The Twelve Senses

I am going to try and synthesize a few things for you all that I recently learned from Donna Simmons at the Waldorf At Home conference held in Atlanta,  a presentation by Daena Ross for Waldorf In the Home (available through Rahima Baldwin Dancy’s on-line store in CD and DVD versions) and Barbara Dewey’s section on the twelve senses in her book “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge”. 

I am by no means an expert on the twelve senses, although I will say the twelve senses make a whole lot of sense to me due to my background as a neonatal/pediatric physical therapist.

Steiner postulated in his lectures that there were not only the five most obvious senses that we think of, but actually twelve senses that required development.  This has been proved in the medical community, although sometimes in medical literature and therapy literature you see reference to “systems” rather than “senses” although they are truly talking about the same thing!

The twelve senses are what unites the inner and outer world of the individual and what allows us healthy interaction with other people at the highest developed levels.  It takes a long time for these senses to be developed, but the foundational senses needed to develop some of the upper senses are most developed in the first seven years.  There we are, back to my soapbox about the first seven years!

The Lower Senses are seen in our will forces, they are unconscious, and they manifest in the metabolic-limbic system.  These include:

The Sense of Touch – through the organ of the skin.  This includes what is inside of me and what is outside of me.  Important ways to boost this foundational sense include vaginal birth, swaddling, holding, positive tactile experiences (NOT PASSIVE experiences, like through media or Baby Einstein! Active experiences!)  The lack of completion of this  sense is strongly related to ADHD according to Daena Ross. 

The Sense of Life or sometimes called The Sense of Well-Being – this encompasses such things as if you can tell if you are tired, thirsty, hungry.  The best way to boost this sense is to provide your children with a rhythm to help support this while it is developing.  Some children have great difficulty recognizing their own hunger or thirst cues, their own need for rest or sleep. A rhythm can be a great therapeutic help in this regard.

The Sense of Self-Movement – this is probably more familiar to therapists in some ways as the “proprioceptive system” in some ways.  This sense encompasses the ability to move and hold back movement, and can also encompass such sensory experiences as containment (which can be a form of massage for premature babies) and also swaddling.  Childhood games that involve starting, stopping can also affect this sense.

The Sense of Balance – This is balance in two separate realms, from what I gather from the Daena Ross presentation.  It is not only the ability to balance by use of the semicircular canals of the ears  for midline balance so one can cross midline but also refers to the  balance of life and being able to be centered, which again goes back to rhythm and the idea of in-breath and out-breath.  Donna Simmons calls this one a gateway to The Middle Senses.

The Middle Senses are seen in our feeling lives, involve us reaching out into the world a bit, they are seen as “dreamy” senses and manifesting in the rhythmic system.  THE CHILD HAS NO FILTER TO FILTER THESE SENSORY EXPERIENCES OUT IN THE EARLY YEARS.   In the later years, the arts build these senses, which is why the Waldorf curriculum includes teaching through art in the grades.   These senses  include:

The Sense of Smell –  strongly correlated with memory.  This can be an ally in education of the grades age child, but beware of scented everything when your children are in the foundational first seven years. 

The Sense of Taste – Not only on a physical plane, but an emotional plane in naming experiences (a “putrid” experience, a “sweet” experience)

The Sense of Sight  – with two different ways to visualize something:  one is the ability to distinguish color, and the other is the ability to distinguish form (which Daena Ross says is more related to The Sense of Self-Movement).  The best way to help this sense is to protect the eye from media while developing.  A way to bolster this sense in the grades, but not the Early under 7 Years, is through form drawing.

The Sense of Warmth –   Donna Simmons calls this one a gateway to The Higher Senses.  This sense does not fully develop until age 9 and can literally cause a hardening of creativity and new thought as the child matures, but also can refer to a literal inability of the child to be able to tell if they are hot or cold.  Warmth implies not only physical warmth, but warmth on a soul level.  Joy, humor, love, connection are all important developers of this sense along with PROTECTION from extreme and garish sensory experiences that would cause hardening.  This is a very important sense, and children need help with protecting this sense until the age of 9 or 10, so much longer than many parents think!

The Upper or Higher Senses develop during adolescence and require a strong foundation of The Lower Senses and The Middle Senses to come to maturity.  These senses are associated with awakening of the individual, with being concerned with other people and are seen as being centered in The Head.  These senses include:

The Sense of Hearing (which Daena Ross calls “a bridge between The Middle and Higher Senses” in her presentation)  This requires completion of The Sense of Balance – both of these senses involve the organ of the ear.

The Sense of Speech or The Sense of the Word (this is the speech of another person, not yourself) – Requires completion of The Sense of Self-Movement as you must be able to quiet your own speech in order to really hear another person.

The Sense of Thought or The Sense of Concept (again, of the other person, not your own thoughts!) – Requires completion of  The Sense of Well-Being.  Rhythm builds this ability to quiet oneself in order to hear someone else’s thoughts.

The Sense of  the Individuality of the Other (Donna Simmons also calls this the “I-Thou” relationship of boundaries) – This requires integration and completion of all senses, but particularly involves The Sense of Touch according to Daena Ross. 

The most important take-away point for my parents of children under the age of 7 is that children need rhythm, a balance of in-breath and out-breath and protection of the senses from too much stimulation, from media and boundaries set by the parents to wear clothes (VERY difficult with some little nudists!).  The development of these senses is also profoundly related to sleeping and what occurs during sleep to build all of this up.

Waldorf Education is first and foremost about health and the twelve senses provide a glimpse into some of why things are done in Waldorf the way they are!  I encourage you to investigate the twelve senses on your own.  In this age and day of skyrocketing ADHD/ADD, autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorders, this should be mandatory learning for all parents. 

