The Human Being and Animal

This is a typical fourth grade block for Waldorf Schools, and it confuses many homeschooling parents!   I find it to be based in a deeply anthroposophic approach that transcends much more than zoology and takes some familiarity to really carry this approach.  I think the main assumptions of this block are very foreign to many people.  You can find the roots of this subject in Steiner’s lectures, particularly references sprinkled throughout “Discussions With Teachers.”  One thing Steiner says is that “...we should remain clear in our minds that a human being is really the whole animal kingdom.  The animal kingdom in its entirety is humankind.  You cannot, of course, present ideas of this kind to the children theoretically, and you certainly should not do so.”

So, we think about bringing this through example.  Steiner talks about  studying the animal world before the plant world, which Waldorf Schools typically do, and he talks about using cuttlefish, mouse, horse and a person as good examples.  He also talks about (in “Practical Advice to Teachers”, lecture 7), about relating all animals to the human being.  He advises animal study in third grade (which most Waldorf Schools and most homeschoolers don’t do), and then in the fourth grade  looking at the animal kingdom scientifically in its relationship to the human being, and then in fifth grade adding less familiar animals, and then moving the study into plants in the fifth grade, and more botany in sixth grade plus mineralogy in conjunction with geography.  Then one moves into physics, chemistry, and physiology of the human being and back into high school biologic sciences in grades 9-12.

So, the first place to start is to look at the human body.  What is the head like? What is the trunk like?  What makes human beings different than animals?  Eventually, through study, we find that what makes us different is our ability to be upright, which frees our hands to help and serve others.  Animals are wonderful, and very specialized!  Human beings are not so specialized, we are generalists.  We will never have the keen eyesight of the beautiful eagle, nor the incredible body that is so much a head and can do so many interesting things as an octopus, but instead in a way carry around these different aspects within ourselves and all the aspects of the specialized animals make up humankind.  We can look at different animals and see are they chiefly animals of a “head nature” or a “trunk nature” and look at different types of limbs…Charles Kovacs postulated in his book that human beings are the only true limb animals in a sense because our hands are then free to serve all of humanity.

I think the confusion comes in as some anthroposophic resources divide the animals by whether or not they are head, trunk, or limb animals OR through a look at the threefold nature of animals – are they mainly “ruled” by their metabolic/digestive system, such as a cow or bison; or by their  rhythmic system, like a dog, or by their nervous/thinking system?  Again, these are generally foreign ways to look at animals for those of us raised without a spiritual scientific look at the human being and the animal kingdom, so it takes some getting used to to decide if one or both of these approaches resonates.  I like to do both of these approaches in the first block of the Human Being and Animal. You can see how I do this in the notes of these blocks below.

After this introduction and tying in of the animal kingdom to the human being, we can then  move into a second block that shows all of the differen types of animals in perhaps a more traditional manner, but always keeping in mind sympathy and antipathy.   Where do different groups compare and where do they contrast?  This block usually contains a researched report as well.  So, one would cover birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, mammals, etc as suitable for a fourth grader.  For this block, I like to tie it into our state’s animals, such as our state reptile, our state fish, etc to further illustrate the local geography a fourth grader has been studying during this year.   I also like to include a few weeks study on ocean animals specifically because we live in a state that has a coastline, and this furthers our study of local geography.  You have the upper grades to get into more specific zoological considerations if you add a zoology block in seventh grade, study animals along with geography of the world, and then of course in high school  you will have the biological sciences throughout the high school years.

The art opportunities in these blocks are amazing!  You can paint, draw, model with clay, create dioramas and origami and more.   Speech work with amazing poems, tongue twisters, and riddles is also so much of this block!  Field trips are also a wonderful part of this block, and we can do many!  We have done farm, aquarium, zoo, animal rehabiliation center, vet all as field trips for this block.

My favorite resources for this block include:  “Drawing From The Book of Nature;”  “The Human Being and the Animal” by Charles Kovacs; the free files from Marsha Johnson at,  many library books about the specific animals I have chosen to present, “Learning About The World Through Modeling” by Auer, “Painting and Drawing in the Waldorf Schools”, the Christopherus “The Human Being and Animal” booklet; and there are free resources in the East African training manual for Waldorf teachers and Waldorf Inspirations.

So, in practice, just as an example, the last time I did fourth grade my blocks were structured somewhat like this:

Block One, Week One – 

Poetry for the Creation in the World, (we are Episcopalian so we used a prayer from our Book of Common Prayer).  I usually have the student lay down on a large piece of butcher block paper and we trace each other and have everyone fill in their own bodies with crayons or pencils.    We take a good look at ourselves, and write down what are some of the things we can do?  What can our younger sibling do?  What can adults do?

We also do a picture of ourselves as a round head, a crescent-shaped body, and limbs that are raying out at the hands. This idea came from Marsha Johnson, Master Waldorf Teacher, in her free fourth grade files available within her Yahoo Group and she has more details on the why’s and how’s of presenting this in her files.  Once the drawing is done in crayon, we paint over it in watercolor paints and it makes a beautiful resist painting.

