The first 3 years of childhood touch us all in deep and mysterious ways. What powerful feelings are called up in us when we witness the sheer joy of a young child taking his first step; the total trust that children of this age give to us adults; or the helplessness of a toddler lost in a supermarket crying desperately for his mother. This is a period that establishes the foundations for life that will profoundly influence our physical and psycho-spiritual wellbeing. It is a time of innocence, absolute truthfulness and relative helplessness, where the child is at the mercy of a potentially hostile environment.

This vital period of childhood is threatened and compromised in countless ways. Parents, educators, health care givers and all those who love children, need to recognise the extreme importance of these years for later life and to protect the child against the hazards of an ever-increasing materialistic and technological age. We can do this best when we learn to respect the world of early childhood and to value its gift for every individual and for humanity as a whole. Insight into the powerful forces working in the young child will help us to reclaim the child in ourselves, which can help us find fulfillment in our lives. This article is a humble attempt to say something about the greatness of this life period.


The growing child belongs to both the physical and spiritual worlds. Physically the child contains all the components of the mineral-chemical elements which are dependent on the laws of earthly nature. But the child contains MUCH more than this – he or she is imbued with other non-physical forces that give the physical organism firstly the capacity to be alive, to grow and develop; then also the ability to be conscious and sensitive to what goes on inside and outside and to bear an inner life expressed through the soul functions of thinking, feeling and will; and finally to harbour within it the power that makes the child truly human: creating a knowing consciousness/awareness of self as well as a unique individuality.

The physical make-up is provided by the germ cells of the mother and father. The non-physical dimension (the spiritual), comes from elsewhere. Conception is the moment when the child’s psycho-spiritual nature unites with the inherited fertilised egg cell. Thus begins the child’s odyssey on earth and all further development is an expression of this journey into the physical world. The embryonic development unfolds in an awesomely precise and coordinated way. The psycho-spiritual energetic make-up responsible for the three non-physical functional dimensions of: conscious sensitivity; thinking, feeling and will; and a knowing awareness of self as an individual take hold of and transform the inherited body progressively through further development. For approximately 280 days the embryo, and later the foetus, is protected in the womb of the mother by the three sheaths of water, air-light and warmth that make up the placenta. Then, at the appointed hour, the journey towards birth begins. The labour of natural birth and the casting off of the child’s protective mantle is the first momentous challenge the child undertakes on his journey into the physical world.


The child is born. The physical body is set free from the sheaths created for its growth and protection within the mother’s womb. The physical environment can now work on it: the child draws in his first breath of air – holds for an instant within it this cosmic moment – and then presses out a cry as if in pain, born of the feeling I have left something behind, something true and precious. The first rhythmic in-out breath of the lungs has begun. One may often observe after this first breath a particular kind of peace that descends on the child as if it were saying I will strive to carry some of what I have left behind with me at least for a certain time even though the light that shines on me is now the outer sun and the earthly forces of gravity press down on me. Thus the newborn child belongs to two worlds: the world of earthly matter and another more ‘heavenly’ world.


We can sense that during the first three years of life the child is not fully of this world. He is spiritually connected much more closely to another unseen dimension. If we pay close attention to the child’s inner nature we will get a sense of this other reality. Children speak of a world of elemental forces, and even see in rocks, water, air and fire, something living and real. They are completely at home in the world of gnomes, fairies, water and fire spirits. Angels are as natural and real to them as the food they eat. The child’s self is more present outside than inside and he is therefore able to connect himself intimately with everything he perceives both in the outer world around as well as in his inner life. When he plays with water he becomes water, living in the forces present in water, when he drinks milk he becomes the milk flowing through his body. See how the suckling child’s fingers and toes move rhythmically when drinking from the breast.

Because the young child is still so closely connected to the spiritual world, he is not fully present in the physical body; the child is therefore not yet conscious of himself as a separate individual, not yet able to work, as it were, out of his own physical body. Instead a wisdom and a power of a higher nature is able to direct the development of the child in this early phase. This higher self-standing outside the physical body is powerfully connected with the forces that will give him the very functions he requires for his existence in the physical body. Only gradually will he penetrate the body, and each developmental milestone that the child achieves is an expression of this incarnation process. Thus working deeply into the bodily nature, this higher wisdom provides the creative forces that bring into being three essentially human characteristics: the ability to stand upright, to think and to speak.

At certain critical moments in his development every child ‘knows’ what he has to do:

  •    He pulls himself upright. We witness the child’s exultation at finding this moment of freedom that will allow him to make free use of his hands and to take his first steps into free movement.
  • He fashions his brain to become the instrument for thinking, enabling him to name the world of perceptions so that he may consciously know himself and the world.
  • He develops his larynx and learns to speak, thereby creating the means for communication with his fellow man.

These three essential instruments of the higher self, necessary for the child’s journey in the physical world, are thus laid down during the first three years of life. Only once these functions are in place can the child’s ‘I’ take proper possession of the body. This will happen in the third year when in a glorious moment the child discovers that he is separate from the world around him and addresses himself as ‘I’ for the first time. What a gift it is to witness this special moment. Now memory can develop for the first time; the child can now remember things about himself because for the first time he stands in his ‘I’ separate from the world around him.


The developmental journey of the infant child proceeds in a very specific set way following ordered laws of development. The neuro-sensory system grows at a much faster rate than the cardiovascular-respiratory system or the metabolic-motor organ systems. The brain and sense organs are functionally well developed within the first year whereas the metabolic organ systems such as the digestive organs and the limbs remain relatively undeveloped. This is also illustrated by the size of the head compared with the size of the limbs at different developmental stages.

Likewise the pulse and respiration are often irregular in the early years. On the other hand, the psychological function of thinking, which is connected to the neuro-sensory system, is poorly developed in the first years, whereas the function of volitional activity or will, connected to the metabolic-motor organ system, is certainly the most active psychological function during this early life period. The young child is unbridled activity and creativity; the awake infant is in constant movement, the toddler is always busy doing and exploring. In this way the child physically grows down from the head to the limbs.

This means that physiologically the young child develops his neuro-sensory organisation first and lives strongly out of this system. The spherical tendency of the head predominates throughout the body: the head, chest region and trunk have a more spherical form than later on, all the muscles are rounder, young children love to move in circles, and early drawings always start from the sphere. Psychologically, however, the child develops from volitional activity to thinking. This means that the child’s psychological functions manifest through the unconscious will of basic drives and constant movement, progressing gradually to acquiring an independent life of feeling and a picture-like thought life.

This close correspondence between biological and psychological functions and development has major implications for the wellbeing and future health of the growing child.

We shall see in the June issue (part 2 of this article) how these developmental principles can be applied in practical life, i.e. how to allow the child to express his creative will in a healthy way and how to enhance the healthy development of the nerves and senses.

Further reading:

  1.    Salter J. The Incarnating Child. Stroud, Gloucester shire: Hawthorn Press, 1987.
  2. Lievegoed B. Phases of Childhood. Edinburgh: Floris Books, Anthroposophic Press, 1987.
  3. Steiner R. Multiple references from The Complete Works. Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag or London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1997.
  4. Steiner R. The Spiritual Guidance of Mankind. Spring Valley, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1983.
  5. Louw DA, Van Ede DM, Louw AE. Human Development. 2nd ed. Cape Town: Kagiso Publishers, 1998.