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Equilibrium, language and thinking – Essential mile-stones in child development.

The human being is a subtle balancing of potential instabilities. This may be seen already in the achievement of the child's first steps and proceeds through the acquisition of humanity's most distinctive and flexible tool, language. That the acquisition of language and the awakening of thought proceed parallel to one another is now widely recognised. Observations of these development stages point to the fact that movement affects physiological development thus laying the foundation of cognition. This threefold process continues to work on in the child's development in later years, being deepened and enhanced. An understanding of this co-supportive relationship and its transformation in a child´s development builds the basis of the Waldorf curriculum.

In the first three years of their lives, children go through stages which are of the greatest significance to the whole of human development. The three abilities that are acquired during this period characterise what is specifically human. In upright walking, in language and in conceptual thinking, humans distinguish themselves from all other species.

Children first overcome the force of gravity through stretching up and reaching out. After establishing an inner sense of balance they begin to master their surroundings, walking on two feet. At about the same time children acquire the ability to speak and gradually develop the basis of independent thoughts. The child begins to ask what this or that means and also shows the first signs of personal memory.

When the ability to stand and walk are acquired, the arms become free to hold and to shape the objects within reach. Now gurgling turns to babbling, sounds are formed, words are spoken, then they are grouped. At first "Ma-ma" or "A-ma" mean anything to do with Mother. Then differentiation set in: "Ma-ma come", "Ma-ma hungry", etc. Learning to walk establishes a new relation to space. Speech establishes a new relation to the people around and to oneself. Just as the bones of the skeleton and the muscles are re-shaped and gradually approach their final forms by means of the activity needed to stand erect, so the more delicate muscles now develop which are needed for speech and for the changing expressions of the face itself. Speech, after all, is truly a miracle of co-ordination. Physically, speech depends on the activity of over a hundred minute muscles and requires the continuous control over organs such as the tongue and the larynx. Through the act of speaking, the child transforms the rudimentary structure of the speech organs into something adapted to the needs of communication. Learning to speak does not only bring about changes in the bodily organism of the child, the life of the soul becomes more and more differentiated. Naturally the language the very young child perceives also has a powerful effect on the development of mental and emotional faculties. The qualities and distinctiveness of the child's linguistic environment provide a model for the differentiation of the child's own inner life. A child who grows up in surroundings where only impoverished or careless speech can be heard will naturally be limited in their developmental opportunities.

Walking and speaking form the basis for the development of thought. Children begin to name the things around them, to relate them to one another and to express these relations in words. They begin to know that they have not yet understood something and to ask questions. This rudimentary form of thought is still bound up with the activity of movement and with the structuring of speech. Through our upright posture and bifocal frontal vision we confront the world from a unique position which gives us the basis of our world view. The structure of early language is closely related to spatial experiences which express relationships between subject and object, activity and location. the exploration of these spatial relationships and their internalising in speech forms not only forms the basis for syntax but also for conceptual cognition. Through speech children form a connection between self and world and acquire the faculty of relating to the world about them.

The first three years of the child, in which upright movement, speech and thought are acquired, show that the physical organisation of the human being is the basis for the development and exercise of mental abilities. The development of ability, of course, depends on the child's own activity. The task of parents and educators of very young children is to create as secure and harmonious a space as possible within which the child's own activity can unfold.

Jon McAlice

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