one respect based upon their desire to imitate. Children do what they see adults doing, only they do it differently. They play in such a way that their activities lie far from the goals and utility that adults connect with certain activities. Children’s play only imitates the form of adult activities, not the material content. The usefulness in and connection to everyday life are left out. Children perceive a kind of satisfaction in activities that are closely related to those of adults. We can look into this further and ask what is occurring here. If we want to study what is represented by play activities and through that study recognize true human nature so that we can have a practical effect upon it, then we must continuously review the individual activities of the child, including those that are transferred to the physical organs and, in a certain sense, form them. That is not so easy. Nevertheless the study of children’s play in the widest sense is extraordinarily important for education.

We need only recall what a person who set the tone for culture once said: “A human being is only a human being so long as he or she plays; and a human being plays so long as he or she is a whole human being.” Schiller1 wrote these words in a letter after he had read some sections of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. To Schiller, free play and the forces of the soul as they are artistically developed in Wilhelm Meister appeared to be something that could only be compared with an adult form of children’s play. This formed the basis of Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. He wrote them from the perspective that adults are never fully human when carrying out the activities of normal life. He believed that either we follow the necessities of what our senses require of us, in which case we are subject to a certain compulsion, or we follow logical necessity, in which case we are no longer free. Schiller thought that we are free only when we are artistically creative. This is certainly understandable from an artist such as Schiller; however, it is one-sided since in regard to freedom of the soul there is certainly much which occurs inwardly,in much the same way that Schiller understood freedom. Nevertheless the kind of life that Schiller imagined for the artist is arranged so that the human being experiences the spiritual as though it were natural and necessary, and the sense-perceptible as though it were spiritual. This is certainly the case when perceiving something artistic and in the creation of art.

When creating art, we create with the material world, but we do not create something that is useful. We create in the way the idea demands of us, if I may state it that way, but we do not create abstract ideas according to logical necessity. In the creation of art, we are in the same situation as we are when we are hungry or thirsty. We are subject to a very personal necessity. Schiller found that it is possible for people to achieve something of that sort in life, but children have this naturally through play. Here in a certain sense they live in the world of adults, through only to the extent that world satisfies the child’s own individuality. The child lives in creation, but what is created serves nothing.

Schiller’s perspective, from the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, can be used as a basis for further development. The psychological significance of play is not so easy to find. We need to ask if the particular kind of play that children engage in before the change of teeth has some significance for the entirety of human life. We can, as I said, analyze it in the way that Schiller tried to do under the influence of Goethe’s adult childishness. We could also, however, compare this kind of play with other human activities. We could, for example, compare children’s play before the change of teeth with dreaming, where we most certainly will find some important analogies. However, those analogies are simply related to the course of the child’s play, to the connection of the activities to one another in play. In just the same way that children put things together in play — whatever those might be — not with external things but with thoughts, we put pictures together in dreams. This may not be true of all dreams, but it is certainly so in a very large class of them. In dreaming, we remain in a certain sense children throughout our entire lives.

Nevertheless we can only achieve a genuine understanding if we do not simply dwell upon this comparison of play with dreams. Instead we should also ask when in the life of the human being something occurs that allows those forces that are developed in early children’s play until the change of teeth, which can be fruitful for the entirety of external human life. In other words, when do we actually reap the fruits of children’s play? Usually people think we need to seek the fruits of young children’s play in the period of life that immediately follows, but spiritual science shows how life passes in a rhythmical series of repetitions. In a plant, leaves develop from a seed; from the leaves, the bud and flower petals emerge, and so forth. Only afterwards do we have a seed again; that is, the repetition occurs only after an intervening development. It is the same in human life.

From many points of view we could understand human life as though each period were affected only by the one preceding, but this is not the case. If we observe without prejudice, we will find that the actual fruits of those activities that occur in early childhood play become apparent only at the age of twenty. What we gain in play from birth until the change of teeth, what children experience in a dreamy way, are forces of the still-unborn spirituality of the human being, which is still not yet absorbed into, or perhaps more properly said, reabsorbed into the human body.

We can state this differently. I have already discussed how the same forces that act organically upon the human being until the change of teeth become, when the teeth are born, an independent imaginative or thinking capacity, so that in a certain sense something is removed from the physical body. On the other hand, what is active within a child through play and has no connection with life and contains no usefulness is something that is not yet fully connected with the human body. Thus a child has an activity of the soul that is active within the body until the change of teeth and then becomes apparent as a capacity for forming concepts that can be remembered.

