Images grow and change. The development of the quality of images in childhood and youth

Hartwig Schiller

The experience of nature, cultural products or historical processes produce different images, as do a person’s frame of mind, but also age, location and spiritual identity. The contemporary world, for example, forms a general background to the soul life and is involved alongside other significant influences in the creation of ideas. The individual constitutional nature of an individual also plays a considerable part. If we ask a nine-year-old child what a fairy tale hero looks like then he is, of course, handsome, tall and good, and similar to mother, father or a sibling. In a choleric child he will assume traits of decisiveness and strength, in a melancholic child empathy and depth. There are even adults who find it difficult to accept that Rudolf Stei­ner was a rather small, slim person. Something always intervenes in the development of ideas which comes from unconscious regions of the will. Importance in that context tends to correspond with a physically imposing presence.

Images make life human

The drawings of small children reveal the origins of their pictorial quality. We see whirls, intersections, “cephalopods”, rhythmical repetition and other characteristic images of their physical and psychological development. The representations show an unconscious image of inner processes. One of the most important art theorists of the nineteenth century, Konrad Fiedler, put it like this: “All art is development of imagination, as all thinking is development of concepts.” And nothing shows the development of the way the child understands images better than the field of art.

Children’s understanding of images frees itself from the body between the ages of five and seven. Their play becomes freer and in role play, for example, uses many different aspects of the imagination. People and things can change to represent a great variety of different things from one minute to the next. At the same time memory begins to develop significantly. It changes from the recognition of references based in experience to free references related to subjects and motifs.

Outer appearance and essence are no longer indivisibly connected in an image. The child can describe phenomena with increasing precision and increasingly consciously create his or her own images. That heralds the possibility of linking the functional, technical, external aspect of the world with its essential forms of expression.

Alongside their depictive aesthetic form of expression, images have another deeper characteristic which is of decisive importance for education. As a result they are a “likenesses” of inner “forms” – but in their creation they are a process. At the end of each formative process we have an aspect, but that is preceded by the decisive path of creation. Supporting this process is of great importance specifically in the transition from childhood to youth, in the period of adolescence. Everyone who supports the creative, inner, formative process maintains the connection between functional outer and essential inner. They support the possibility of understanding and dealing with technology in a human way.

All forms of expressive exercise – in language, colour, sound or dance – are attempts to form the world by creating realities and learning to read them. They stimulate the imagination and bring it out. Education in its widest sense is at its core nothing other than the experience of what human beings make of themselves through working on themselves. Upbringing as education means this process of a future humanity, keeping life at a human level.

When a butterfly flies through the classroom

The view that images are limited to representative art or two-dimensional graphic representations is a restricting misapprehension. Images arise in every field of sensory perception of which we are aware. Thus looking at architecture which was built as the expression of totalitarian power can call up the image of individual helplessness in the face of such power.

When thoughts are formed, the concepts must be clearly defined. When pictures are “formed” that is not necessary. The sound of a voice can trigger threatening, calming, consoling, hurtful or many other images. Impressions of our life sense can make us happy or sad. These images are created where sensory stimuli and consciousness are combined into a feeling.

Imaginative teachers are able to address young children wholly in this sphere of imaginative orientation: “Children! Let’s allow a butterfly to fly through the classroom. Everyone take their books out and take care not to disturb it so that it can flutter undisturbed over your heads.

Today we are going to write on a whole page in your school books. Without lines we are going to divide the page nicely. Imagine your page is a person. Let us write the first word where his left ear is.

Next we will write a word where his right foot is. Now we will write...” At the end we will have a clearly structured page without needing to use simple instructions with regard to order such as “first line on the left”, “last line at the bottom”, etc. The advantage of such a method is that the imagination and creative power of the children is encouraged instead of simply being drilled.

The Little Red Riding Hood wolf in anatomical terms

Imaginative images appeal to the imagination of the child and in that respect possess immense educational value. They stimulate the life supporting forces in the human being and promote health and creative will.

As the children grow older, such images can change and grow with them. The wolf in fairy tales, fables, legends and myths is, as a rule, an image of voracity. Little Red Riding Hood is led into temptation to seek every more magnificent presents for her grandmother. Reynard the Fox tricks him into having his tail frozen in the ice while fishing and St. Francis tamed the wolf terrorising the people of Gubbio. At the end of the world, the Fenris Wolf will devour not just the moon but also the father of the gods, Odin. Those are prominent examples of a particular pictorial language.

In zoology a few years later, pupils learn to see the physical shape of the wolf in the context of his way of life and thus to understand the imaginative concordance between being and appearance.

In the upper school the characteristics of the different animal species are investigated through measurable and enumerable criteria. In this context the images which now arise must meet the quality requirement of the conscious imagination. Images are no longer just natural feelings or an illustration of the encounter with the world. On the contrary, the comprehension of the image reflects the physiognomic expression of the phenomenon. As a result it becomes spiritually transparent, it reveals its spiritual substance.

We can continue to use the wolf as an example to illustrate this. The endurance of the wolf in comparison to cat species of a similar size is directly apparent. The intensity with which its being comes to expression is evident in the image of its slavering jaws or the pumping respiratory movement of its chest. But its greatest strength lies in the persistence with which the pack hunts as a group. An individual wolf could never bring down a fully grown stag but a pack can do so without difficulty. In doing so, it is not the whole pack which hunts its prey to exhaustion but the members of the pack take on different tasks: while some pursue the prey, others wait at certain points to relieve their companions, confuse the prey through attacks and finally bring down the animal.

There is a strict hierarchy in a wolf pack. Each wolf knows all the other members of the pack as well as its own position in the group and subordinates itself to the highest ranking animals, the “alpha animals”. Lower ranking animals can easily be recognised by their behaviour: they approach higher ranking wolves slightly coweringly, their tail tucked in and ears laid flat, they “submit”.

A wolf does not chew its food but tears the chunks of meat into bite-sized pieces with its fangs which it then swallows whole. Its sense of smell is highly developed. Under favourable conditions it can identify smells at a distance of up to 2.8 kilometres. Its sense of hearing is also highly sensitive. In the forest it can hear sounds up to ten kilometres away and in open country up to 16 kilometres away. With regard to its sight, it is not just the acuity of its eyes but also the focused forward looking angle of vision of 180 degrees which stands out. By contrast, typical wolf’s prey has a wide angle of vision of more than 300 degrees.

All the anatomical details are incorporated into the overall picture of its appearance in a way that makes sense. Wolves are drawn into the world through their highly developed sensory apparatus, the imaginative expression of their voracious nature has its physiological counterpart here. The animal relates to its environment in a specific way. Smell, hearing and vision together with the teeth characterise its slim, forward-pointing skull. What in the lower school was still experienced as an imaginative impression of its nature through the feelings, in the upper school becomes a Goethanistic reading in the book of nature. The study of animals turns into the science of zoology which meets both the requirement for rationally verifiable criteria and measurability as well as the search for an experiential understanding of the overall context of the phenomena.

Ultimately human beings are at home in the world where they find themselves in the phenomena of the world. They are not image alone but the world is too. Understanding is the result of the congruence of both images.

About the author: Hartwig Schiller, former class teacher at the Hamburg Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School, then lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart, former board member of the German Federation of Waldorf Schools and since 2007 General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Germany.