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Waldorf Main Lesson: Understanding Hands, Heart, and Head

Updated: May 25, 2023

One of the more distinctive aspects of elementary Waldorf Education is the main lesson. Most often, class teachers in grades one through eight will begin the day with an approximately two-hour main lesson. Two hours sounds like a terrible amount of time for a lesson--until you have understood what the main lesson really is. So, in this article we will explore the main lesson, paying particular attention to the four main parts. By understanding these four parts and why they compose the main lesson, the teacher, from classroom to living room, is free to use and/or adapt these considerations to their particular educational needs.

Once again, I will reiterate (paraphrase) what Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, said to the first Waldorf teachers. We do not start our pursuits in education by designing a wonderful curriculum. We can only begin our work as educators by deepening our understanding of the child and child development. Once we have gained these understandings, then we can design a wonderful curriculum that will actually meet the child or children before us.

With this in mind, we will not go straight to the composition of the main lesson. That will be the next article in the next newsletter from Simply Waldorf. First, let us begin with a look at child development to see how it plays a role in the formation of the main lesson and, for that matter, many other things we may do as parents and teachers. We will peer through a particular lens for understanding child development: the growth cycles of life. Steiner gave many lectures and wrote several books on this subject. He wanted parents, teachers, doctors--anyone who worked with other human beings--to see that we all live through stages of life that unfold approximately every seven years. We will consider the first three cycles:

  • We will explore how the first cycle is related to the development of the physical body ("hands"), focusing particularly on the role of the will forces during this phase of life.

  • We will look at the second cycle, during which we see the development of the life forces, (sometimes called the etheric forces), noting how the feeling forces ("heart") are involved in this growth phase.

  • The third growth cycle expresses the birth and development of the astral forces, those of the individual's soul life, and are closely aligned with the early stages of thinking ("head").

The First Growth Cycle

The first growth cycle takes the child from birth to dentition (the change of teeth). This phase of life is primarily devoted to physical development and the will forces. Please be assured that nothing exists in a completely solitary state. Naturally, the young child feels and emotes. Likewise, the child learns to speak, which obviates a very basic level of thinking. Nevertheless, these feeling and thinking forces remain very much like a baby still in the womb. The baby is developing, and we may even see signs of it moving and kicking, but it is not truly born. When it comes to these forces at work in a particular growth cycle, we must look at the primary ways in which the child develops, interacts, and learns. The young child learns about the world and develops the self through movement, through play, and through doing, which is most apparent in the movement and development of the limbs of the body. Perhaps the strongest evolutionary evidence of this truth is seeing how the young child learns through imitation.

In one sense, it is sad to remember that we rarely see the "pure" version of the young child today. Our modern culture brings many different influences that affect todays children in ways that children were not affected for millennia predating radical modern changes such as the industrial revolution. When we have those rare opportunities to observe children who are born and raised in situations that are in line with the natural state of less developed and/or more "primitive" societies, we can see things such as will forces and imitative forces far more intact with young children. Such children have strongly developed will forces, the strong natural drive to do. We can see their powerful imitative forces for learning from adults, particularly from their parents. Even their imaginative play is imbued with the power of that innate will to create.

On the other hand, things are different when we observe a typical four-year-old in the United States, for instance. According to "JAMA Pediatrics" (Vol. 173, No.4, 2019) three to five year-olds average 2 hours and 28 minutes of screen exposure per day in the United States. According to a 2014 study led by Dr. Weiwei Chin, PhD, from Florida International University, children 2 years and younger in the US averaged even more, just over 3 hours of screen exposure per day. This is a shocking amount of awake time being given to viewing a screen rather than used for playing and doing. This impacts the child's development; it changes the child's behaviors. In simpler terms, it is difficult to see the child's will forces at work when the child is not using those will forces. Consequently, it is also impossible to develop will forces when those forces are not being exercised. When will forces are not being exercised, the physical body is not being engaged optimally and therefore the child is not learning as much as it could in these fundamental ways.

