Before the concept we need conception. Against intellectualising early childhood

Philipp Gelitz

A two-year-old girl discovers a beetle in the sand. “Look, Mummy, fly!” – “Yes, I’m coming my angel! No, that’s a beetle. Do you know what it is called, my darling?” – “Yes!” – “What?” – “... (silence)” – “It’s a ladybird, you know!? Flies and beetles are all insects, and bees and wasps also, but this one here is a ladybird. There are many different beetles. But this one here is a ladybird. Ladybirds are always red with black dots.” 

“I’m hungry!” A three-year-old boy is climbing about in the train compartment. “Sit down! Do you want a banana? Don’t make so much noise!” – “I can do it like this!” – “Stop it now. If you fall you’ll hurt yourself.” – “Mummy, look, like this!” – “Now please sit down. If the train brakes you will fall forward. You won’t be able to hold on. You know, the train also has traffic lights and when they turn red then the train has to brake really hard.” – “Hello, mummy!” – “Look, if we go round a bend you’ll stumble” – “Ow!” – “You see? What did I say. Now will you jolly well sit down!” – “You’re stupid, mummy!«

Wherever we look, explanations are delivered thick and fast. It is not just that taxonomic ranks are explained to two-year-olds or three-year-olds are lectured on the technical aspects of rail travel. Even one-year-olds are told how the rings have to be “properly” put on. Four-year-olds are learning things about organic food and pesticides und five-year-olds that the moon does not shine but reflects the light of the sun. Lack of exercise and media consumption are general deemed to put early childhood particularly at risk. Yet the danger posed by intellectualisation is no less than that from media consumption. Indeed, it is more difficult to identify and thus also more difficult to control because practically everyone does it (including Waldorf teachers!) and there is no off button. After all, we have to explain the world to the small child! But children learn differently from adults – above all, not through the head.

Well meant, but totally over the child’s head

The good intention is always evident – it is just that there is a lack of insight about the way that small children actually learn. In the first six to seven years they learn almost exclusively by imitating a model. Otherwise they would neither be able to walk nor speak, hold a spoon or wash their hands. No one explained that to them. They experienced facts and imitated them. Nothing was understood by their intellect. One fact which they imitate in the flood of explanatory words is the constant talking and – worse still – the lack of a connection with the present moment. Children experience the adults surrounding them as not being connected in the present with the phenomena of the world. We constantly look for the intellectual plane behind the actual moment. The result is that children lose interest, lack drive and spout a lot of trivia.

Reason uses up life forces

But that is only the one side. There is something much more serious. Children lack the strength to make themselves at home in their own body to the extent that we appeal to their reason. The forces which we use to maintain our body – for digestion and growth – also allow the thinking to develop when they are transformed. That is one of the most significant findings of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being. As adults, we can experience that connection directly when we fall ill: in that situation we have difficulty in following a complicated argument. We are thrown back on our bodily nature. We need a “functioning” body with life processes which run by themselves and outside our consciousness if we want to be able to think at all.

Learning takes place in the present

In the first seven years of life, children find themselves in a situation in which the life forces have to be gradually anchored in the body to begin with. An infant can neither maintain body temperature nor digest mashed potato. Such anchoring of the life processes in the body requires a special protected space otherwise we prevent the physical basis of subsequent mental and intellectual development from being stabilised. For in the moment that the pre-school child is torn out of the immediacy of the moment through unasked explanations, the life forces which form the body and its life processes are diverted into the activity of our reason. They are then not available for building our body. The image of the pale child who knows everything but cannot do very much is therefore not just a caricature but based on observable reality. Before school, learning is always implicit, that is, out of the immediate context. Explicit learning is still too strenuous. Where the latter happens nevertheless, it has a negative effect on breathing, movement and digestion. Anyone who takes anthroposophy and Waldorf education seriously, should be clear that appealing to the reason of the small child weakens the body.

Explanation after experience

What guides us along the right track is the logic of facts. The time to say something has not arrived until the child falls over because the train has braked: “Oh, that was jerky. Sit down, I’ll kiss it better.” Anything else is nonsense. If we cannot stand it any longer or think it is too dangerous, we have to become creative, divert the child, engage him in a fun game, tell a story or something similar. The explanation beforehand of all the different things that might happen for all the different reasons weakens the child’s vital functions. The logic of facts takes precedence over the logic of reason – a guiding principle both for the home and kindergarten.

Alert yet still capable of enjoyment

It should not be denied, however, that there are also many small children who behold the world in a particularly alert way and find explicit explanations. Here the educational task consists of recognising such alertness with admiration, viewing it as a gift, and at the same time occasionally making the space available to give the child the opportunity to dream, be it in painting a picture with watercolours, playing with dolls or during a walk in the woods in which we can listen attentively, play and have fun. All the unwanted explanations, the constant questioning what kindergarten was like today, impede even the cleverest child in taking hold of his or her still incomplete body. It only drives the child further into the head. Heart and hands are left empty.

Children need the magic of the future

A bit of mystery should always remain. Including – indeed, particularly – with the cleverest children. A residue of such mystery must be there in the world otherwise it becomes boring and cold: “Yes, I know that clouds are created through condensation when warm air cools.” The miracle of creation is then comprehended in a materialistic, cool and detached way. It is only healthy for our inner development if a question is not finally and conclusively answered – something that, incidentally, also applies to adults. Children retain their joy in learning, their pleasure in the discovery of the world if we ponder their questions with them and do not lexically strike them dead. Anyone who wrestles to find a vivid response to the child’s question “Where does the wind come from?”, who asks himself or herself aloud where the wind might be at home – perhaps behind the big mountain? – will do more to fuel an eagerness to learn than a  mini lecture about the relationship between high pressure and low pressure zones. The meanwhile unpopular sentence “You’ll learn all about it in school!” then becomes a promise.

Concepts must also grow

It is worthwhile observing how children form concepts. If the word “sand” is to be more than a husk devoid of content, there has to be repeated unreflected observation. Wet sand, powdery sand, dark sand, light sand, warm sand, cold sand, rough sand, fine sand. And not just once but again and again. We know from brain research that neural links grow stronger the more that associated experiences occur. Neural networks even regress in the absence of constant exposure to the connection between the different experiences of touch, smell, taste, and sound.

If the ladybird is immediately slotted into a complex system of concepts, the concept of “beetle” cannot gradually and comprehensibly grow. The child’s life in the world of phenomena, which can develop into a broad conceptual foundation, is freeze-dried through the adult’s intellectual approach to the world.

The divide between the I and the world is no longer overcome by the child himself or herself through observation, perception and play but externally through the clever commentary. That creates dependency. Anyone who wants to avoid that should make the effort to enable the child to have unreflected primary experiences. And that is something different from just talking about it.

About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a kindergarten teacher in Kassel.