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The Developing Child: Lecture One by Johanna Steegmans, M

The child’s development in the first seven years is an immense undertaking, his journeying into life a most courageous deed. The child completely surrenders himself to this planet to fashion a new body in its new incarnation. In today’s talk we will look at the very beginning of life when the human soul-spirit has entered a living body and opens all the windows and doors to the new world, in order to fashion the second body.1 This second body is fashioned out of interchange with the people and experiences that surround the child during this time. The child needs other human beings to help him fashion the body. In order to become human, the child needs upright humans as imitative models around him. The doors and windows to the world—the senses—are openings to fields of experience; and only as much as these fields of experience are matured and opened will the world open up to the child. If the senses are allowed to mature, are nurtured and nourished, the child’s world will be large. If they are not cared for in the right ways, the child will be thwarted. We now have a wave of children who are under the umbrella of autistic spectrum disorder. As we understand how the child takes hold of the body through the senses, we can better understand this autistic phenomenon.
Even adults can be tortured by being overwhelmed in our sensory life. Too much white noise, light, and unexpected sound, for instance, can tax us, especially when we are tired. This can serve as an exercise in understanding what it is like for the child to be completely exposed to noise and not be able to move away from it. The little child receives what is given through the senses without any filtering. The child selflessly receives the information of the world around her. In the Curative Education course (published as Education for Special Needs), Rudolf Steiner speaks of how the ego of the incarnating being, the feeling body, dives into the world and meets it immediately and directly. He calls this meeting of spirit and soul, of the I and astral body respectively, a magical occurrence. When we move into the world via the senses, it is this type of magical experience of the world.
Much has been said about the lower2 senses—touch, vital/life sense, self-movement, and balance— and how these so-called lower senses are foundations for development of higher senses. Touch has to do with whole surface of the human being. While the sensors of touch lie on the surface of the body in the skin, the sensation becomes internalized and becomes a deep feeling of trust, confirming that the person exists. If the sense of touch is not internalized, nourished rightly, or enabled to mature properly, the child will not have a feeling that the body is his house in which he can joyfully live because he trusts that the body will carry him. Of this and the other lower senses we should remain unconscious. If awareness rises to consciousness, we show disordered behavior. Children who do not like socks or fuss about seams in clothes are too aware of touch.

When we empathetically feel into the child’s sensory experience, we realize how open and vulnerable she is when she is born into the world. Of this vulnerability we are unconscious when we lie in the protective, embracing arms of our parents. Being conscious of this vulnerability and sensitivity is very painful. Think of the child who, when born, screams for hours. When we empathically listen to the child’s screaming, we get an inkling that there is something conscious that should be unconscious.

Dr. Judith Bluestone3 works with children in the autistic spectrum. She suffers from autism herself. She is able to tell from the inside out how this feels. She describes that this vulnerability, this soul soreness, meets the world unprotected. If the vulnerable child meets the world unprotected in the first years of life, we can imagine what we will see in the children in our kindergartens. This vulnerability is not only to clothes and other physical touch sensations but also to encounters with another human being, a more subtle form of touch. The child lashes out when he feels too vulnerable. A child suddenly lashing out at another is now called impulse control disorder. We only feel safe when deep down we know where we come from and feel in connection to our source.Touch is the vital sense that allows us to be in the world and feel this safety.

The vital or life sense gives a different experience. This has to do with all the surfaces of our inner organs. It is a sense that is active all the time but only becomes conscious when one or another vital organ is giving a signal—such as feeling hungry, wet, tired, or when experiencing some kind of discomfort. Then the vital sense says, “Do something.” This sense has to do with the fluid life of our organs and rays a sense of comfort to the soul. One not only feels safe, but likes to be in the body because it feels good.
In these two senses, those of touch and of life, are little buds, like germinal points of the future senses of Ego and Thought. If the child feels safe in the body, feels her “I am,” then she is open to meet the other human being. In touch lies the possibility of recognizing another person as a distinct individuality. If we feel comfortable in our body through the life sense, we can meet another person in thought and understand even if there are language difficulties. Imagine that your life sense is acting up. You will not find the inner space of calm to meet the other in the space of her thought. So with children whose life sense has not been nourished, has not matured properly, we find often that they don’t seem to hear. The sense organ of hearing is healthy and functioning as it should, but these children cannot meet us in the realm of thought.

