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How Children Learn in the First Seven Years
The child between birth and age seven experiences the world primarily through her body. The senses are completely open, without filters or buffers, beginning at the moment of birth. The newborn continues to experience each sensation with her entire body and being. This is easy to see in the infant, who is all hunger or the pain in her stomach, or all the blissful sensations of nursing that cause her eyes to roll back and her toes to curl. The three-year-old, as well, is much more open to impressions of the world coming through the senses than is an adult. We can even observe that children’s eyes stay open longer between blinking than do an adult’s.
Two things are happening through sense impressions from birth through age seven. The child is both learning about the world and being shaped by the impressions she takes in, just as a sculptor might work with clay. This phenomenon does not occur very often with adults, who are less open and responsive to the environment than young children, but we can see a similar phenomenon in the molding of the features that the elements of light and weather etch into the face of a seaman or farmer.
This “sculpting” effect of impressions on a young child’s developing organs, which was pointed out by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900s, was not meant to be taken metaphorically. Current research has demonstrated that this is physically true for the young child’s brain, which is still forming, not just growing larger. According to an article in Newsweek, “‘Only 15 years ago,’ reports the Families and Work Institute in the just-released study ‘Rethinking the Brain,’ ‘neuroscientists assumed that by the time babies are born, the structures of their brains [had been] genetically determined.’ But by last year researchers knew that was wrong. Instead, early childhood experiences exert a dramatic and precise impact, physically determining how the neural circuits of the brain are wired.”13 The second thing the child is doing through sense impressions is learning about the world. Through the body the baby learns about near and far, attainable and unobtainable, as when she learns that a spoon can be grasped but the flowers on the table remain out of reach. As she begins to learn the names of things, memory, language, and thinking develop so she can give expression to her own and the world’s emerging complexity. When the child reaches age three and beyond, what is taken in with the senses is also transformed and comes out again in the creative play and imagination of the young child.
The child’s major task in the first year of life is taking control of the body. Sitting, crawling, and walking are quickly followed by running, jumping, climbing, and other feats of dexterity as fine and gross motor coordination increase. Everything is done for the first time—using a shovel, sitting on a seesaw, cutting with a scissors—and then it is done over and over again. The child loves to move and to imitate, learning through doing something with someone else or after seeing it done. And the young child loves repetition, hearing the same story over and over or playing the same circle game, no matter how simple or boring it may seem to an adult.
The young child is also learning about the world emotionally, learning the fundamental lessons about trust and attachment, and later lessons about sharing and consequences. It has long been known that babies and young children in institutions where they are denied the love of a primary caregiver suffer “failure to thrive syndrome” and can die, even though their physical needs are being met. Now PET scans of the brains of orphans who have been institutionalized since shortly after birth show that the temporal lobes, which regulate emotions and receive input from the senses, are nearly quiescent.14 Such children suffer emotional and cognitive problems resulting not only from a lack of stimulation but also from a lack of love and bonding.
The baby is love. Bonding is less a process of babies learning to love their parents—because children will love even parents who abuse them—than of parents establishing the connection that will enable them to make room in their busy lives for another being who needs attention twenty-four hours a day! Children enter the world with a great deal of love and trust. They are not yet able to perceive good and bad, but they take everything as good and appropriate to absorb and unconsciously imitate.
Our Task as First Teachers
One of our primary tasks as our children’s first teachers is to provide them with impressions of the world that are appropriate for them to take in and copy. This means guarding and protecting them from sensory overload in a world of urban frenzy, and surrounding them with experiences that teach them about the world in a gentle way by letting them do things directly themselves and later act them out in their play.
We also need to strive to model appropriate behavior—that our emotions are under control with our children, that we don’t spank them while admonishing, “Don’t hit!” and so forth. Our actions speak louder than our words with the young child, who cannot help but imitate. Through us, children learn whether or not their initial love and trust in the world were well founded.
Another of our main tasks is to understand our children’s physical, emotional, and mental development so we can guard it and let it unfold without hindrance. No one would want to stop a child from walking, but it is also something that we don’t have to worry about teaching the child. The child will walk when she is ready, as a natural expression of the mastery of her own body—the development of balance and the achievement of verticality in the face of gravity that has kept her horizontal for so many months. There is a task for us—to guard, to protect, to understand, to share, and to enjoy with the child the unfolding of his or her abilities. We can do things to enhance abilities by providing an example and allowing the young child to express them freely from out of his own being. We can also note discrepancies in development and areas at risk and take gentle steps to help ensure balance. But with the young child much more is achieved indirectly through example and imitation than head-on through lessons.
No matter what our family situation or lifestyle, we as parents are our children’s first teachers. The importance of what they learn in the home and through their relationship with us cannot be underestimated. By understanding how children develop and some things we can do to help their balanced and healthy growth—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—we will not only help our children but also increase our own enjoyment and growth as parents.