All true understanding is rooted in the ability to perceive. The sensory experiences of the small child play a major role in the development of the senses themselves, a process which continues throughout the younger years. A further stage in the learning process is where the children become more conscious of what they see and hear. They then learn to recognise which characteristics are essential aspects of a given phenomenon. A phenomenological approach to natural sciences and the humanities plays a major role in Waldorf education, beginning in the fourth class. In the earlier classes a more lively, experiential approach is practised in all lessons.
As adults, we are faced by a world that has become largely incomprehensible. Is the world at fault? The step that leads from understanding the world to the adult's motives for responsible action, is one that is of greatest importance to the world.
So, how do children experience the world? They are exposed to a multitude of sense impressions, helpful and harmful, without being able to shut them out. Their senses are incredibly open to everything that surrounds them, to light and sound, to movements, to the changes of temperature and even to the moods of the people around them.
As childhood goes on, modern children will soon develop the ability to "switch off" in order to protect themselves from the overwhelming flood of impressions that come pouring in without any perceptible relation to any activity. In highly civilised environments children seem to have landed in a world that is "complete" to a very large extent.
Under such conditions, natural curiosity may be confined to processes of destruction, and the children's senses may need to be opened to the world around them in a new way. The manifold experiences the world has to offer will be discovered if those working with children realise their task of being temporary windows through which the child can look out into the world and find questions rising within.
Children exposed to unadulterated media experience are threatened with a loss of reality; their sense impressions will not lead them to experience or to react in a human, considered way.
Perception follows impression. Understanding follows experience. It is not the senses alone that have a decisive part to play. What is it we experience in a phenomenon? How do we relate to the world around us? How do we relate to our fellow human beings? Here, our emotional life is important. The classroom must echo to laughter and may grow silent in dismay at what the children hear and notice about the world. A
mood of pleasurable expectation and an attitude of relaxed attention are well known to be the proper environment for experiential learning. In such an atmosphere, an impression can be received and be allowed to sink in, later to be recalled and reflected on as a memory. A great deal of activity goes on in Waldorf classrooms, particularly in the early years of school. Painting and modelling, knitting and sewing (with boys as well as girls), cleaning the classroom and watering the flowers - these and many other things are regular parts of the day's work. At about nine years old, the children learn to plough and sow, they harvest the corn and thresh the grain from the husks, they grind the flour and bake bread from it.
In later years, classes visit factories; they spend two or three weeks working on farms or in homes for the disabled; they work in workshops or in forestry. All these activities depend on the situation of each individual school. But whatever is done, the aim will always be to develop the ability to take responsibility, to experience the inter-relationships of actions, to turn to the needs of the world and of the people around us. All these activities grow out of the abilities that have been acquired in artistic work and in the practice of crafts and technologies. The young adult can leave the school with a clear perception of what is around him or her, with enthusiasm that arises from the ability to understand the laws that are behind what we perceive and with the will to work in the world to answer its needs.