Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Soul Economy
Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education
GA 302

VII. Children before the Seventh Year

29 December 1921, Stuttgart

Anyone called on to look after a very young child—either as a parent or in any other capacity of child care—will experience the great responsibility this task involves. Such people feel morally obligated to lay the best foundations for the child’s future development. Therefore it grieves me deeply that our Waldorf school in Stuttgart can accept only children who have reached the official school age, and it would give me the greatest satisfaction if we could take in the younger children as well. In addition to other difficulties, our goal of opening a nursery has been thwarted by a lack of funds, as happened with so many other anthroposophic activities. This continual shortage of money leaves us with at least the hope that, if we can win support from the general public, we will eventually be able to build a nursery class as an integral part of our Waldorf school.

Very young children are the least accessible to us. The gates to the soul life are absolutely closed to the outer world, and outer influences cannot touch it. Those who take care of infants of this age are powerless when they struggle and cry; these children do what they want. Thus, observant adults must accept the fact that the will of children is beyond their control—even during later stages and occasionally the latest stages of life.

You may know that early in 1894, well before publishing other anthroposophic works, I published Die Philosophie der Freiheit [Intuitive Thinking As a Spiritual Path]. This book was intended to give the world a true assessment of the human quality that develops, within the social context, the impulse toward individual freedom. If you accept its message—the matter of freedom, on the one hand, and destiny, on the other—you can see that it is relevant even to a baby.

If you listen to what lives in the human heart, you find that real human happiness on earth depends on the awareness of human freedom, an appreciation of human values, and a feeling for human dignity. Anthroposophy shows us that—apart from what a person may have developed even before birth or conception while still in the spiritual world and apart from what one will meet again after death—the very purpose of earthly incarnation involves enlivening the impulse toward freedom. This impulse depends completely on plunging into an earthly body. This freedom can be realized only during physical incarnation; we can attain freedom only while living on earth, and when we enter other worlds, we can take with us only the degree of freedom we have attained here on earth.

If you approach young children with such feelings (and feelings are the most potent source for those engaged in the art of education), this question will always be present in your mind as you take charge of an infant: What must I do to enable this child to develop the fullest consciousness of human freedom at maturity? And with this question, a new truth begins to dawn. The outer conditions of life are already clearly pointing at it, and, through anthroposophic insight, it can be understood with inner certainty. It is the fact that, despite one’s freedom, each person has a destiny, or to use the Eastern term, karma.

Let us imagine that, later in life, a man meets a person he has known before, and that this person has a profound influence on the life of this man. Perhaps such people might even begin a partnership for life. At first it may seem to them as if their meeting were simply chance. But when they look back over the years of their lives—even with no knowledge of spiritual science—this man may well discover the strange fact that, during the years before this meeting, he had unconsciously taken numerous steps that eventually led to this other person. Though at first it appeared to be mere chance, hindsight revealed an inherent pattern and underlying plan. Looking back over his life, Goethe’s old friend Nobel spoke these meaningful words from the depths of his soul: “If, in later years, we survey our early life, everything seems to fall into a definite pattern; everything fits together.” Since our will is woven into all our actions, we can see everywhere how destiny confronts us in the events of life. One could quote many others who, through observing ordinary life, reached the same conclusion. When we look at life’s external events, we find confirmation of the hidden truths of karma.

Anyone in charge of young children—especially those who work in children’s homes—who is aware of the activity of destiny, must ask, Have I been specifically chosen for the important task of guiding and educating these children? And other questions follow: What must I do to eliminate as far as possible my personal self, so I can leave those in my care unburdened by my subjective nature? How do I act so I do not interfere with a child’s destiny? And, above all, How can I best educate a child toward human freedom? If you come to understand what happens in a child between birth and the change of teeth—during the first seven years—you will realize how vulnerable young children are and how deeply we can affect their being (I will speak later about the period of embryonic development). The change of teeth represents a decisive turning point in the life of children. Close observation reveals that, after the seventh year, an entirely new interrelationship emerges between the child’s thinking, feeling, and willing.

We have become accustomed to applying certain concepts gained from observing physical processes to the life of the human being. For instance, in natural processes, when we notice the sudden emergence of heat that was imperceptible in a previous state and had not been introduced externally, we say that latent heat is being released. Just as latent heat can be set free by material processes, similarly, soul and spirit forces are set free after the change of teeth, forces that have thus far been bound up with the organism and instrumental for its growth. Freed from processes of growth and nourishment, however, these forces go to work in the child’s soul; they are transformed into soul forces.

