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Movement in childhood
Children in action
The children run from one side to the other, they climb and jump, throw their arms up or whirl around, they seek contact with one another, barging and jostling, they fall over and get back to their feet then continue running. From a very early age, the child not only wants to experience the world through movement, he wants to shape it, which can be clearly seen, when playing with sand and water. In her article Elisabeth Frank introduces the subject of movement, an excerpt from the book " Fundamental Aspects of Sports Lessons" published by Freies Geistesleben 2018.
What is Movement?
We adults speak of a child's urge to move. But what exactly is this urge? When a child is in motion, he is simultaneously self-contained and also part of the outside world. This seeming contradiction can easily be resolved by considering the two phenomena. Being self-contained, a person in movement shows himself in his own individual development. This is particularly the case with the small child, especially during the first year, when progress is rapid. Not only does the infant body develop but also the child's own personal way of moving, which shows us how the spiritual individuality is taking hold of and shaping the body it has inherited. Any disruption in the process of incarnation can best be seen when there is a movement disorder.
At the same time the outer world is experienced through movement. In his doctrine of the senses, which he extended to include twelve, Rudolf Steiner pointed out how it is that we experience the outer world as something real by means of the senses. The sense of movement plays a large part here, helping us to learn about what is all around us. This sense is of course especially important in learning to move.
What connects the inner self to the outer world is the physical body. It is not just a boundary and a place of encounter but also a part of the outer world. This exterior comprises all things material and living, including all people. With every movement he makes, a person acts in this exterior space which in turn reappears in his inner self. Even the movements of other people are reflected in our own bodies, something which has been confirmed with the discovery of mirror neurons. These are nerve cells in the brain, which imitate another person's actions, as if the observer were actually doing them and not just watching.
Rudolf Steiner often mentions the fact that, on the one hand we are part of the world around us, which is then in turn reflected inside us. “... With the part of him that sees and recognizes, Man is always outside of his body and bodily functions. He lives in the material world. And the reason he sees and recognizes something is that his experience of things is reflected in his own body.” (1) Elsewhere he says, “With his spiritual being, Man is actually in that part of the world he is observing, and he sees it consciously because his organism reflects it.” (2)
With each movement, the child places his own being in the outer world of movement and makes it his home. He experiences himself in all the objects and people and learns to understand them and himself. He comes to understand through his own movements. At the same time the movements and actions of other people are reflected in the child's body. A bond with and love for the world and the people in it evolve. Movement helps the child to develop not only physical but also social skills.
The sense of movement
The sense of movement refers to one’s own movement and not that of other people and it always functions together with other senses, e.g. sight, touch, balance. The sense of movement has the task of assessing whereabouts in any given space my body is and what the relative position of my limbs is. Where is above and below? What is the effect of gravity on my body? What is the position of my head, my trunk, my arms and legs? Am I standing? Sitting? Lying down? Where are my limbs? Where are they in the room and in relation to each other? Where is there contact with another object? How tense/relaxed are my muscles? In which direction must I move my body to catch a ball flying towards me and how strongly do my hands have to grasp it?
With this sense of movement, I can, for example, always know where my hand is placed, whether it is motionless or not, regardless of whether I can see it or not. How must I move it in order to put a glass of water to my mouth? I am hardly ever conscious of it, but without this sense, a purposeful movement would be impossible. The medical term for this is bathyesthesia or deep sensibility, otherwise called proprioceptive perception. It supplies information about the position of the body, the state of tension in muscles and tendons and how they are moving. This latter is also called kinesthesia from the Greek “kinein” - to move and “aesthesis” - sensation or perception.
Meaningful movement is only possible when the sense of movement is intact. Without this, a movement would not get past the first stage or it would break down into single, uncoordinated jerks and spasms. We know such disorders from curative education.
Our surroundings provide greatly varying conditions (soft or hard floor, firm ground or water) for our bodies and our movements. We have to sense these variations. It is our sense of movement which enables us to adapt the body to cope with the varying conditions.
Rudolf Steiner remarks, “By means of the lower senses (to which the sense of movement belongs, note E.F.), a person can immerse himself in the physical body and feel himself as part of the outer world.” (3)
The sense of movement is the tool with which the I-being carries out its movements over a lifetime, learning new ones and correcting habitual ones. This is how the child improves its power of movement.
Developing the power of movement
For the new-born baby, movement is integral to life, but it begins much earlier. From approximately the eighteenth week onwards, it can be felt in the womb by the mother. Thanks to modern ultrasonic scanning, we can observe the child’s movements from almost the beginning of pregnancy. After seven to eight weeks, it is possible to recognize complex, spontaneous movements on the part of the embryo. Therefore, we can assume that every living being, that grows through an embryonal phase, develops not only its physical body but also the power of movement. From the very beginning, the embryo experiences both space and movement in intimate interplay. We will keep on encountering this interplay during the child’s further development.
After birth, the child has to cope with completely different conditions to those previously. There is the force of gravity, the surroundings are now gaseous and not liquid, there are changing sensations such as warmth and light. At the beginning we can recognize movements previously seen, when the child was still in the womb. The act of suckling – now at the breast – is accompanied by rhythmical movements of the body, arms and legs jerking and kicking. The post-natal reflexes are triggered off by the movement of the child itself. The child – especially the new-born child – is like one large sensory organ, sensing all the above-mentioned changes in its environment. Thus, all its movements adapt to the new surroundings.
At the age of four to six weeks, a great change in the pattern of the movements can be seen, a struggle against the force of gravity. Especially when lying on its stomach, the child begins to raise its head. Its eyes begin to explore what is around it, focussing on objects and making contact with the parents. There is the first smile. In the following weeks and months, the individual movements become more independent and purposeful, the body striving more and more to rise, to prop itself up and to begin moving about.
