‘We shouldn’t ask “What does a person need to be able to do in order to fit into the existing social order today?” Instead we should ask “what lives in each human being and what can be developed in him or her?” ’ — Rudolf Steiner
Steiner's Theory of Child Development
Steiner Education is designed to enhance, enrich and support the developmental phases of childhood. Dr. Steiner referred particularly to three essential phases — each of approximately seven years duration. In each of these phases, different faculties are coming to birth, different growth forces are operating and the child learns in correspondingly different ways. To provide meaningful support for the child in the journey from infancy to adulthood, curriculum and methodology must be based on a deep comprehension of these phases. It is of the greatest importance that each stage is experienced fully and not cut short — the aim of our education is to help children develop strengths for a lifetime. Thus, the uniqueness of the Steiner system lies not so much in what is taught but in how and when.
Early Childhood (0–7)
The first six or seven years are of vital importance to a child. Tremendous life forces are evident in this period and the experiences a child has in these years can be said to pre-condition the bodily, mental and moral life in the adult years.
In this phase, and at a very rapid pace, children master the skills of movement, speech, gesture, verbal and non-verbal communication, uprightness and many others. Most of this is learnt through imitation — the young child mimics everything — from physical movements through to attitudes and values. The child at this age has an intuitive sense for goodness and reverence and the environment surrounding the child needs to honour and reflect this. There are strong will forces at work during this period and the children learn naturally through doing — it is the life of action and of will that predominates at this time and if supported will lay the basis for a healthy will in adulthood.
The Heart of Childhood (7–14)
This phase is the bridge between infancy and adolescence and is characterized by the development within the child of a vivid life of imagination — the beginning of an inwardizing of experience which if fostered will become the basis for conscious personal experience in adult life.
The child in this period lives strongly in a world of pictures — those that are presented to them and those which they form themselves. In this phase, if supported to do so, children naturally think poetically, in imagery — their thinking is a feeling-thinking rather that the analytical abstract thinking which comes later. If they are allowed the time and the space to live into the pictures and the imaginative experiences presented to them, they will carry with them into adult life, vivid and strong powers of imagination and will be capable of inspired insights. The life of Feeling predominates at this time and a sense for beauty. As the child moves through the phase, the faculty for more conscious and consecutive thought emerges but the pictorial world of the imagination remains the child’s most precious asset.
With puberty, children enter into the third phase of their development. This phase is characterized by a wish to make one's life one’s own.
The adolescent begins to discover him/herself in the world of ideas. Ideas are to be enjoyed, explored, argued and absorbed. A personal search for truth emerges as does a new questioning — of themselves, parents, teachers, values, philosophies, society to name a few. This phase can be characterized by a life of thinking, crucial for the cultivation of good judgment, discernment and clarity of thought.
Associated with this comes a healthy and valuable idealism which, if not nurtured, can quickly descend into cynicism and, combined with the extreme sensitivity of this age-group can make for great vulnerability. Young people at this time are looking for role models and need to be surrounded by positive, compassionate adults who hold up a mirror showing all that a human being can become and can achieve.
“Those human beings who have not learnt to work in the ways of beauty and through beauty to capture truth, will never come to the full humanity needed to meet the challenges of life.” — Rudolf Steiner