Natural science today forms abstract concepts about the relationship between body and soul; theories are invented to explain the effects of one on the other. One speaks of a psychophysical parallelism and so on. Instead of making exact observations, one philosophizes. But all this leads nowhere. If you want to fathom the secrets of human nature, you have to observe it with the same precision used to observe the phenomena of outer nature. Then you will discover that, after approximately the seventh year, forces that were engaged in building the physical organism of the child are now transformed into soul forces that will determine a child’s relationship to the outer world.

If we wish to find out what the soul of a child is like between birth and the seventh year, we must observe the child’s development from the seventh year on. Then, in the child’s soul, we can see the very same forces that were active in the physical organization. And we will find that the hidden, organic activity that molds and shapes the child’s brain and the rest of the organism has a very special significance. Through birth, or conception, children carry into their physical organization what they brought from the worlds of soul and spirit. When children are fully engaged in building up the physical organs in this way, they must be left free to do so, and consequently the doors leading to the outer world remain closed. It is essential that we refrain from interfering in our clumsy ways with these inner activities in children, because they are doing what they have to do and are thus inaccessible to outer will forces.

We must also realize, however, that despite the preoccupation of children with their processes of growth, everything we do around them nevertheless makes deep and distinct impressions on them. I will go into further detail later, but we must not forget that everything at work within the child’s soul after the seventh year was directly involved in the process of building organs up to that age. This means that until the seventh year, the impressions coming from the outer world directly affect their physical constitution—the lungs, stomach, liver, and other organs. In children at this age, the soul has not yet become free of the physical organization, where it is still actively engaged. Because of this, all of the impressions they receive from us through our general conduct have a decisive effect on their future constitution of health or illness.

You came expecting to learn something about our educational principles, but it is the practical application of these principles that is most important. What really matters in education are the mood and soul attitude that teachers carry in their hearts toward the human being. We cannot truly serve the art of education unless we approach the growing human being with real insight. One could even say that teachers are free to approach subjects in their own individual ways, since, in any event, they must prepare their subject material according to what they have learned from life. The important thing is that teachers each carry within themselves a true picture of the human being; if this picture is present to their inner eyes, they will do the right thing, although outwardly each teacher may act in very different ways.

I visited parallel classes as the spiritual guide of the Waldorf school (the large numbers already require parallel classes), and when I saw how the teachers each treat the same subject in very individual ways, I never object or insist that they all follow the same set courses. Even when two versions of the same subject appear contradictory externally, each may nevertheless be correct in its own way. In fact, if one teacher were to copy another, the results could be entirely wrong. There is a good reason that our school is called the “Free Waldorf School.” This is not just because of our independence from the state system, but the name very much reflects the atmosphere of freedom that pervades its entire makeup.

During the previous lecture I pointed out that a suprasensory contemplation of the human being will reveal to us—apart from the physical body—another, finer body that we call the ether body, or body of formative forces. This ether body provides not just the forces that sustain nourishment and growth; it is also the source of memory faculties and the ability to create mental images and ideas. It does not become an independent entity until the change of teeth, and its birth is similar to the way the physical body is born from one’s mother. This means that, until the change of teeth, the forces of the ether body work entirely in the processes of a child’s organic growth, whereas after that time—while still remaining active in this realm to a great extent—those forces partially withdraw from those activities. The released forces of the ether body then begin to work in the soul realm of mental images and memory, as well as in many other nuances of a child’s soul life.

The change of teeth is a unique event. The forces needed to push out the second teeth existed prior to this event, but now they are no longer needed. Once the second teeth have appeared, this particular activity of the ether body becomes redundant. The final activity of pushing out the second teeth is an external manifestation of the sort of activity that is happening within a child’s organism. At the end of the first seven-year period, most of these ether forces are released to flow into a child’s soul and spiritual nature.

One can recognize these seven-year periods throughout the entire human life, and each again can be seen in three clearly differentiated shorter periods. If we observe the gradual withdrawal of some of these ether forces until approximately the seventh year, we see how during the first two and a half years after physical birth the ether body frees itself from the head region; in the next two and a half years, it frees itself from the chest region; and finally, until the change of teeth, it frees itself from the child’s metabolic-limb system. Thus we see three phases in the gradual withdrawal of ether forces. And we clearly recognize how, while the ether body is still connected with the head region, a child rejects any intentional influence coming from outside.