I make note of these things so that we can remain keenly aware that it is sometimes more difficult to see the evidence of these will forces in the young child today. Still, those forces are there if we know how to see them. For example, we do not have to speak to the newborn about trying to hold its head up. There is no motivation needed. The newborn innately "wants" to do this. It "wants" to verbalize. It "wants" to move its limbs. It "wants" to take things and feel them with the lips and tongue. These "wants" are examples of the will forces in action, which are unconscious motives to do things physically. These forces are the primary drive for the young child to achieve so many different milestones of early physical development.

Allow me to playfully juxtapose the unconscious drive of the will forces with the other two, the feeling and thinking forces.

It is 7 AM. You bring one-year-old Tabitha to the living room. You play the soundtrack of "Chariots of Fire" in the background, (inspiring music to engage the feeling forces), as you pull a curtain back to reveal a mural you painted on the wall of Tabitha running (beautiful artwork to engage the feeling forces). You turn to Tabitha and say, "You have been standing on your own for a while now, Tabitha. You and I both know that it is time for you to take your first steps, (engaging the thinking forces). You see that picture of you running? The only way you can run is by learning to walk first, (using logic to engage the thinking forces)..."

Obviously, there is no need for any such actions by a parent. If the child has a healthy physical body, then the child will continually strive to stand and to walk, not needing to have their feelings or thinking forces appealed to. This unconscious drive of will does not need those other kinds of engagements. The will just needs opportunities to DO. This is what we, the parents and teachers, need to provide and to protect.

This is precisely why Waldorf Preschool and Kindergarten teachers do not bring academic lessons to those early childhood programs. They do bring circle movements, stories, and artistic activities in order to engage the will forces as well as the imaginations of the children. That is because the imagination is first and foremost an activity of will. (I shall return to this thought--that the imagination is primarily a will activity--in the next article, when we talk about the composition of the main lesson.)

We know that the first growth cycle is shifting toward the second cycle once dentition begins. The change of teeth can be likened to the blossoming of a flower. In this case, the flower petals would be the new, permanent teeth, the most physical parts of our bodies, even denser and "more permanent" than our bones. Thus we see human development transform in character. The physical body continues to develop of course, but we find something else come to the fore. The etheric forces or life forces are born.

The Second Growth Cycle

The etheric forces are those of life and health, of patterns, of rhythm, and of memory. Looking at the physical body, we can see this manifested in the torso, where the major organs are held. During the years between dentition and puberty, approximately seven years, the youth's organs will find their natural rhythms and establish them for the remainder of life on earth. The heart and lungs establish their 4:1 ratio around the age of 11 or 12. The kidneys become more regulated. Likewise the liver finds its 12- hour rhythm that supports healthy processing, which in turn regulates energy conservation and energy output. (If a deeper exploration of the importance of healthy organ development interests you, I recommend the book The Human Organs: Their Functional and Psychological Significance by Dr Walter Holtzapfel. It is not long or dense and it provides a wonderfully clear explanation of how the organs develop and function.)

While the growth of the internal organs is clearly part of the physical maturation, their functions, individually and collectively, affect the health and well-being of the human being. The Germans had a saying in olden times for someone who was in a bad mood. They said a louse had crawled across your liver. In effect, there was a folk wisdom about how much the organs of the chest played a role in one's overall well-being, not simply in a physical sense, but also emotionally. We all recognize how the poets have accounted for the heart's place in the feeling life, but the heart is just one player in this internal drama, albeit the star of the show. I say this because "feeling forces" should be understood not just as emotions, but also as perceptive forces. Similar to the sense of touch in the physical realm, we can feel things in this middle realm. We sense other's moods and intentions. We have feelings about the mood of places. We have "gut level" reactions and intuitions.

