How children thrive. International Early Childhood Conference in Dornach

Sven Saar

His words convey real enthusiasm as he reminds the people gathered together in the Large Hall of the Goetheanum that the educational approach living in Waldorf establishments is the only one worldwide which accompanies young people from birth to adulthood.

Michaela Glöckler, too, is immediately believable  when she looks into the audience at the opening of the conference and says with a radiant smile: “This is without doubt the best working meeting to which I may welcome you here!”

That is easy to understand: imagine the atmosphere in a hall in which 600 people are sitting who almost exclusively work with babies and young children. There is a natural freshness, there is much laughter in the breaks and at no conference can so few smokers be seen as at this one.

The participants – among them about three dozen men – come from 29 different countries. Other than at the teachers’ conference, the vast majority are from Germany and Switzerland and yet an impressive international spirit can be felt in the corridors.

Highly concentrated research is undertaken in the working groups. Perhaps it is because child care workers working with very young children must be particularly authentic or that they are used to immersing themselves wholly in an activity like their charges – in any event the profound seriousness is noticeable which underlies the struggle for knowledge. No one is embarrassed to crawl around barefoot in the grass like a young child for the purpose of research into the senses.

Full of reverence feet are washed and case studies of meetings with parents empathetically discussed. The lectures, too, are fully attended despite the summer weather with its invitation to take a break.

What Emmi Pikler has in common with Steiner

On the first evening, Anna Tardos presented the approach of the Hungarian paediatrician Emmi Pikler (1902-1984) whose thinking and experiences are increasingly influencing the practice in Waldorf nurseries and day care centres. Despite clear differences between Steiner and Pikler, both of them have in common a profound and fundamental respect for the individuality of the child. Child care workers from both types of establishment approach their charges with devotion and a kind of reverence for the developing human being which can only be effective in this age group if it is felt at a deep and genuine level.

The loving attention which is expressed in such care leaves a lasting mark in the children: they will in the future deal with their own children as they experienced being dealt with themselves, all the lecturers were in agreement. “In the children we are also educating the following generation of parents,” kindergarten teacher Birgit Krohmer said in her introductory presentation.


The content of the conference focused on the personality of the adult looking after the child. Our function as role models cannot be taken seriously enough, said initiator Claudia Grah-Wittich: “We have to practise a long time to observe children with the same precision as they observe us. The child forms itself through observing the surroundings.”

The well-known neurobiologist and psychotherapist Joachim Bauer put it like this in his lecture: “Psychology turns into biology!” Uniquely important areas of the human brain, such as the centres of self-observation and motivation, only formed in the years after birth. This can be shown to happen by means of the impressions and resonances which the child experiences from other people: when I bend over the cradle of the infant I react almost instinctively in copying their facial expression or gestures.

For the baby that is important feedback because as a result they receive validation from me, feel themselves to be recognised and valued. They then begin to imitate me and a delicate and very intimate interrelationship begins between us which is of crucial importance for the emotional but also the physical development of the child.

Many neurobiological studies have meanwhile shown the value of resonance experiences and affirm that Waldorf nurseries with their emphasis on the personal encounter between the child and child care worker perform extremely valuable work. Now that the social acceptance of nurseries is reasonably secure (also in the Waldorf world), the most urgent challenge is to convince the authorities of the necessity of increasing the staff ratio so that the high quality of care can be guaranteed.

The precise and loving observation of the child not only gives them valuable resonance but also enables the adults to accompany the development of the children in their care with patience and not to force progress to happen but to wait for it. The American child care worker Susan Weber describes this as the “moment of self-ignition”: we fail to respect the dignity of the young child if we force them to jump through hoops thought up by us; but we do respect it if we permit them to undertake important steps at the right moment in their biography.

Nurseries are part of life

The impulse to work with very young children on the basis of Waldorf findings has been around for about 15 years. The first conference which was held at the Goetheanum in 2001 was characterised by passionate controversy.

Should parents be encouraged at all through an attractive provision to put their children in such an establishment at such an early age? Should they not rather stay at home until kindergarten age? Whose rights count more – those of the mother or those of the child?

Meanwhile the approach to the subject has become considerably more relaxed. That mothers return to work soon after giving birth has become a social reality to such an extent that Waldorf education would rightly have to be described as existing in an ivory tower if it failed to face up to the new challenge. The question today is no longer “whether” but “how”.

[Translator’s note: The following two paragraphs are a discussion of the German term “Erzieher” which can be translated, depending on context, as child care worker, preschool teacher or educator. The “zieh” in “Erzieher” contains an allusion to the verb “ziehen”, to pull. Clearly the point raised is not an issue in English where “child care worker” or “carer” is already commonly in use.]

In the closing plenary session the nurse Rolf Heine pointed to the connection between education and nursing and the question presented itself whether with regard to the activities discussed at the conference the professional designation “Erzieher” was at all suitable. In a Waldorf nursery the children develop quite naturally, guided and cared for with a gentle hand. No one is “pulling” at them.

What might a better term be? Should a new one be invented? It appears to me, following Rudolf Steiner’s foundation stone verse for the first Waldorf school, that the term “child carer” would be more appropriate. 

About the author: Sven Saar is a class teacher at the Wahlwies Free Waldorf School in Stockach. |  |