What children learn during this first two-and-a-half-year period is extremely important for their whole life. They do so through an incoming activity and from what they have brought with them from prenatal existence. Just consider how children learn to speak and walk during this first short period. These are two human faculties that are closely connected with maintaining self-confidence, both from a personal and a social point of view. These two important faculties are developed while the ether body is still engaged in shaping the brain and radiating into the rest of the organism. If these ether forces radiate too strongly into the organism and disturb the infant’s delicate processes of metabolism, breathing, and blood circulation—if they become too powerful within a baby’s organism—scarlet fever and similar childhood illnesses may occur even at this young age. Basically, because of all this activity within children at this stage, they remain inaccessible to conscious approaches directed by the will and demands from the outside. They want to be left to work on their own organism.

Being inaccessible to the outer world during the first two and a half years is one significant factor. Another is the fact that children have a fine, instinctive perception for everything going on around them, especially what is happening in people with whom they have established a certain rapport. Anyone caring for such a child naturally belongs to this category. I am not speaking of a child’s ability to use the senses as an older person does. It is not a matter of what children see with their eyes, but a general perception of the most intimate kind that takes in what is happening in their surroundings. This perception, however, excludes anything that seeks to impose itself from outside, against which children will defend themselves instinctively during those first two and a half years.

To get a better understanding of children’s susceptibility to the outer world when their sensory perceptions are still deeply immersed in feeling, it may help to look at animals, the creatures immediately below the human being, because they show a similar, acute sensitivity toward the outer world. I am not contradicting what I said about senility in a previous lecture; one must simply observe accurately. Animals are especially sensitive to their surroundings. I do not know whether those who have come from England or other European countries have ever heard of the horses that, a few years before the war, created a sensation by appearing to do simple mathematical calculations. In Berlin, there was the famous horse of Mr. von Osten, and in Elberfeld there were several horses that could do numeric calculations. Well, I cannot say anything about the Elberfeld horses, but I did make the acquaintance of von Osten’s horse in Berlin, and I was able to observe the close relationship between this horse and its master. It is true that the horse stamped its legs—three times three is nine—which, for a horse, is a very respectable achievement.

All kinds of theories were advanced to explain the horse’s reactions to questions from von Osten. There was one university lecturer—a most erudite man—who even wrote a whole book on this horse. He wrote, “Of course the horse cannot calculate, but whenever Mister von Osten says, ‘Three times three,’ he accompanies his words by barely noticeable facial expressions. He sort of mimes, and when he pronounces the word nine, the horse is capable of observing these facial expressions and stamps accordingly.” His was certainly a learned treatise. He continued, “I myself was unable to detect the miming on von Osten’s face and therefore I cannot guarantee that my theory is correct. But it must have been there and the horse was able to observe it.” It seems to me that the author merely states that he, a university lecturer, considered the horse more capable of observation than he was himself. In my opinion, the crucial point was von Osten’s procedure, for he had large pockets filled with sweets that he shoved into the horse’s mouth, thus maintaining an uninterrupted flow of sensation and gratification. The result was an intimate relationship between master and horse. Everything was immersed in a feeling of sympathy, which made the horse extremely receptive, in keeping with its animal nature, to all that came from its master, even his thoughts and shades of feeling, but hardly the play of mysterious expressions on his face. The processes of calculation going on in von Osten’s mind were transferred to the horse via the taste of sweetness. This phenomenon does not become any less interesting when interpreted this way, but it can teach us a great deal about the relationship of living beings. It cannot be explained hypothetically by observing the facial expressions a horse can detect, though not a university lecturer.

During the first two and a half years, children have a similar rapport with the mother or with others they are closely connected with as long as their attitude and conduct make this possible. Then children become perfect mimics and imitators. This imposes a moral duty on adults to be worthy of such imitation, which is far less comfortable then exerting one’s will on children. Children take in all that we do, such as the ways we act and move. They are equally susceptible to our feelings and thoughts. They imitate us, and even if this is not outwardly noticeable, they nevertheless do this by developing tendencies for imitation that, through their organic soul forces, they press down into the physical organism. Therefore, education during these first two and a half years should be confined to the self-education of the adults in charge, who should think, feel, and act in a way that, when perceived by children, will cause them no harm. Fundamentally, the stage of imitation continues until the change of teeth, and thus children will be strongly influenced by their environment later on as well.