The child also has a spiritual-soul activity that in a certain sense still hovers in an etheric way over the child. It is active in play in much the same way that dreams are active throughout the child’s entire life. In children, however, this activity occurs not simply in dreams, it occurs also in play, which develops in external reality. What thus develops in external reality subsides in a certain sense. In just the same way that the seed-forming forces of a plant subside in the leaf and flower petal and only reappear in the fruit, what a child uses in play also only reappears at about the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, as independent reasoning gathering experiences in life.

I would like to ask you to try to genuinely seek this connection. Look at children and try to understand what is individual in their play: try to understand the individuality of children playing freely until the change of teeth, and then form pictures of their individualities. Assume that what you notice in their play will become apparent in their independent reasoning after the age of twenty. This means the various kinds of human beings differ in their independent reasoning after the age of twenty in the just the same way that children differ in their play before the change of teeth.

If you recognize the full truth of this thought, you will be overcome by an unbounded feeling of responsibility in regard to teaching. You will realize that what you do with a child forms the human being beyond the age of twenty. You will see that you will need to understand the entirety of life, not simply the life of children, if you want to create a proper education.

Playing activity from the change of teeth until puberty is something else again. (Of course, things are not so rigidly separated, but if we want to understand something for use in practical life, we must separate things.) Those who observe without prejudice will find that the play activity of a child until the age of seven has an individual character. As a player, the child is, in a certain sense, a kind of hermit. The child plays for itself alone. Certainly children want some help, but they are terribly egotistical and want the help only for themselves. With the change of teeth, play takes on a more social aspect. With some individual exceptions, children now want to play more with one another. The child ceases to be a hermit in his play; he wants to play with other children and tobe something in play. I am not sure if Switzerland can be included in this, but in more military countries the boys particularly like to play soldier. Mostly they want to be at least a general, and thus a social element is introduced to the children’s play.

What occurs as the social element in play from the change of teeth until puberty is a preparation for the next period of life. In this next period, with the completion of puberty, independent reasoning arises. At that time human beings no longer subject themselves to authority; they form their own judgments and confront others as individuals. This same element appears in the previous period of life in play; it appears in something that is not connected with external social life, but in play. What occurs in the previous period of life, namely, social play, is the prelude to tearing yourself away from authority. We can therefore conclude that children’s play until the age of seven actually enters the body only at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, when we gain an independence in our understanding and ability to judge experiences. On the other hand, what is prepared through play between the ages of seven and puberty appears at an earlier developmental stage in life, namely, during the period from puberty until about the age of twenty-one. This is a direct continuation. It is very interesting to notice that we have properly guided play during our first childhood years to thank for the capacities that we later have for understanding and experiencing life. In contrast, for what appears during our lazy or rebellious years we can thank the period from the change of teeth until puberty. Thus the connections in the course of human life overlap.

These overlapping connections have a fundamental significance of which psychology is unaware. What we today call psychology has existed only since the eighteenth century. Previously, quite different concepts existed about human beings and the human soul. Psychology developed during the period in which materialistic spirit and thought arose. Thus in spite of all significant beginnings, psychology was unable to develop a proper science of the soul, a science that was in accord with reality and took into account the whole of human life. Although I have tried hard, I have to admit that I have been able to find some of these insights only in Herbart’s psychology. Herbart’s psychology is very penetrating; it attempts to discover a certain form of the soul by beginning with the basic elements of the soul’s life. There are many beautiful things in Herbart’s psychology. Nevertheless we need to look at the rather unusual views it has produced in his followers. I once knew a very good follower of Herbart, Robert Zimmermann, an aesthete who also wrote a kind of educational philosophy in his book on psychology for high-school students. Herbart once referred to him as a Kantian from 1828. In his description of psychology as a student of Herbart, he discusses the following problem:

If I am hungry, I do not actually attempt to obtain the food that would satisfy my hunger. Instead, my goal is that the idea of hunger will cease and be replaced by the idea of being full. My concern is actually with ideas. There exists an idea that must arise contrary to inhibitions, and which must work against those inhibitions. Food is actually only a means of moving from the idea of hunger to the idea of being full.

Those who look at the reality of human nature, not simply in a materialistic sense, but also with an eye toward the spiritual, will see that this kind of view is somewhat one-sidedly rationalistic and intellectual. It is necessary to move beyond this one-sided intellectualism and comprehend the entire human being psychologically. In so doing, education can gain much from psychology that otherwise would not be apparent. We should consider what we do in teaching not simply to be the right thing for the child, but rather to be something living that can transform itself. As we have seen, there are many connections of the sort I have presented. We need to assume that what we teach children in elementary school until puberty will reappear in a quite different form from the age of fifteen until twenty-one or twenty-two.

