Steiner looked at the stages of childhood development through seven year cycles. He further divided the first seven year cycle into three parts consisting of the ages birth through age two and a half, two and half through age five, and age five to age seven.
Steiner writes about this importance in this passage from “Soul Economy” -(my note: for those of you not familiar with “Steiner – speak”, the ether body refers to the body that maintains your life functions. It is not visible and is not composed of matter but more encompasses life processes within the body. When the ether body dies, the result is that the physical body dies as well):
“What children learn during this first two-and-a-half-year period is extremely important for their whole life. They do so through an incoming activity and from what they have brought with them from prenatal existence. Just consider how children learn to speak and walk during this first short period. These are two human faculties that are closely connected with maintaining self-confidence, both from a personal and a social point of view. These two important faculties are being developed while the ether body is still engaged in shaping the brain and radiating into the rest of the organism.”
One of the principal thoughts for the Early Years from a Waldorf Perspective is that small children under the age of 7 should be in their bodies. We want to do this not through head oriented commands in the home environment or the head-oriented verbal commands of organized sports, but through movement couched in fantasy or shown and demonstrated through imitation.
So, without further ado, here are some suggestions. Please take what resonates with you and your family. The suggestions in this post are certainly not meant as medical advice or meant to substitute for individualized plans formed by you in conjunction with your baby’s doctor or therapist if your baby has developmental challenges. This post applies to those families with infants who are developing normally, whom do not have medical problems and who were not born prematurely. For further information regarding a Waldorf approach to children with special needs, please investigate Camphill through this link: http://www.camphill.org/
For Newborn Babies: This is not so much about getting your baby into its body, but protecting the baby’s body and the baby’s senses. Lois Cusick, in her lovely book “The Waldorf Parenting Handbook” ( a great read) says this of the child within the first three years: “Parents need to defend their helpless child from an over-stimulating environment, from too many sense perceptions. Their role is to supply a protecting, nourishing nest to replace the safe peace and quiet of the womb. Quiet, warmth and nourishing mother’s milk are what babies need most when they first enter earth life.”
- As much as you can, create a calm feeling in your home. Steiner regarded the first seven year cycle as a time when the child is almost akin to an eye – visual memory dominates. There are many posts within this blog regarding the creation of rhythm in the home, how to do inner work, and common marriage and parenting challenges. Read those and see if they spark any ideas in you!
- One thing to think about is the baby’s sense of warmth, and while not overdressing the baby, making sure the baby is warm and swaddled if not in your arms or on your body. Generally, babies under a year should wear hats as well. Swaddle your baby with the baby’s arms by its mouth to add to further protection of the senses.
- I know it is not always possible, especially if one has older children, but see if you can avoid taking your newborn to busy supermarkets and stores during the first six weeks. Try to do without the television and all the blaring noise these boxes provide – I am always amazed when I go into a hospital room to check on a newborn and the whole family is enthralled and listening to some kind of noisy, action-packed show with the newborn baby right there! It floors me!! These early weeks deserve to be beautiful with beautiful sounds as well. So instead of the noisy hustle and bustle of life, try to provide your beautiful baby with soft lullabies and your loving, clear, speech. Steiner was very clear about no “baby-talk” to a small child, but loving, complex speech with all of its shining words and meanings. If you can play a lyre or flute, that is lovely as well.
- Joan Salter writes in her book “The Incarnating Child”, “An upright sling is a real help for a baby with colic, for the warmth of Mother’s or Dad’s body and the vertical position is often the only means of comfort. But the child does not need to be constantly carried, and in fact, if we observe the child we will see that the natural position for the baby in the first six weeks is the horizontal.” I do see the wisdom in this statement, the part about the infant’s natural position being horizontal – infants being breastfed certainly spend a lot of time horizontal! Horizontal, however, by its very nature, does not always mean the baby is on its back. Breastfeeding usually occurs with the infant in side-lying, and reaching in side-lying is one of the first ways infants often are able to try to reach for an object as gravity is eliminated in this position. Horizontal can also mean tummy-time. One way a young baby can gain the concept of “tummy time” that is so heavily promoted these days (for good reason with the Back to Sleep campaign), is through laying the baby across mom’s lap for burping or when awake.
- Your body is the baby’s natural habitat. Study after study has shown the nervous system of an infant to be regulated by the adult’s body, so please do hold your baby skin to skin! So, perhaps I disagree a bit with Joan Salter ‘s statement above that babies do not need to be constantly carried in this way: while I do think it is okay to put your baby down, most babies who are breastfeeding are getting a lot of times in arms with mother in a horizontal position as they nurse (and this, to me, is nature’s plan!). If you are feeding your baby with love by another method, please do include a lot of skin to skin time with your baby. If you are breastfeeding, please quit trying to feed your baby through a tiny triangular-shaped hole of a nursing shirt and nursing bra, and get your baby skin to skin!
- Things to watch for your baby to do within the first six weeks: see how your infant attains a calm, but alert state; visual fixation on you; visual tracking; auditory orientation (turning to sounds out of visual range); and typical newborn reflexes. Newborn development begins with the mouth and the eyes, so pay special attention to these two sense organs.
For Babies Who Are Not Yet Crawling (About Six Weeks to Six or Seven Months):
- Yes, I am going to keep saying this in every section: Make your home the most peaceful place to be that you can. In “The Incarnating Child” by Joan Salter, she quotes Willi Aeppli from the book The Care and Development of the Human Senses saying, “The power of thinking and of judgment which is not yet in existence cannot form a protective dam against the storming in of sense impressions. Consequently the child is exposed with his whole body to these impressions in quite a different way, in a far more direct way than at a later age. All sense-perceptions go deeply into the organism and leave their impressions there…” The young infant and child needs to be surrounded with perceptions that are good, warm, kind, joyful.
