How do very small children learn? We can often see that particularly at the beginning of life they “do what they want”. To begin with, anything that the adult might want makes no impact on them at all. This feeling of not being able to reach the child with what we want as adults is something that probably all parents of small children know, above all at meal and bed times. But what to do about it? Appeals are no use and only make the situation worse.
Particularly with regard to the ability to stand upright and walk, as well as in speaking, it is quite clear at the beginning that human beings can only develop these skills if they have walking and speaking role models. The role model ultimately determines the way that the child obtains an upright posture and acquires language. Anyone who occasionally observes the way that children and their parents walk and speak can see this clearly.
Even if we don’t always want to believe it, because the child apparently never does what it is supposed to: everything else, too, be it washing their hands or drying their feet is learnt in the early years through imitation.
Everything is incorporated implicitly through harmonising with the environment. Quite a responsibility for us adults! So in the first six to seven years the main access to the world of the child is therefore through the imitation of role models. Something we can observe in the most direct form in the acquisition of the mother tongue, no one has to learn vocabulary lists off by heart in doing so, is something we mostly do not take seriously enough.
Deeds instead of words
That it is pointless to explain to a child how to walk “properly”, how to ensure a proper blood supply to the skin, digest carrots and regulate the flow of saliva is immediately obvious. We are generally less clear in relation to everything else, namely “normal” life. Children ultimately learn all the important things in their first years: holding a spoon, drinking from a cup, putting on a hat and watering flowers. They way in which they learn these things is always determined by the environment. In the first years of their life, children immerse themselves completely in the actions of their environment. They harmonise in a dream-like state with everything that happens around them. The younger they are, the more clearly they do so.
But because after the first year of their life children develop this incredible pleasure in speaking, we often overburden them much too much with our explanations why something has to be done when. But learning in early childhood is direct and unthinking involvement in the actions of the people around. Everything is learnt from the other person – but through their deeds, not their verbose explanations.
One of the loveliest and most memorable experiences I have had regarding the subject of imitation was in observing a father with his approximately two-year-old boy on the beach. The father was walking ahead of his son, the boy dawdled behind. Very slowly the father turned round, walked backwards and completely without any rush said, “Come, let’s go”. With the same care the boy thereupon slowly turned round and also continued walking backwards like his father had just demonstrated to him. In doing so, he kept looking at his father with the same loving grin as he received from his father.
Imitation is more than copying
But it is also quite clearly observable that small children from a certain age do indeed hear and understand very well what the adults are saying and explaining but that their innate access to the world is nevertheless not to follow instructions but through direct immersion, harmonisation with the surroundings. And this is something different from copying, it is imitation. Copying means watching, internalising and then trying it ourselves. Imitation is direct, unconscious participation. If the adult says: “Shush, quieten down!”, then most kindergarten children will also say: “Shush, quieten down!”. Whether things actually quieten down is, of course, quite a different matter.
With regard to imitation we can sometimes get the impression that small children live far more in their surroundings and thus also in us and our actions than in themselves. They are not at rest but only gradually arrive in the course of the years. In the first years of life it is almost as if they merge with their surroundings. Thus children sometimes even imitate movements taking place behind their back or respond to something that the parents have been thinking. That is the extent to which they are sometimes interwoven with the surroundings.
Rudolf Steiner’s “Education of the Child”
Rudolf Steiner addresses this in his essay “The Education of the Child” as follows: “The child imitates what happens in the physical environment and in the process of imitation their physical organs flow into the forms which then remain. We just have to take the physical surroundings in the widest possible sense. It includes not just what happens materially around the child but everything that happens in the surroundings of the child, what can be perceived by their senses, what can affect their mental powers from the physical space.
That also includes all moral or immoral, all clever or stupid actions they can see. […] If before the age of seven the child only sees stupid acts in its surroundings, then the brain will take on such forms which in later life will also make it suitable only for stupidities.” The observation of our own behaviour near children, our deeds, our words as well as our thoughts and feelings also show clearly that we cannot tell ourselves often enough how much we are involved in shaping the physical and soul-spiritual opportunities of the child from the beginning.
The moral appeal to us adults, to our responsibility to be mindful in the environment of children as best we can, also socially and in our thoughts, could not be more relevant.
How, then, can the principle of role model and imitation be applied to the greatest possible extent to the way we live our lives in practice as a whole? Through real life without great educational contortions! In the Waldorf kindergarten, bread, a wooden board and knife, butter and jam are put out on one day a week for example. The kindergarten teacher slowly and calmly spreads butter and jam on one slice of bread after the other. Individual children keep joining her, do as she does, until they want to continue playing again. As they join her, they sometimes look at her, sometimes at her slice of bread and also slowly and calmly spread one slice of bread after the other.
The three-year-olds waste a lot of butter and spread a lot of jam over the wooden board; the six-year-olds can already do it almost as well as the adults. No one does it in the right or wrong way, the children simply through imitation slowly acquire the skill to spread a piece of bread during their time in kindergarten.
Such simple household activities are internalised by the children in kindergarten through imitation alone which is not commented upon. Everything is good and helpful for them – at home as well: cleaning, baking, cooking, weeding, digging, sawing and washing up. All the necessary things are learnt without any instruction and the child gradually becomes skilled and strong without extra educational exercises.
What we therefore urgently need is more “real” life for the direct involvement of child. “Keeping watch” on children is so difficult to imitate. Every child actually becomes bored with that – and there is nothing to “learn”.
About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a father, works as a kindergarten teacher in the all-day Waldorf kindergarten in the Bildungshaus of the Kassel Free Waldorf School and writes about early years Waldorf education.