Art and Crafts as a Foundation to the Healing of the Human Being
An excerpt from our Second Grade Syllabus new second edition by Donna Simmons.
He who works with his hands is a laborer;
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman;
He who works with his hands, head and heart is an artist.
Francis of Assisi
For me, one of the most important things about Waldorf education is its therapeutic basis. Because we all come to this earth as imperfect beings, life can be viewed as a process of striving toward wholeness, toward healing. Our bodies, our social relationships, our relationship to the Earth, all need healing. Healing is a dynamic state which moves between wholeness on the one hand, and alienation and lack of connection, on the other. Living our lives becomes an ongoing process of weaving between these states and learning—about ourselves, other people and our place in the Cosmos.
To educate, then, is to honor the entirety of the human being as she learns about herself and the world. To only educate the mind—or the mind and body—is to be out of balance and to not foster health. A true and rightful path of education therefore has as its starting point the reality of the wholeness of the human being which has as its essence a relationship to the spiritual worlds. To ignore this is to ignore the foundations of human existence.
We incarnate onto the earthly plane into bodies. But, as Rudolf Steiner amply shows us through his spiritual-scientific work (which can be taken up and investigated by anyone) we have, in effect, four bodies which interpenetrate each other. Only the first body, the physical body, is readily discernable through the limited and usual use of the senses. But with practice and with perseverance, the other three can also be discerned. They are the etheric body (also recognized by Chinese medicine and by homeopathy which usually refers to it as the ‘vital force’); the astral body; and the ‘I’. All spiritual traditions from all corners of the world have more or less described these four bodies of the human being, though sometimes such knowledge has been confined only to initiates.
As we are a part of Creation, we share fundamental characteristics with the rest of the created world. Like the minerals, we have physical, material bodies. Like the plants, we have life or etheric bodies, which mean we grow and can heal. Like the animals, we have an astral body, which means we are sentient beings, responding with sympathy or antipathy to what we meet and to what arises from within. Unique to the human being is the ‘I’, that part of our organization which gives us the potential to choose, to be free, and do evil or good.
Engagement of the Entire Human Being
Waldorf education arises out of a profound understanding of the development of the four-fold nature of the human being. Each element needs to be nurtured, stretched and engaged so that the wholeness of the human being is honored. Key to working this way is the recognition of the lawfulness of the developmental needs of these four bodies of the human being – of the physical body, the etheric body, the astral body and the ‘I’. Though their development of course overlaps, there is a clear progression. Each of the four bodies has its optimum time to be attended to and by following this lawful progression carefully, the health of each is enhanced and further, the preceding (as it were) body works to strengthen the next in turn.
As most of you know, Waldorf education is also founded on a recognition of the threefold nature of the human being. The relationship between the four-fold organization and threefold organization can seem complicated but once one gets past this unfamiliar way of looking at human development, it all makes an awful lot of sense and clears up many of the mysteries of how children grow and develop.
The threefold nature of the human being is expressed through the recognition of the fact that we are all beings of willing, feeling and of thinking. We act in the world; we have feelings about what goes on inside of us and what we meet in the world; we think about life and who we are in the world. If these three capacities are not hygienically related—especially in childhood—then the problematic phenomena of people who act without thought; who feel and cannot act; who think and can neither feel nor do, can arise. By relating the complementary fourfold and threefold natures of the human being, we have a clear way to strive toward wholeness and health when educating children.
The first seven years of childhood is the time when the development of the will comes to the fore. Anyone observing small children and anyone who has encountered the great ‘No!’ of the three-year-old, can see how they are beings of doing. Of course they feel and of course they think: but these capacities do not predominate and their rightful cultivation depends on the health of the will forces which need to be met in those first seven years. A life that is well ordered, rhythmical, with clear boundaries and within which the child is met through imitation, provides the soundest cultivation of the will. The child is not thrown prematurely back on himself, onto his latent ‘I’ by being given choices or by a more intellectual approach. Those first seven years are the optimal time for developing the will: to short-change this important step in human development has consequences for the health of the child/adult. This can readily be observed by the sad spectacle of so many medicated, unhappy children and teens who cannot sit still, who cannot focus and who basically are unable to live comfortably in their physical bodies.
Second graders are in the middle phase of childhood, that which spans approximately the seventh through the fourteenth years of life. This is the time when the development of the child’s feeling life comes to the fore. To a child of this age, everything that is important happens because of his feeling relationship to it: he likes it, he hates it. Girls especially can become subsumed in their feeling life and the artistic and rhythmical elements of a Waldorf education go far in helping a child get beyond her sympathies and antipathies. Crucially, this is attended to not by suppressing those feelings, but by enriching and ennobling the scope of the feeling life so that it enriches the rest of her being and does not dominate it.
Waldorf education rises to the challenges of child development by meeting the child via a pedagogy which arises from what the child needs, never from adult whims or trends. The child needs an artistic approach to learning in this middle phase of childhood precisely because the artistic approach finds its resonance in the feeling life of the child. To approach the world from an aesthetic sense is to enter into it with sympathy and antipathy; it means to weave into the movement that art, which in its very nature is flexible and malleable medium, engenders. Over time, the child learns the nuances of his internal color palette, even experimenting with black and white and with the subtleties of the in between place of grey when he is in his twelfth year. But that is called for by the developmental needs of the 12-year-old: right now the 8-year-old needs to work with the sheer beauty of color.
When a child paints, she explores the range of feelings within her soul as they find expression through color. She moves between the cold pole of blue, into the middle realm of green, and then on to the warmth and heat of oranges and reds. Over time, the child becomes cognizant of her own range of feelings not through an intellectualized abstract approach but through the sense experiences of expressing the stories and lessons she learns through the rich colors of wet on wet.
But a child can easily slip away into dreamy land if she does too much wet on wet painting without the balancing activity of modeling. Whereas wet on wet slides and glides and blends without effort, when modeling, the child has to exert her will, use her hands, form the beeswax or clay, and work with matter. By finding a right rhythm between the outbreath of wet on wet and the in breath of modeling, one meets the child developmentally and health is enhanced. By understanding something like this, one takes a further step in penetrating the therapeutic value of Waldorf education.
Handwork of the Heart
Handwork engages quite a different element in the child. If one dreams away whilst knitting or crocheting, one will find one’s lap full of dropped stitches. Or one finds that one’s project has somehow grown beyond its bounds—where did all those extra stitches come from?! If, though, one is too focused on bringing will and force to handwork, stitches disappear or get so tight that the knitting needle cannot be inserted into the work. The project can even lose its shape, curled into itself in a tight little mass.
When sitting to work on a handwork project, most children hold their work at about the heart level, thus giving us a picture as to the nature of handwork. The rhythmical movement of the hands; the thought that goes into the planning of the project; and the enlivenment of feeling through the wonder of the creative process bring all three aspects of the threefold human being into play: hands, head and heart. Handwork is one of the most important aspects of the Waldorf curriculum during this middle phase of childhood, as it balances and harmonizes the fourfold and threefold nature of the human being.
Handwork, painting and modeling—and of course drawing and making crafts, neither of which I have mentioned but which fit in here too—engage the child fully. His spirit soars as he experiences the truth, beauty and goodness of creating; his astral body finds the quiet centeredness between sympathy and antipathy as the child is nurtured by natural materials and the interplay of color; his life body is supported by the rhythmical work that the process of creating calls forth; and his physical body’s needs are addressed by sensorially enriching, rhythmical activities and an active engagement with life.
The artistic elements of the Waldorf curriculum are never to be thought of as extras, as embellishments, as enrichment activities. They are the absolute foundation for learning and to a healthy and holistic approach to life.