The following example may demonstrate this. Two disconsolate parents once came to me, saying, “Our child has always been good, but now she has stolen money.” Was this really true? At a superficial glance, yes, for she had taken money out of the cupboard where it was always kept by her mother. The child then bought sweets with the money and even gave some to other children. I reassured the parents that their child had not stolen at all, but that she had merely imitated her mother, who regularly took money from the cupboard to buy things. There was never any intention of stealing; this concept did not yet exist in the child’s mind. But children are imitators and will do what mother does. If we wish to avoid confusion, it is up to adults to realize this and act differently in front of the children.

Neither will children learn to walk through our efforts to make them stand and do all sorts of movements. Such instruction belongs in gym much later on. If we intervene by making children stand and walk prematurely, we may do irreparable damage to the nerve processes, which may persist for their whole life. If children see adults in an upright position, as imitator they try to raise themselves to the same position when the time comes. We must always see the human being during the initial stages as an imitator and arrange our child rearing accordingly.

This can certainly be very trying at times, and we all know that there are babies who seem to be yelling all day and, apart from the ear-splitting noise, inflict all kinds of other provocations on the adult. True, there are situations that have to be dealt with, even drastically, to avoid serious damage by a child. But such measures do not really belong to the field of education. Admittedly, it is hard to put up with a screaming child, but when we behave as described, our conduct gradually sinks into the deeper layers of a child’s soul and spiritual forces (which are still closely connected to organic processes) and eventually brings about more positive results.

If we observe small children without preconceived ideas, we find that their screaming and other unpleasant features come from their physical organization. Although the inherent forces in the behavior of intense crying remain with the child, the habit of crying will gradually pass. Such forces are very intense. If we influence the child correctly by setting the proper example and acting morally, the forces behind a baby’s crying will reveal themselves as intensely moral forces in later life. A strong morality later in adult life is an expression of those same forces that lived in the intense crying of a young child. On the other hand, if those close to a child have an immoral attitude—even if only in thoughts—these forces will reappear later as intensely immoral forces. And we must be careful not to harm the development of children while they are learning to speak. This easily happens when we make them say words we choose; this, too, is an imposition of our will on the child. It is best to speak naturally in front of children (as long as we speak in a moral way) so that they have opportunities to hear us. In this way, children find their own way into language.

Now you can appreciate the real point of what has been said so far—that we must not be tempted by a false kind of instinct to make baby talk for the child’s benefit. This is not an instinct but something we may have acquired through misguided customs. Nurses or others dealing with young children should never speak to them in an artificial or childish way. We really do a great wrong when we change our normal way of speaking to “suit” a child, for children always want to imitate us as we really are, not as we pretend to be. They reject anything that approaches them as an expression of another person’s will, such as childish and naive baby talk. Children have to put up with it, but they have a deep inner resentment toward such an approach. The effects of such well-intended folly is so farreaching that it may come to light in later years as a weakened digestion. When an older person is diagnosed as having a weak digestion, it might be nothing but the result of the wrong approach by an over-zealous but misguided nurse during that person’s early childhood.

These are the main points regarding the first third of the first seven-year period, and they need to be kept in mind.

At the age of two and a half, the head organization in children is developed far enough so that the forces of the ether body that have been working on it may be released. This gradual withdrawal continues into the area of the chest until about the fifth year, when breathing and blood circulation have also reached a certain stage of completion. Thus, by the time children learn to speak and walk, the formative forces released from the head (now acting now as soul and spiritual forces) join those being released in the chest region. This change can be recognized externally by the emergence of an exceptionally vivid memory and wonderful imagination, which children develop between two and a half and five. However, you must take great care when children develop these two faculties, since they are instrumental in building the soul. Children continue to live by imitation, and therefore we should not attempt to make them remember things we choose. At this stage it is best to leave the evolving forces of memory alone, allowing children to remember whatever they please. We should never give them memory exercises of any kind, otherwise, through ignorance, we might be responsible for consequences we can see only when viewing the entire course of human life.

Sometimes we meet people who, around the age of forty or later, complain of shooting pains or rheumatism. This may certainly have various causes, but if we carry our research far enough, we may find that the rheumatism was caused by a premature overloading of the memory during early childhood. The pattern of life is indeed very complex, and only by trying to recognize its many hidden links can we engender the love that is the true basis of growing human beings.

