Protect the senses
Today’s task is to protect the senses. When babies are born their senses are wide open. They take in information from all of their senses without the same capability to filter that we have as adults. Over time the neurological system learns to distinguish relevant sensory information and pull it into conscious awareness while ignoring the rest. The younger the child, however, the less filtering they have, the more open their senses, and the more they need protection.
We typically think of people as having five senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste) but this idea was only codified in the early twentieth century. Before that time there was an interesting and ongoing conversation about how to classify the human senses and most theories included many more than just five. Steiner settled on a system of twelve and his description of the twelve human senses inform Waldorf theory and pedagogy today.
The lower senses of touch, life, movement, and balance give us information about the nature and boundaries of our own body. These are the inner senses and they are developed during the first seven years of life (the “willing” years).
Touch: All the sensations registered by the skin including touch and pressure, as well as the boundary between self and other (this is me; this is the chair).
Life: Internal sensations including hunger, thirst, tiredness, mood, and general sense of well-being.
Movement: The sensations that indicate where the body is in space (proprioception).
Balance: The vestibular sense that provides information on spatial orientation (up-down, left-right, front-back) and allows us to maintain our balance and remain upright.
The first four are sometimes referred to as the “base senses” because when they are not properly integrated there are systematic problems affecting all of the other senses. Often learning problems can be traced back to disregulation in the base senses. (Hint: Lots of movement and time to play in early childhood are crucial for healthy sensory integration!)
The middle senses of smell, taste, sight, and warmth are a bridge between inner and outer perceptions. They give us information about the world around us and they can be overwhelming if there is too much coming in. They continue to develop during the “feeling” years of 7 - 14.
The higher senses of hearing, speech, thought, and ego give us information about other people and about how those people are separate beings from ourselves. They are the social or outer senses and they develop mostly during the “thinking” years of 14 - 21.
All of the senses need to be protected and not overwhelmed in the early years!
How to protect the senses:
1. The base senses (touch, life, movement, and balance) are developing during the early years and need plenty of nourishment. Children do well to have a good amount of touch, rhythmical movement, and rhythms in their day to nourish the senses of touch and life. They are always challenging and strengthening their own proprioceptive and vestibular systems by swinging, spinning, balancing, and so on. Lots and lots of movement and time to play are critical in the early years! The Waldorf early childhood “curriculum” is full of healthy sensory nourishment.
2. The middle and higher senses (smell, taste, sight, warmth, hearing, speech, thought, and ego) need protection from overwhelm in the early years. The smaller the child, the more important it is to avoid overstimulation. Loud noises, endless chatter, the noise and flashing lights of television, chemical smells, cold temperatures, crowds, etc. are even more overwhelming for small children than for adults. The Waldorf early childhood “curriculum” emphasizes a slow family life in the warmth of the home which is wonderful for protecting these senses.
3. Pay particular attention to warmth in the young child. Warmth refers to both physical and emotional “temperature.” Your preschooler needs soul warmth and body warmth both in order to be healthy and to be able to learn. A preschooler who is cocooned in warmth can fully relax and be open to learning, connecting, exploring, and exercising his creativity.
4. Keep in mind that children under seven do not have a fully developed sense of warmth! They don’t know if they are too cold. Often parents let young children decide how much clothing to wear without realizing that even if the child doesn’t “feel” cold the child really might not be warm enough. A preschooler’s life forces are directed towards physical development and if they are wasted on keeping the body warm they are not being used to help the child grow. One way that you can be the natural authority for your child is to make the decision about how much clothing needs to be worn to keep that little body warm. Lots of layers and hats in cool weather!
5. If you ever feel like you aren’t “doing anything” with your preschooler, consider all the many ways that your daily family life is providing a healthy sensory diet that allows your child to develop properly and has a huge effect on preventing learning problems in the grades.