- Your baby is now physically developing from the head down toward the feet, so pay special attention to these areas, as well as the development of hand-eye coordination and reaching.
- Singing and fingerplays (and toeplays!) are so important! Talk to your baby without baby talk, but do provide a language-rich environment through singing and verses.
- When your baby is awake provide lots of time to wiggle and move those arms and legs.
- Do let your child nap outside if your climate and weather is suitable for that; it is a wonderful way to get your baby connected with nature. Sit outside with your baby and other children and breathe in with all your senses. Joan Salter writes in “The Incarnating Child”: “A well-loved garden is much more than merely a collection of plants. It has an atmosphere that speaks to the child, and often a restless baby will be calmed by being out of doors in such a place. To sleep in the garden for an hour or so, or just be there watching and listening, absorbing what Wise Mother Nature has to offer, is a helpful and healthy experience for a child from about two months of age onward.”
- Much has been written on the subject of sleep, but hopefully during this time you are moving toward more rhythmical nap patterns and bedtime patterns; it is very important that you work toward this with your baby. If you have a high-needs baby, who by their very nature seems to be irregular and without rhythm, it is even more important that you help them work towards what they cannot do themselves.
- As an infant moves toward crawling, a parents must be very patient and also have a rather well-baby-proofed house!
For Babies Who Are Crawling, Pulling to Stand and Learning to Walk (About Six or Seven Months to One Year of Age):
- Make your home the most peaceful, happy place it can be.
- Work toward a rhythm of breastfeeding, eating, play, sleeping. Not a fixed, rigid schedule, but a rhythm.
- Keep the quality of warmth in mind – babies under the age of one need to wear warm clothes, hats on their bald heads!
- Joan Salter writes in her book “The Incarnating Child”: “After about six months of age, other senses start to become more dominant. The child begins to take in the world more strongly through the eyes and ears….This brings us to the immense importance of visual and auditory sense impressions” Be a wonderful source of right thoughts, right speech and right action for your child to see and imitate.
- Get into the habit of starting to use songs and verse for transition times within your day; this will become valuable for toddlerhood.
- Infants learning to walk need times to practice their sense of balance safely; infant walkers or baby bouncers that hang in the doorway are not appropriate developmental tools for this population. If your child is a normal, healthy developing child, they may not need your coaxing or helping or forcing. They do need practice and imitation.
- Once the child is able to walk, he or she may have soft knitted animals or wooden animals as per Joan Salter’s “The Incarnating Child”, page 96.
- Stranger anxiety may occur during this time period, it is common, and not a sign anything is amiss.
For Toddlers (About a Year or a Year and A Half to Two and A Half Years of Age):
- Once a child can walk and keep his or her balance, the arms and hands are freed. Bronja Zahlingen comments in the article, “Movement, Gesture and Language in the Life of the Young Child”: “This is truly unique to the human being, for the animal, still bound to its physical organization, must utilize its front limbs entirely to serve its body – they must carry and nourish it. We human beings can perform many different kinds of work. We can work with our hands as artists, we can wave and threaten, give and take, pray and bless.”
- Gesture and the use of gesture precedes talking from a Waldorf perspective. This also makes sense from a therapy perspective, since therapists know one must have sufficient muscle tone and muscle control in order to produce speech sounds and a good quality of speech. Learning to talk is a major part of this time period. Rahima Baldwin Dancy states in her book “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher: What Parents Can Do With and For Their Children from Birth Until Age Six”: “But around a year and a half, children’s language abilities explode, so that most start acquiring new words at the phenomenal rate of one every two hours. By their second birthdays, most children have mastered 1,000 to 2,000 words and have started stringing two words together.” Clearly, receptive language ability is developed long before expressive ability. Steiner viewed mastery of a native tongue as a prerequisite to thinking – we think because we have language. Whole sentences may appear between ages two and three, according to “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher.”
- Human speech is looked upon as having three parts by anthroposophists: saying (a one word sentence); naming (dog, cookie); and finally talking (which begins a me-you kind of dialogue with others). Watch your child for these words and speech development.
- For speech development, it is so important you talk to your child through song, verses, telling stories of simple sentences that you make up. Some mothers become great talkers to their children, but then have difficulty slowing this down later on. Think about what you are actually saying to your child before you just prattle on and on!
- Early in this year, the child may be ready for a very simple doll of unfinished features. The doll should be soft to cuddle. Joan Salter writes in “The Incarnating Child”: “As the child grows, the doll will become a friend to be talked to, told secrets, taken for outings and so on. It is a first step in developing later relationships.”
For Children of All Ages-
Most of all, protect your small child from overstimulation.
Look at the visual things of beauty in the home, and how your own face is the most beautiful toy to a baby.
Think about the sense of touch and to bring different safe tactile experiences to your small child.
Think about how to bring lovely speech, songs and verses into your home.
Think about pets, gardening experiences and how to get outside in nature.
Give your child lots of chances to practice wiggling their limbs, moving to sit, manipulating objects with their hands, crawling, balancing while walking on an even surface first and then uneven surfaces.
Let your child work with pouring water, playing with sand and dirt (supervise carefully that they don’t eat all the sand and dirt, of course).
These are just a few thoughts from a Waldorf perspective regarding childhood development and what you should be doing with your child to develop these things.