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A Happy Childhood, A Healthy Adulthood A Discussion on the Holistic Education for Children Relating to the Body, Mind, and Spirit

Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.

Man proclaims himself to be the “Master of all Creatures”. The primary difference between man and animal lies in their spirituality. In the last 200 years though, materialism has eroded man’s spirituality and his awareness of it. In fact, some people are no different from animals. The obvious areas that have become victims of materialism include the fields of education, medicine, and farming.

In every crisis, a savior will appear. In education, one such person was Dr Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf school, which has establishments in 36 countries. Dr Steiner was born in Austria in 1861 and died in 1925. He was a scientist, a spiritualist who made important directions in the fields of education, farming, medicine, architecture, literature, arts, education for the handicapped, philosophy, Buddhism, and Christianity. He created Anthroposophy, the study of human spiritual wisdom, which presently has schools and branches throughout the world.

In education, Dr Steiner, through his observation of the needs of a person as he progressed in life, suggested ways to aid and satisfy the needs of a student in the classroom. Man is a thinking person with feelings and aspirations. Hence, education must be the integration of a man’s head, heart, and hands.

Over 1000 Waldorf schools have been established since 1919. In the past 80 years, Dr Steiner’s educational principles have been widely recommended by educational systems, parents, teachers, and students in the west. Graduates from the Waldorf programmes have great success in enrolling into the best universities. In 1981, statistics by the German Education Department showed that the passing rates of students in Waldorf schools taking the national ARBITUR examinations were three times that of those from public schools; the passing rate rose to six times for students who completed the 12 years of the Waldorf programme. The American educationist, Joseph Chilton Pearce (author of ‘Magical Child’ and ‘Crack in the Cosmic Egg’) made the following commentary on the Waldorf programme: “This educational system is timely and most ideal for children and society. Amidst the current crisis in the educational system, Steiner’s method is extremely necessary.”

Dr Steiner’s view on education is that educators should put in their utmost effort to enable a person to find meaning and direction in his life. Hence, the system has three core fences: imagination, sense of truth, and sense of responsibility. Dr Steiner also believed that the real purpose of education is to enable students to realize the true freedom. This is made possible by developing their power of observation and their ability to decide. He observed that from birth to adulthood, man has to pass through three phases of education, each of which lasts about 7 years.

The first stage is from birth till the time the children shed their baby teeth. The key learning mode here is through imitation. During this period, it is important to provide a warm and conducive environment. Parents and those interacting with the children need to set personal examples, as teaching by example is more important than verbal instruction at this stage. Children need to feel the beauty and virtues in their experiences; the ancient Chinese story of Mencius’ mother is an illustration of the importance of the environment. During this time, physically, the child grows rapidly, and all the body’s resources are expanded towards nurturing a healthy bodily system. Hence, we cannot prematurely bring forward children’s learning of language and mathematics as this will deplete their resources for the rest of their lives, resulting in premature aging. History is repleted with examples of geniuses dying young. There have been instances of children who entered Harvard at 16 but died by 40 because their bodies started deteriorating after 35. Also, if children encounter too much suffering and pain when young, they will also face more illnesses in adulthood.

The second stage starts from age seven to adolescence. At this time, the child needs to look up to authority as role model. Hence, teachers play an important role here; for they can inculcate morality and respect in children with the help of fairy tales, fables, history, and stories of heroes. At the same time, this period provides opportunities for children to co-ordinate their limbs with their mind and feelings, and to learn arithmetic. Lessons for children of this age must start from an overall perspective and relate to things around them. For example, geography starts from one’s room, progressing to the house, the city, the country, and finally the world. Science begins with the children’s own creative drawings. During the first eight years of education, children are not given report cards but are provided with feedback based on their teachers’ observations of their growing-up process. One teacher is used throughout the entire eight years, with the exception of language and music lessons. In this way, the teacher can have a very thorough understanding of the children, and develop a relationship built from trust.

The third stage begins from adolescence to the time when the children turn 21 years of age. This is the time when the individual’s decision-making abilities are developed, when the external world is investigated, and when the realities about oneself and one’s values are explored.

In summary, children’s needs are – a moral world in the first stage, a beautiful world in the second stage, and a world with realities and truths in the third stage. Dr Steiner emphasized the need to respect the unique features of every child because the child is not a blank sheet of paper. The child’s talents can be detected from the traits of the mother, and his interests from those of the father. These observations can help children develop ambitions that they can aspire for and attain with ease.

The Waldorf system and thoughts, with its headquarters in Switzerland, have been established in Japan and India, where instructional courses are held for teachers in other major countries. Along the east and west coast of USA there are institutes and universities providing training for teachers. The address of the Rudolf Steiner College in North California is: Rudolf Steiner College, 9200 Fair Oaks Blvd, Fair Oaks, CA 95628; telephone: (916) 961 8731. Reference books include: “The Foundation of Human Experience”, “Education of the Child”, and “Kingdom of Childhood”. Steiner’s works are in German, but English translations can be obtained from: Anthroposophic Press 3390 Route 9, Hudson, NY 12534-9420.