What do children need to grow and learn in a healthy way? Love, joy, and warm human relationships are essential, along with nourishing food and plenty of sleep. Otherwise, the child’s basic needs could be described as security and freedom. Just as the mother’s body provides a safe, protected environment within which the child’s own body grows, in the first years of life we need to provide a safe haven within which the child has freedom to exercise, explore, and develop her individuality. Waldorf educators work with these polarities in many ways; here are a few that can be added to out of your own observation and experience.
From the warm, enclosed body of the mother, the child is thrust into a world that brings a dizzying array of impressions. Unlike us adults, she has no protection from these impressions, and no ability to inwardly adjust to them. We can help her to gradually come into the world by becoming more sensitive ourselves, and providing a protected environment without too many or too strong sense impressions.
Providing a sheath of physical warmth is also very important for young children. They are not yet able to self-regulate their temperature, and their energy needs to go into growth and organ development rather than maintaining body heat. In colder climates, several layers of clothing are needed, and hats protect the child’s sensitive head in all weathers.
A regular daily rhythm is another source of security. Adults crave variety; young children crave repetition. They themselves are changing so rapidly that they need a stable external environment, and—along with familiar surroundings and a consistent caregiver—this includes the basic sequence of events in their day, their week and their year. The slower rhythm of the natural world with its changing seasons can provide the “content” of our experiences, as well as a powerful healing influence.
First of all, children need freedom of movement. From the moment of birth they are engaged in a struggle to master the body through movement, with the crowning achievement of learning to stand and walk unsupported. As they continue to acquire more skills, from walking on tiptoe to jumping rope, they are stimulating the brain and forming a firm basis for later learning, as well as for a confident and flexible approach to life.
In the soul realm, the child’s imagination also needs to develop freely. When he is surrounded with images and play objects that are not too “finished,” his natural powers of image creation step in, and grow ever stronger through being exercised in this way. Stories, songs, and verses also form a rich source of images, and the living human voice is a powerful source of healing and nourishment for young children.
Electronic media, on the other hand, fill the child’s mind with very fixed and limiting images, and screens of all kinds are best avoided in early childhood. Screen time also reduces movement time and thus adversely affects brain development.
It is astonishing how the child’s free, individual spirit manifests itself from the moment of birth, and some mothers even experience it during pregnancy. When we perceive this, we will treat the child as a being worthy of dignity and respect from day one. This does not mean giving in to every demand or entering into endless verbal debates; rather, we can strive to provide a model of calm, decisive authority, as well as gratitude and reverence for what is higher than us. As the child grows and becomes more independent, she may internalize this model and become capable of self-control. The growth of individuals who are able to direct their own lives is the ultimate goal of Waldorf education.