The elementary-school teacher is extremely important for the high-school teacher or the university teacher — in a sense even more important, since the university teacher can achieve nothing if the elementary-school teacher has not sent the child forth with properly formed strengths. It is very important to work with these connected periods of life. If we do, we will see that real beginning points can be found only through spiritual science.

For instance, people define things too much. As far as possible, we should avoid giving children any definitions. Definitions take a firm grasp of the soul and remain static throughout life, thus making life into something dead. We should teach in such a way that what we provide to the child’s soul remains alive. Suppose someone as a child of around nine or ten years of age learns a concept, for instance, at the age of nine, the concept of a lion, or, at the age of eleven or twelve, that of Greek culture. Very good; the child learns it. But these concepts should not remain as they are. A person at the age of thirty should not be able to say she has such-and-such a concept of lions and that is what she learned in school, or that she has such-and-such a concept of Greek culture and that was what she learned in school. This is something we need to overcome. Just as other parts of ourselves grow, the things we receive from the teacher should also grow; they should be something living. We should learn concepts about lions or Greek culture that will not be the same when we are in our thirties or forties as they were when we were in school.

We should learn concepts that are so living that they are transformed throughout our lives. To do so, we need to characterize rather than define. In connection with the formation of concepts, we need to imitate what we can do with painting or even photography. In such cases, we can place ourselves to one side and give one aspect, or we can move to another side and give a different aspect, and so forth. Only after we have photographed a tree from many sides do we have a proper picture of it. Through definitions, we gain too strong an idea that we have something.

We should attempt to work with thoughts and concepts as we would with a camera. We should bring forth the feeling within the child that we are only characterizing something from various perspectives; we are not defining it. Definitions exist only so that we can, in a sense, begin with them and so that the child can communicate understandably with the teacher. That is the basic reason for definitions. That may sound somewhat radical, but it is so. Life does not love definitions. In private, human beings should always have the feeling that, through incorrect definitions, they have arrived at dogmas. It is very important for teachers to know that. Instead of saying, for instance, that two objects cannot be in the same place at the same time, and that is what we call impermeable, the way we consciously define impermeability and then seek things to illustrate this concept, we should instead say that objects are impermeable because they cannot be at the same place at the same time. We should not make hypotheses into dogmas. We only have the right to say that we call objects impermeable when they cannot be at the same place at the same time. We need to remain conscious of the formative forces of our souls and should not awaken the concept of a triangle in the external world before the child has recognized a triangle inwardly.

That we should characterize and not define is connected with recognizing that the fruits of those things that occur during one period of human life will be recognized perhaps only very much later. Thus we should give children living concepts and feelings rather than dead ones. We should try to present geometry, for example, in as lively a way as possible. A few days ago I spoke about arithmetic. I want to speak before the end of the course tomorrow about working with fractions and so forth, but now I would like to add a few remarks about geometry. These remarks are connected with a question I was asked and also with what I have just presented.

Geometry can be seen as something that can slowly be brought from a static state into a living one. In actuality, we are speaking of something quite general when we say that the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180°. That is true for all triangles, but can we imagine a triangle? In our modern way of educating, we do not always attempt to teach children a flexible concept of a triangle. It would be good, however, if we teach our children a flexible concept of a triangle, not simply a dead concept. We should not have them simply draw a triangle, which is always a special case. Instead we could say that here I have a line. I can divide the angle of 180° into three parts. That can be done in an endless number of ways. Each time I have divided the angle, I can go on to form a triangle, so that I show the child how an angle that occurs here then occurs here in the triangle. When I transfer the angles in this way, I will have such a triangle. Thus in moving from three fan-shaped angles lying next to one another, I can form numerous triangles and those triangles thus become flexible in the imagination. Clearly these triangles have the characteristic that the sum of their angles is 180° since they arose by dividing a 180° angle. It is good to awaken the idea of a triangle of a child in this way, so that an inner flexibility remains and so that they do not gain the idea of a static triangle, but rather that of a flexible shape, one that could just as well be acute as obtuse, or it could be a right triangle (see diagram).