With love,


24 thoughts on “The Twelve Senses

  1. anywhere i can read more about the sense of self (or well being)? my son (3) has a very difficult time recognizing hunger, thirst, tiredness etc. i am working on our rhythm but would love to think more about this…

    thank you!


    • There are resources regarding the twelve senses in Steiner’s lectures but seem rather scattered throughout his lectures rather than in one focused place. The other place to look is through the Remedial Education section of the Rudolf Steiner College Bookstore catalogue. However, I would say it takes the whole first seven years and beyond to develop these senses, so time with repetition and rhythm seems to help. Barbara Patterson has a nice section about the twelve senses in “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge” if you have that book.

  2. One of the challenges I have is about daily rhythm and meals. I have a 2 children under 4, and both are nursing. My 3 year old who nurses upon awakening will rarely want to eat breakfast even though it has been part of our routine for her whole life. I try to time her nursing so that it will not be right before meal times but it is a challenge. And at mealtimes, we do not force her to stay at the table but we highly encourage it, but we do not want the dinner table to be a battle. Sometimes I feel like I wonder if this the right approach or if we are being “jellyfish” but I hope by modeling and continuing to work on our daily rhythm meals will be more calm and in sync. It’s “funny” that almost every day she acts surprised that we are eating breakfast as though it was something we had never done before.

    • Is your awake time set at all? Sometimes I think maybe the key there is to have a more set awake time, nurse your children and have a small snack afterwards and then plan for a bigger meal later in the morning. A rhythm is a flow perhaps more than “we eat breakfast at X time” but having a consistent wake time with a consistent order may help to gently guide your child toward digestive and metabolic rhythm for her body.
      Does that help at all? I feel a blog post coming on about this subject, LOL!

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  4. Willie Aipplie (sic) has a great little book about the twelve senses. I remember buying at the Rudolf Steiner College bookstore in Sacramento.

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  6. I wasn’t sure where to ask this and its a bit behind, but how do you protect the senses during holidays and/or family gatherings?
    I was a bit unprepared for my 27 mo old son’s reaction during Christmas at my mother’s. He was on sensory overload, so I just picked him up, went into a quiet room, held him, and had him watch the birds and rain out the window. At the other family gathering we went to he kept choosing to go to the empty basement so my husband or I went with him. We did manage to keep close to our rhythm during the holiday, but on 12/24 we drove 4 hrs to get to our home town and we came home 12/26. I knew we kept somewhat of a quiet, simple daily life and I was just surprised by how quickly he was overwhelmed. New places, family we don’t see often, gifts, etc, etc. Its good to be back home to our calm “boring” (ha ha ha) lifestyle!!

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  8. My husband just found your blog and if this was a book, I would not put it down. We have an 11 month old who is the spitting image of my personality. I would love to know of where to learn more about creating a rhythm specifically with him sleeping. He has never been the baby that you put in the crib and he falls asleep. He usually falls asleep while being fed or we bounce or sing to him. He goes through the day and we can tell he is tired and his voice changes but half the time he will not go down even after a feeding. I have nannied for many years and I have never come across this. Is there a rhythm to help him understand when he can lay down? This is so interesting to me. Especially now since we have baby #2 coming in 2 months. Enough typing, I have to get back to reading!! Thanks for the amazing information!

    • Linda,
      You are very kind. Thank you for reading and for your kind words…. I think babies and toddlers and even bigger kids (!) do need to be parented to sleep, so your son really sounds very normal and healthy! Even older children (over 7) still like to be read to before bedtime or even have you lay down with them, although many of them will be able to kiss you goodnight and turn off their own light. I do think with an 11 month old, it can be challenging, just as you mentioned, because of all the developmental things going on- this world is so interesting to them and it is hard to slow down! Typically they are on the verge of pulling to stand, cruising, walking and again, that makes it hard to sleep! So many wonderful things to do.
      The key to this is rhythm. Rhythm, and just having the same routine when it comes to bedtime and naptimes will start to prime sleep times for each day, but it may take a solid 40 days to really get this going. The other important thing is to really slow the house down – dim the lights, close the blinds, etc. Really show and convince your child there is nothing else exciting going on, LOL. I think you can “practice” as well just laying down and seeing if he can play with a little toy next to you for a few minutes and get a bit sleepy himself before you start singing to him. But rhythm of doing the same thing at the same time each day will really help if you give it enough time (ie, at least 40 days). 🙂
      Congratulations on baby #2~ how wonderful! Some parents find with two to parent to sleep, they use slings on the back and front to wear their babies. Some parents lay down with both babies and everyone rests. Some parents tandem nurse and find sleep that way.
      Many blessings,

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  13. I know this might not be the right place, but I am really concerned. We have had moves recently, selling our former place, staying with my parents, moving to a hotel and now moving into our new house soon. All within a 4 month span. My son is used to our current routine.

    How do I go about moving into a brand new house with him? Any pointers? He pulls up and cruises, he is 10 months old today, he crawls everywhere …

    I am concerned bc he just got used to our living arrangements and before that we were at my parents house – that he was already used to since birth. …

    • Hi RE,
      Many mothers who have moved have told me they try to keep the rhythm of their day as similar as before as they can – making sure meals, outside time, nap times stay the same. Your infant is very, very tiny and if you can be centered, calm and positive yourself about this move that will radiate through to your wee one.
      Thank you for reading and writing in!

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  17. Great article. Whenever I Google for something Steiner, I find myself scanning the results for something on your blog – there is always at least one. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experiences. This article is just one great article of the many, many others I have enjoyed and learned from.

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