Whatever one’s attitude may be, as educators we must respond to the imagination and fantasy of children, which tries to express itself outwardly when they play with toys or join in games with other children. The urge to play between the ages of two and a half and five is really just the externalized activity of a child’s power of fantasy. And if we have the necessary ability of observation for such matters, we can foretell a great deal about the future soul life of children merely by watching them play. The way young children play provides a clear indication of their potential gifts and faculties in later life. The most important thing now is to meet their inborn urge to play with the right toys. People in the past responded to this need according to their own particular understanding.

Perhaps this also happened in the West, but at one time a regular epidemic spread throughout Central Europe of giving children boxes of building bricks, especially at Christmas. From separate cubic and quadrilateral stones, children were expected to build miniature architectural monstrosities. This sort of thing has a far-reaching effect on the development of imagination in children, since it leads to an atomistic, materialistic attitude—a mentality that always wants to put bits and pieces together to form a whole. In dealing with practical life, it is far better to give full freedom to children’s flexible and living powers of imagination than to nurture intellectual capacities that, in turn, encourage the atomistic nature of modern thinking. Imagination in children represents the very forces that have just liberated themselves from performing similar creative work within the physical formation of the brain. This is why we must avoid, as much as possible, forcing these powers of imagination into rigid, finished forms.

Imagine two nurses who are looking after a child between two and a half and five years of age. One of them—she may be very fond of the little girl in her charge—gives her a “beautiful” doll, one that has not only painted cheeks and real hair but eyes that close and a moveable head. I believe there are dolls that can even speak. Well, she gives this doll to the little girl, but since it is finished in every detail, there is nothing left for the child’s imagination to create, and her yearning for creative flexibility remains unsatisfied. It is as if its forces of imagination were put into a straitjacket. The other nurse, who has a little more understanding for the inner needs of the child, takes an old piece of cloth that is of no use for anything else. She winds a thread around its upper end until something resembling a head appears. She may even ask the little girl to paint two black dots on the face or perhaps more, for the eyes, nose, and mouth. Now, because the child’s imagination is stimulated, because she can create instead of having to put up with fixed and finished forms, the child experiences a far more lively and intimate response than she does toward the so-called beautiful doll. Toys, as much as possible, should leave the power of fantasy free in children. And since intellect is not the same as fantasy or imagination, the activity of assembling many parts is really not in harmony with the type of fantasy that is characteristic of children at this age.

Anything that evokes an inner feeling of liveliness and flexibility is always suitable for young children. For example, there are children’s books with cut-outs and nicely colored figures that can be moved by pulling strings attached below, so they will do all kinds of things, such as embracing or thrashing each other. These always stimulate children to invent whole stories, and thus they are very wholesome objects of play. Similarly, games with other children should not be too formal but should leave plenty of scope for children’s imagination.

All these suggestions spring from a knowledge of the human being, based on reality and allowing educators to acquire the necessary understanding, especially in terms of the practical side of life.

When children approach the fifth year, the ether forces of the body—which have thus far been building the breathing and the blood circulation—now become available for other activities. Likewise, up to the change of teeth, ether forces will struggle free and, after completing their task within the metabolic-limb system, become redundant. At that time, new spiritual soul forces gradually awaken and emerge fully after the seventh year (we will study this in more detail later). However, these forces already shine with a dawning light in this third and final period, which concludes the first seven-year period of human life.

When ether forces from the chest area reappear as soul and spiritual forces, children are becoming amenable to exhortations and to a sense of authority. Previously, unable to understand what they should or should not do, they could only imitate, but now, little by little, they begin to listen to and believe what adults say. Only toward the fifth year is it possible to awaken a sense of right and wrong in children. We can educate children correctly only by realizing that, during this first seven-year period until the change of teeth, children live by imitation, and only gradually do they develop imagination and memory and a first belief in what adults say.

Faith in the adult induces a feeling of authority, especially for teachers with whom children have a very close relationship. However, at this stage, children are too young for any formal education. It pains me to know that the sixth year has been fixed as the official school age. Children should not enter elementary school before their seventh year. I was always glad to hear, therefore (and I don’t mind if you consider this uncivilized), that the children of some anthroposophists had no knowledge of writing and reading, even at the age of eight. Accomplishments that come with forces that are available later on should never be forced into an earlier stage, unless we are prepared to ruin the physical organism.

In the next few days I will show you how we try to treat our children without inflicting harm on them when they enter the Waldorf school. Tomorrow I will begin by introducing you to the Waldorf school, though only by speaking of it.