We talk about our heads and how our head sits quietly even if we are running and jumping around, how the head is along for the ride taking in everything around us as we process the information that comes in through our senses.  There are some animals that act almost wholly like a human head.  The cuttlefish is a prime example of this as the cuttlefish hardly moves but has to take water in and squirt it out in order to propel himself, and the cuttlefish takes in what he sees with his large eyes, and even his skin changes color in response.  Snails are another great choice, and fun to model with a sea shell and beeswax.    We have also looked at the squid (great fun to paint!) and talked about giant squid.

Week Two –

For animals that seem especially adapted to their environment due to their trunk, we first looked at the seal. This animal is mainly found in the United States far away from our state, but most children love the idea of seals so it seems like a good place to start.  Seals are fun to draw, and there is a wonderful poem by Rudyard Kipling called, “Seal Lullaby”.  We also talked about the  Eastern Harvest Mouse, since that is more specific to our region (but not as exciting as a seal! LOL).

Finally, we looked at the different limbs of different animals and connected these animals with how the limbs are specialized for the environment the animal is in.  The mole is a wonderful example; one of my children did a report on elephants and her interest in the elephant stemmed from our discussion of the elephant’s limbs.  We compared the padded feet of the elephant to the hooves of horses as well, and drew horses. Finally, we can compare this to the human being who doesn’t have specialized hands for flying, digging, or swimming but instead we can use our hands to serve others and the world. This is beauty in the world, and we can create it with what our hands do.

Week Three –

You could end as above, (some families do and that’s fine!) , or move into a threefold look at the animals.  I usually use the American bison as an example of an animal associated with  metabolic/digestive  forces, and this can lead to great modeling, dioramas, and probably rabbit trails into geography as the first thoroughfares of North America were traces made by bison and deer in seasonal migration and between feeding grounds and salt licks.  Many of these routes were followed by Native Americans and then later by explorers and  settlers (see how this all fits together as a foundation for the upper grades? )  I also like to mention our National Park System; most Waldorf homeschoolers in America have camped and explored different National Parks so this idea of protecting and preserving our lands is an important American concept.

We can then look at a the discerning, thinking American Eagle (beautiful poetry), and the rhythmical system that the dog is so associated with.  Great opportunities for modeling and making dioramas!  Lastly, we can create the very iconic Waldorf picture of the human being with the animals representing these realms superimposed on the human being. If we, as human beings are not specialists or ruled by one particular area, then what do we have?  We are generalists, and we can look briefly at the development of the human being.  Many fourth grade children are astonished to know that adults are still developing too throughout the life span!  We receive gifts from the animal kingdom, and have relationships with the animals kingdom for food, domestication, pets, and more but our gift to the animals is our abilities in conservation, in our stewardship, in our ability to wonder and awe at the beautiful planet we live on! We can talk about concrete ways we can help the animals.

The second block, at least the way I do it, is very specific to our state.  I live in the Southeastern United States, so I picked our state and regional animals to represent general animal categories.  The richest biodiversity of reptiles and amphibians in the United States is concentrated in the Southeast, so I usually start there.  This is a great time to paint, and to look at these creatures closely.  Salamanders are a great study.  For reptiles, I usually look at the American Alligator as this is a keystone species ( a keystone species is a species that has a very large affect on its environment even though the abundance of the species may be small, and it supports other species in its habitat). I find keystone species to be good subjects for reports as well.  For reptiles, I also like looking at turtles and tortoises, (finding out the differences!), and if you are in a coastal state, the types of sea turtles.  This also incorporates a lot of discussion about geography.  For example, our state has barrier islands, which hosts a large number of sea turtle nests.

In the second week, we usually look at birds.  This is also a good time to look at the biographies of such greats as James Audoban or Tory Peterson.  We can get a good general look at birds, visit falconers, places that rehabilitate injured birds, go to birds of prey shows, and more.  We also take a close look at our state bird and look at water birds as well.

Week three  and four is generally mammals, which is a huge and diverse category ranging from moles to flying bats to whales to manatees to donkeys.  Again, I try to stick more local as I think this makes the most sense to a fourth grader.  The American marsupial the opossum is very interesting to study, and I think educational as many people carry about misconceptions about the opposum.  We also usually look at beavers as those are right outside our neighborhood, and coyotes and bobcats as those are also close. Primates I tend to save until our seventh grade geography studies, but also can be looked at.

For week five, because we are a coastal state, we look at our own coast and animals in the coast.  I usually start with ideas about waterways (which end in the ocean in our state). So, as we find out about the watersheds in our state, we find out about the bass family as that is common.  Then we look at oceans.  We read about Jacques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle, and learn about the different ocean zones.  Ninety percent of marine life lives in the sunlight zone, but some that live in that zone dive down into the twilight or midnight zone (Sperm whales are a great example!).  We talk about the hatchet fish, the lantern fish, bioluminescence and some of the animals that live in these deep zones.  We also talk about the ocean floor and the trenches, which is a great foundation for  geography and mineralogy in the sixth grade.

Lastly, sometime in May to go along with our gardening, we look carefully at insects.  Which insects are creatures of the dark, which ones are hard versus soft, what is the metamorphosis of the butterfly and other life cycles?  Which insects are social?  How do pollinators work and what kinds of pollinators can we offer as a family to our insect friends?

These are just some ideas from my experience.  I hope you and your student have a wonderful time in this block!

Blessings and love,