Children learn through being in the world
All the fundamental capacities of human beings are developed in the period between birth and the time when they are ready to start school. They learn to stand upright, speak, think, hold a spoon, water flowers and wash their hands. In addition, sensory experience leads to the breathtaking development of neuronal networks which is strongest in the first two to three years of life and will not occur again with such intensity in subsequent periods of life. The developing abilities and the gradually coalescing coherence of meaning which is obtained through the constantly recurring sensory experiences in early childhood form the basis from which human beings make the transition to the next stages in their life.
Here it is of particular relevance that children learn almost everything without explanation, through imitation of the environment and free play alone. It cannot be explained to any child how to stand upright, speak or make connections in his or her thinking. It cannot be explained to any child how to dry one’s feet on one leg. And it cannot be explained to any child that “water”, “transparent” and “wet” are concepts which belong together.
Children learn these things implicitly, that is, through living without reflection in the immediate context. They play with movement and language, they simply imitate what happens around them and in the first instance take in the revelations of the world through their eyes, nose and ears without thinking about it; and as a consequence they obtain concepts which accord ever more with reality. Nothing has to be explained here, consciously remembered and conceptually understood. The fundamental things of the world are initially grasped by the child before they are then understood with the thinking.
The responsibility of the role model
Anyone who is aware of this unconscious, resonating access of small children to the world will see the responsibility which arises as a result. How do I move? How do I speak? What do I do and how do I do it? What does the sensory environment of the child look like – garish or restrained, hectic or calm, cold or warm, angular or rounded?
I have to educate myself to be a role model for children and provide a sensory environment for them which does not flood them with sensory stimuli, which is meaningfully stimulating and provides shelter. It is I myself and the environment chosen for the child which he or she uses to develop through imitation. Rudolf Steiner says in this respect in “The education of the child”: “The child imitates what happens in the physical environment and in doing so his or her physical organs are decanted into the forms which they then retain. We simply have to take the physical environment in its widest possible sense. It includes not just what happens around the child in a material sense, but everything that takes place in the surroundings of the child, everything he or she can perceive with his or her senses, which acts from the physical space on his or her spiritual forces. That also includes all moral or immoral, all sensible or foolish actions the child can see.” And further: “If before the age of seven children only see foolish actions in their environment, the brain takes on forms which will only make it suitable for such foolishness in later life.”
The child brings something along
So what is it that children apply to the world? Are they simply too stupid to understand the explanatory words of the adult and therefore find a way round that by resorting to imitation? Anyone who studies this question seriously can observe that small children are very well able to hear and understand what adults say and explain, but that their own particular access to the world is not through obeying instructions but through living in and resonating with the environment. That is something quite different from reproduction, it is imitation. Reproduction means looking at something, internalising it and then trying it out ourselves. Imitation is immediate, unconscious participation. When the adult says: “Pssst, quiet!«, most kindergarten children will also say: “Pssst, quiet!«. The only thing is, quiet rarely sets in as a result.
Children bring something with them that lives in them like a basic mood. They proceed from the assumption that everything in their environment is worth imitating. Young people proceed on the basis that it is worthwhile getting to the bottom of things through the thinking. They need science and a free judgement they have acquired for themselves. Younger school children assume that the world is beautiful, that the world is interwoven with aesthetics and musicality. They want to make things beautiful and then show them to their teachers. But in the first seven years of life there is neither the possibility of following a beloved authority and making everything beautiful for him or her nor of working in an analytical scientific way and making a free judgement based on knowledge.
In the first seven years the child lives solely in the unconscious basic mood: everything that surrounds me is good. And because it is good I live immersed in the world. If small children were sceptically to deconstruct whether or not the way that their father walks is appropriate they would never learn to walk. Children feel in their deep unconscious that “everything is bound to be good”. And they happily – and in a real sense without conscience – simply imitate everything, including all nonsense.
The world is moral
Such devotion to the world, such unshakeable trust, means nothing less than that children assume that everything which appears on their horizon is moral. That is not meant in the sense that children themselves already possess a moral sense of good and evil (that only develops gradually towards the end of the first seven years), but that the things they see are always correct. One and the same child can both build a home for beetles in the woods because he is so fond of beetles and at the same time take delight in shooting at a friend with an imaginary rifle because he has seen that somewhere. For the child both things are equal to begin with because he or she unconsciously assumes that everything in the world is morally correct. It is indeed interesting to note that Rudolf Steiner himself did not use the formulation “the world is good”. On the contrary, he says: “The world is moral”. The meaning may be the same but it gives the matter greater seriousness and import. In the ninth lecture of Study of Man, it says: “When human beings leave the world of spirit and soul and clothe themselves in a body, what do they actually want? They want to realise in the physical world the previous things they experienced in the spirit. Human beings before the change of teeth are, in a manner of speaking, still wholly focused on the past. Human beings are still filled with the devotion which they develop in the spiritual world.
That is also why they give themselves over to their environment in that they imitate people. What, then, is the fundamental impulse, the still wholly unconscious basic mood of the child up to the change of teeth? This basic mood is actually a very lovely one. It is one which proceeds from the assumption, the unconscious assumption: the whole world is moral.”
Everything is good
Anyone who aims to include this anthroposophical perspective can sense a further task for themselves other than “only” being a good role model in their actions and speech. The basic mood that everything is morally correct must never be shaken – on the contrary it should be “cultivated”. And this is so because children lose their imitation drive if this basic mood leaves them.
It is a characteristic particularly of the second septennium that antipathy is gradually and steadily superimposed over sympathy up to puberty until at about the age of fourteen total withdrawal occurs.
But if as early as kindergarten age or even earlier we remove the security from the child that the world is good in everything that surrounds us, then there is no longer a need to imitate it.
Crucial experiences for life are lost as a result because children then attempt to act through emulation or insight and no longer seek to acquire skills of dexterity, practical competence for life and sensory experience alone through active involvement or through free play.
We could also say: without basic fundamental trust there is insufficient basic experience!
A secure relationship with the world
Attachment research affirms this connection. Only a secure attachment enables the exploration of the world through play. However, there is also a view which is not yet quite as widespread that it is not just the attachment to the mother or father which has to be good and secure in order to be able to approach the world at all, but that the relationship with the whole world also has to be good and secure in order to be able to give oneself up to it in imitation. The frequently demanded “honesty” towards small children – based on intellectual considerations – that there are also many bad things in the world, that they should decide for themselves, that we have to explain why they should put their coat on only places obstacles in the way of their age-appropriate access to the world.
This devotion to the world can be described as a naturally religious relationship. Small children have no belief in the words of an authority, they do not belong to any religion, confession or creed. They believe out of themselves in the goodness of the world.
Let us therefore not deprive them of this unconscious veneration and devotion towards everything that is and let us cultivate it! Because then, firstly, they learn everything they need for life and, secondly, the strength arises from that subsequently not to lose the belief in the truth, goodness and beauty of the world.
About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf kindergarten of the Kassel Free Waldorf School.