The next of these lower senses which help us take hold of our body is the sense of our own movement. Movement is a miracle. We do not just flex one muscle and extend another and then move. Movement involves the whole body as a cooperative unity. When I move my toes, the rest of the body cooperates so that the toe can move. All muscles are active in any movement. The resting muscle has to be active in holding still to allow the other to move. This movement body has to do with the sense of muscle tone. I get information on where the body is in space all the time. This is different from touch, which tells me that I exist. The sense of self-movement, which comes through the joints and muscles, gives information about how the body is arranged in space.
The senses of balance and self-movement have to work closely together. Muscle tone, which my I perceives from inside, involves the sense of self-movement. Posture in space is perceived by the sense of balance. The sensory organ for balance is the three semi-circular canals in the inner ear. These senses are miracles, tools for the child coming out of the “great space, the great time” into a small space and measured time. These are tools to connect us to this world where we can experience our incarnating goal of this epoch, which is to individualize.

When we look at the world of individualization and autism, we see that autism is an individualization process gone wrong. “Autism” means to be thrown back on oneself. “Individual” means that I become myself. The physician who named autism was actually quite inspired in seeing that the au- tistic person is thrown back on himself. Judith Bluestone describes the intense loneliness in being cut off from the world by autism. Only humans can experience loneliness and then meet the other again and form the figure of love in freedom, as pictured by the symbol of love mentioned at the opening of this talk. The autistic person is helplessly thrown into meeting the other through vulnerable senses. He or she does not experience the social healing and comfort that comes from meeting the other under the sign of love.

One aspect of the autistic spectrum is that social weaving between the autistic person and the other cannot happen properly. The four deeply body-related senses that we have been considering are the foundation for a free interchange with others in the soul realm. If these basic senses are not healthy, if we are not comfortable in this body, are not free human beings in movement, cannot feel our position in space, then it is very difficult to establish a human relationship that is trusting. The child is one big body of complete trust, one open being of surrender. Without complete trust, the child cannot imitate us, meet us through imitation. According to a definition suggested by Margret Meyercort, empathy is a flowing out of oneself and meeting the other.

Strengthening the four lower senses

Strengthening The Inner / Lower Senses : All who work with children today see that they are changing in ways that concern and even alarm us. In the pre – school and kindergarten classes, we often see tired children, thin and pale. Children are nervous, cannot sit still, and frequently fall out of chairs. Movement and play do not come so easily as they once did. Many children are disorganized in their movements and can appear clumsy. Some propel themselves forward with unconscious and uncontrolled abandon, smashing and crashing into their playmates. Others find a quiet corner from which they do not move, playing timidly and avoiding movement at all cost. The trained eye also sees indications of retained immature movement patters/reflexes, which should have disappeared in the child’s first year. Many children are “touchy”, often over – acting to an innocent brush with another child, and are emotionally fragile. Dietary choices are limited as well; children often reject the healthy whole foods the kindergarten offers and insist on a narrow range of foods. In the social realm, the healthy hum of free play, which once filled each kindergarten day, is harder to create and sustain. Children have difficulty engaging harmoniously with their classmates. The children act out the TV and movie characters they have viewed as an effort to digest this experience through play. These media images are often “indigestible,” however, and cause disharmony in the play – time. Circle time, the crown of the kindergarten morning, finds children easily distracted and unable to imitate the teacher’s gestures. And when story time offers its food for soul and spirit, some children cannot attend to the language nor create the mighty imaginative pictures inwardly. In simple terms, we can say that children are having difficulty finding their way into physical life in a comfortable, harmonious way, into a sense of well being.

In a study of the Twelve Senses as described by Rudolf Steiner, we see that the soul and spirit of the human being find their way into the physical / structural body through the four lower senses – the senses of touch (tactile), life, self-movement (proprioception), and balance (vestibular). Touch or the tactile sense is the first to be awakened in the birth process. The strong uterine contractions massage the baby and awaken and tone up the sense of touch. When touch is under-stimulated, sometimes through a very short labor, C-section, or lying naked in an incubator, the child can be very touch sensitive. What is normal touch experience to most is an assault to this child. Typical exploration of the world through touch is avoided. The child is often fussy and finicky about clothes, textures, and temperature. On the other extreme, if the tactile sense is over taxed, as in a long and stressful labor, the child’s touch may have shut down in a gesture of self-protection. Such a child may be unaware that he has touched another child, that his hands are crusted with sand and mud, or that his shoes are on the wrong feet. Steiner describes that touch gives us our experience of boundary, telling us where we stop and where the rest of the world begins. A healthy sense of touch lays the foundation for a sense of social boundaries as well. The life sense gives us our sense of organic well being. We are aware of it mostly when we feel unwell or out-of- sorts. Disturbances in the life sense demonstrate them – selves in the child’s rhythmic life, waking and sleeping, eating and elimination. In the classroom we encounter difficulties here with food allergies and narrow, restricted dietary choices. The strong rhythm we maintain in our kindergarten day helps here. We can also encourage the child to widen his diet with tiny, non-stressful encouragement to try new foods. The sense of self-movement or proprioceptive sense gives us awareness of body position. It informs where the body parts are in relation to one another. It also gives us the framework for developing body geography. Information about the body’s position is provided by the contracting and stretching of muscles and by compression of the joints. A child with weakness here may move through the room like a tornado, bumping into people and things. This may be the child who loves to be at the bottom of a pile of other children to receive the proprioceptive pressure he craves. Without a healthy sense of proprioception, the child may truly be unaware of where the limbs are in space, sincerely incredulous that his arm has just knocked down the house that others spent the last 20 minutes building. Healthy pro – prioception also provides ability to begin and arrest movement with control. Holding appropriate muscle tension in a task, such as lifting up a glass of water with the right force, comes from proprioception. Sustaining upright posture is also a function of proprioception. With difficulty here, often a child will collapse on to the floor at circle time, as standing upright is such a chore. Children who often bump into other objects and people, who seem a little clumsy, who slump or collapse, may have difficulty with self- movement/proprioception.