Various Triangles

Imagine how transparent the whole concept of triangles would be if I began with such inwardly flexible concepts, then developed triangles from them. We can use the same method to develop a genuine and concrete feeling for space in children. If in this way we have taught children the concept of flexibility in figures on a plane, the entire mental configuration of the child will achieve such flexibility that it is then easy to go on to three-dimensional elements — for instance, how one object moves past another behind it, forward or backward. By presenting how an object moves forward or backward past another object, we present the first element that can be used in developing a feeling for space. If we, for example, present how it is in real life — namely how one person ceases to be visible when he or she moves behind an object or how the object becomes no longer visible when the person moves in front of it — we can go on to develop a feeling for space that has an inner liveliness to it. The feeling for three-dimensional space remains abstract and dead when it is presented only as perspectives. The children can gain that lively feeling for space if, for instance, we tell a short story.

This morning at nine o’clock I came across two people. They were sitting someplace on a bench. This afternoon at three, I came by again and the same two people were sitting on the same bench. Nothing had changed.

Certainly as long as I only consider the situation at nine in the morning and three in the afternoon, nothing had changed. However, if I go into it more and speak with these people, then perhaps I would discover that after I had left in the morning, one person remained, but the other stood up and went away. Though he was gone for three hours,he then returned and sat down again alongside the other. He had done something and was perhaps tired after six hours. I cannot recognize the actual situation only in connection with space, that is, if I think only of the external situation and do not look further into the inner, to the more important situation.

We cannot make judgments even about the spatial relationships between beings if we do not go into inner relationships. We can avoid bitter illusions in regard to cause and effect only if we go into those inner relationships. The following might occur: A man is walking along the bank of a river and comes across a stone. He stumbles over the stone and falls into the river. After a time he is pulled out. Suppose that nothing more is done than to report the objective facts: Mr. So-and-So has drowned. But perhaps that is not even true. Perhaps the man did not drown, but instead stumbled because at that point he had a heart attack and was already dead before he fell into the water. He fell into the water because he was dead. This is an actual case that was once looked into and shows how necessary it is to proceed from external circumstances into the more inner aspects.

In the same way if we are to make judgments about the spatial relationship of one being to another, we need to go into the inner aspects of those beings. When properly grasped in a living way, it enables us to develop a spatial feeling in children so that we can use movements for the development of a feeling for space. We can do that by having the children run in different figures, or having them observe how people move in front or behind when passing one another.

It is particularly important to make sure that what is observed in this way is also retained. This is especially significant for the development of a feeling for space. If I cast a shadow from different objects upon the surface of other objects, I can show how the shadow changes. If children are capable of understanding why, under specific circumstances, the shadow of a sphere has the shape of an ellipse — and this is certainly something that can be understood by a child at the age of nine — this capacity to place themselves in such spatial relationships has a tremendously important effect upon their capacity to imagine and upon the flexibility of their imaginations.

For that reason we should certainly see that it is necessary to develop a feeling for space in school. If we ask ourselves what children do when they are drawing up until the change of teeth, we will discover that they are in fact developing experience that then becomes mature understanding around the age of twenty. That understanding develops out of the changing forms, so the child plays by drawing; at the same time, however, that drawing tells something. We can understand children’s drawings if we recognize that they reflect what the child wants to express.

Let us look at children’s drawings. Before the ages of seven or eight or sometimes even nine, children do not have a proper feeling for space. That comes only later when other forces slowly begin to affect the child’s development. Until the age of seven, what affects the child’s functioning later becomes imagination. Until puberty, it is the will that mostly affects the child and which, as I mentioned earlier, is dammed up and becomes apparent through boys’ change of voice. The will is capable of developing spatial feeling. Through everything that I have just said, that is, through the development of a spatial feeling through movement games and by observing what occurs when shadows are formed — namely, through what arises through movement and is then held fast — all such things that develop the will give people a much better understanding than simply through an intellectual presentation, even though that understanding may be somewhat playful, an understanding with a desire to tell a story.

Now, at the end of this lecture, I would like to show you the drawings of a six-year-old boy whose father, I should mention, is a painter so that you can see them in connection with what I just said. Please notice how extraordinarily talkative this six-year-old boy is through what he creates. I might even say that he has in fact created a very specific language here, a language that expresses just what he wants to tell. Many of these pictures,which we could refer to as expressionist, are simply his way of telling stories that were read to him, or which he heard in some other way. Many of the pictures are, as you can see, wonderfully expressive. Take a look at this king and queen. These are things that show how children at this age tell stories. If we understand how children speak at this age — something that is so wonderfully represented here because the boy is already drawing with colored pencils — and if we look at all the details, we will find that these drawings represent the child’s being in much the way that I described to you earlier. We need to take the change that occurred with the change of teeth into consideration if we are to understand how we can develop a feeling for space.