Also, it is during this phase that we form most of our first and most deeply engrained childhood memories. While we certainly have memories from early and from throughout our lives, it is often memories formed during these years that play the most critical roles in defining our personalities, our self-images, our self-esteem, and/or our wounds. These are not always fully conscious memories, but they are nevertheless impressed upon our etheric bodies. I will give an example. Many scientific studies have verified that children learn the most and the most efficiently during these years. Children who take up musical instruments during these years will learn faster and more efficiently than adults who spend the same amount of time practicing. The brain is creating and protecting neural pathways during these years much more readily than at any other time of life.

But you may ask, "What do memories and these other versions of the etheric forces have to do with the feeling forces?" It is a fair question. Children who feel happy and safe when they are challenged to learn are more willing to attempt new things, more able to make multiple attempts, and more comfortable with struggle. These are all critical components of learning. On a neurological level, the child who is in a good emotional state is processing learning at higher levels. On the other hand, when a child feels unsafe, threatened, frightened, stressed, etc, the neural processing is reduced to smaller areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and brain stem, areas that function for survival. Thus, the child in fight/flight/freeze states of consciousness will not be able to process and learn in any meaningful ways. Instead, in these states, the child's body is being prepared for survival actions. This is why it is so important that we do things that support and encourage the child's emotional well-being. When we bring them challenging lessons and simultaneously support their emotional well-being, we set them up for optimal learning. The learning during this phase of life between dentition and puberty goes deep.

When we understand this phase of life, we can see how the rhythms and patterns we hold for the child will become habits that will continually support them. Daily and weekly rhythms such as mealtimes, chores, practicing instruments or practicing math facts and multiplication tables, daily reading together, etc-- these kinds of things optimize the child's learning on the deepest levels during these years and provide a baseline for how to live.

The second growth cycle does not bear the same intellectual signature that higher learning will bear after puberty, nor should it. But the first and second phases, if fulfilled, will provide the next phase with the best possible foundation.

The Third Growth Cycle

We come to the onset of puberty. There are certainly some physical changes, but the most fundamental change is signified in their ability to reproduce. This is an ability, not something to be utilized anytime soon, of course. Just as the change of teeth signified a physical flowering, the characteristic flowering at the end of the second phase, the etheric phase of life forces, is that the young person now has enough of those life forces to create another living being. Just as they have the ability to create a new life from within, they also have a new experience of their own life within. We have the birth of the astral forces of the soul. Now the young person experiences life in a dramatically different way. In short, they begin to reflect and contemplate life in a way that is more characteristic of the thinking forces which are newborn and developing. As I shall make clear, these thinking forces are immature to begin with.

More than ever before, the young person begins to argue and debate. With almost the same zeal they once had for playing outside, they now want to argue, which is really just their way of playing with their new thinking forces in "logic". Unfortunately, they are not yet conscious enough to see how much their newfound thinking is impacted by their soul life, the life of moods, desires, and urges. They are even less able to understand how their bodies, particularly the hormonal chemistry experiments they have become, are affecting their moods, desires, and urges. They are more able to create arguments and counterpoints with others, but they lack the true objectivity needed for actual mature and fair debate. In fact, despite their growing knowledge of facts about the world, they are more subjective than ever: they can only see things from their own limited perspectives--at least in the first few years of this growth cycle. Depending on their home and/or learning environments as well as the presence of supportive and/or traumatic experiences during these years, teenage youths mature through this phase in widely varying timelines.

Despite these limitations, these are the years when it is perfectly appropriate to engage the intellectual thinking forces fully. We still bring them opportunities to engage the will forces. We still support their overall emotional well-being. We just add to this the intellectual pursuits. If and when the first two cycles have been supported well, then the young person is in a great place to explore the intellectual world of abstract ideas, concepts, philosophies, etc. Their thinking will not be cold, but will be imbued with a firm sense for what is real in the world and a deep appreciation for what is beautiful and harmonious.

So, it is with these understandings in place that we will look at the component parts of the Main Lesson in the next newsletter.

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