The sense of balance, known in the mainstream as the vestibular sense, gives the experience of stability and security in relation to gravity. Working with proprioception, the vestibular sense tells where the body is in space. The vestibular sensory organs, the semicircular canals, lie within the complex of the ear. With chronic ear infections having replaced childhood inflammatory illnesses, auditory and vestibular health are under constant attack. Vestibular health can be compromised by the infection itself. Some antibiotics used to treat the ear infections are actually dam – aging to the inner ear as well. Children with vestibular weakness can be of two extremes. They can be very movement sensitive, avoiding spinning, swinging, inverting the head, each of which stimulates the vestibular system. They avoid movement. On the other extreme are children who crave movement at all times. They spin on the tire swing and never get dizzy. They fidget and rock in their chairs, seeming to need constant motion. They may also be dare – devils who lack any appropriate sense of caution. The vestibular sense of these children is under-responsive, requiring a constant stream of vestibular stimulus to keep informed of where the body’s center of balance lies. The importance of sense cannot be over emphasized. A. Jean Ayres in “Sensory Integration and the Child” states that the vestibular is the unifying system and provides a framework for other aspects of our experience. It seems to “prime” the entire nervous system to function effectively.
Movement Enrichment with Young Children The healthy strength and integration of these senses lay the foundation for all the higher-level skills, cognitive, social, and spiritual, for the rest of earthly life. When the lower senses are healthy, the individual has pleasure and joy in being in the physical body. Movements are balanced, coordinated, and integrated. Children are eager to explore the world, welcoming new experiences in all the sensory realms, being neither reckless nor timid. The child has good balance, both literally and metaphorically, and also understands appropriate physical and social boundaries. Yet when we look at behaviors of the children we meet each day in our classrooms, we see that incarnation into the physical body through these four lower senses is disturbed. Many offer suggestions as to why this is so.

Audrey McAllen states in “The Extra Lesson” that the stress caused by over-stimulation and over-stretching of our sensory life is the fundamental problem. Joseph Chilton Pearce elaborates on this theme in describing the “startle effect”. He states that because children go essentially “catatonic” watching TV, producers found they could inject unexpected noises and sudden changes of volume and light in programming to shock the child viewer back into attention. These shocks cause the sympathetic nervous system to release, to the body and brain, cortisol, an adrenal hormone usually reserved for emergencies. The nervous system tries to readjust to this cortisol dosage, accepting the higher level as normal. Higher and higher numbers of startle effects become necessary to hold the child’s interest, which media producers have done. Children who view media are thus saturated with cortisol, which Chilton Pearce connects to the increases incidence of anxiety and over-stimulation in children. Added to the daily sensory bombardment of modern life, we also see that children’s opportunity for free, playful movement is restricted. We drive more, walk less. Children spend long periods of time in car seats. Children’s safety while playing in our neighborhoods is no longer guaranteed, so unrestricted play and exploration with friends is a thing of the past. We have also become a society of convenience and passive entertainment. The kinds of work and chores that once gave a natural opportunity to train and strengthen the lower senses are no longer a part of daily life. So how do we address this situation in our kindergartens? The daily experiences in the Waldorf kindergarten remain even more critical than ever for the children’s health. Yet these activities, which used to be enough to foster healthy development when coupled with a healthier family and community life, are no longer sufficient for too many of the children. The “ecological” balance of child – hood has become skewed. The children need us as teachers to become “ ecologists” on their behalf, gently trying to reduce stressful experiences that deplete health – which is where our strength as kindergarten teacher advocates has always been – and supplement and enrich areas where children are not getting enough of what they need.