Furthermore, after three months, the child discovers that it has hands, which it at first looks at with fascination, before trying out what they can do and finally and deliberately grasping strange objects and moving them about. From six months on, the will to be on the move emerges. The child wants to get up close to and touch what it can see. Now, with every movement, the child practises keeping its balance while changing its position. By the ninth month, being upright is the child’s favoured posture, by which it wants to observe the world. It pulls itself up wherever it can. Initially for moving, it needs to use its hands to maintain balance (crawling). Although crawling is the most common preliminary stage before getting up and toddling, it is not the only physical option. There are many individual as well as cultural variations.
After approximately twelve months, the process of getting up and balancing as well as the development of the bones (in particular the pelvis and the spine) enable the child to take its first few steps. From now on, it will not be still, constantly moving from one thing to the next. Anyone who has watched this knows the joy and the triumph which the child radiates in this phase.
In its second year, the child consolidates and improves the way it moves. And the more the lower limbs gain in confidence, the more the arms and hands are free for actions, e.g. for playing.
Up to the age of three, balancing skill and surefootedness improve further. Initially, leg movements were guided by the thigh, later by the knee and the lower leg, and by the third year, the foot has taken over. Hopping and skipping become possible. As each leg gets more stable, the child experiences the possibilities of supporting leg/free leg. The legs are now serving the child well, even when there are obstacles such as tree trunks to be overcome. The hands for their part have become tools for all sorts of things the child wants to do. These skills continue to be improved on in the infant’s harmonious but chubby little body.
Ready for school
In its first years, the infant’s body fills out and this is followed, at an age of between five and a half and seven, by a period of stretching and growing longer. In contrast to puberty, where the arms and legs grow from the periphery and for a time disproportionately, the process at this time is constant and harmonious. All of a sudden, we see how the child has grown. Its arms and legs are longer and more slender, the trunk has narrowed, the head looks smaller in proportion, the facial features are more distinctive and more individual. The babyface has disappeared. All this is accompanied by a more pronounced S-shaped curvature of the spine, a visible waistline and clearly defined joints on arms and legs. The chubby infant has become a slender schoolchild. The loss of the milk teeth shows that infancy is over and that the child has taken over the formation of his own body. The milk teeth have been “sacrificed” in favour of teeth which he has shaped himself.
Now the child is much more skilled in his movements. The separate parts of the body can move independently. For skipping, the arms are no longer needed for momentum. They can act at a distance from the trunk for throwing and catching. There are fewer involuntary reflexes. Each leg can be moved independently, for balancing and hopping. The fingers can be used separately and finer motor skills enable the child to carry out specific, differentiated movements. The movements are purposeful and goal-oriented (throwing a ball, balancing on a tree trunk, skipping . . .) and generally appear to be joyful and light.
At the age of nine
At the age of nine and ten, the child’s body fills out for a second time. The schoolchild that had appeared delicate in the first years of school is now sturdier, the torso lengthens and broadens. With the rhythmical coordination of arms, legs and torso, walking and running become movements of the greatest harmony. What is still missing is strength for the muscles are soft and weak. At this time, all children love movements which demand and improve skills and dexterity.
Puberty and adolescence
From the age of twelve to thirteen, the second phase of elongation sets in. The limbs do not grow harmoniously and growth begins at the periphery. Hands and feet grow first, then lower legs and forearms and finally upper arms and thighs. At this time, movements become awkward, as if the limbs were out of control. With the more slender build, the arm and leg muscles are more visible but they still lack full strength.
It is only when this burst of growth in puberty comes to an end that movement becomes harmonious again. At this time, some adolescents take great pleasure in movement and feel a strong urge to be active, whereas with others, it is quite the opposite. Each individual’s distinctive way of moving becomes apparent and reaches its physiological zenith at the age of 21.
Medical and pedagogical tasks
Motor skills develop according to age-appropriate laws, which enable the paediatrician to see whether the child is developing healthily or whether there is any retardation or one-sidedness in the movements. The reflexes typical in infancy also regress. If they do not, this a sign for the paediatrician that something is wrong. It is the doctor’s task to recognize this with the help of the prescribed examination.
Despite this regularity, a certain amount of individual scope can be allowed for, when deciding how a child’s development is progressing. This involves the speed at which and the manner in which movement skills are acquired as well as the kinesic behaviour and the development of bodily awareness. Every child incarnates in his own special way. Care is necessary in differentiating between individual and pathological deviations from the norm.
For teachers and parents too, it is important to know what sort of motor skills are expected at the various ages as well as keeping an eye on individual developments and how they are expressed. The motor skills which the child develops of his own accord and in his own time ought to be neither steered nor accelerated by adults. As an African proverb says, “Grass doesn’t grow faster, if you pull on it.” As early as the 1930s, the Hungarian paediatrician Emmi Pikler pointed out how important it is to create safe and age-appropriate surroundings, in which the child can move and play, so that it can acquire its own individual skills and strengths. In Waldorf kindergartens, free play is a part of the daily routine and the Waldorf School curriculum provides age-appropriate movement, games and sport, while catering for individual needs.
Translated by Geoff Hunter
Dr. Elisabeth Frank, born in Vienna, is a specialist in pediatrics and adolescent medicine and a psychotherapist. She was a school doctor at a Waldorf school in Vienna for 24 years and worked in a pediatric practice. She is married, mother of two adult sons and a recent grandmother.
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(3) Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy: A Fragment From The Year 1910 (Anthroposophie – ein Fragment), GA 45, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach 2002, p. 32.
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