The small child grasps the world through its fingers and in doing so, discovers the world. Manual dexterity and cognitive activity are closely connected and play co-supportive roles in child development. Studies of the post-natal development of the nervous system show a close connection between the development of fine motor skills of speech and later cognitive skills. The Waldorf curriculum facilitates conscious working with such interrelationships, with the aim of supporting the pupils in their growth towards well-balanced individuals.
Waldorf education is essentially concerned with the healthy development of body, soul and spirit. This is not always easy to achieve given that in our modern environment, increasing emphasis is placed on intellectual work and manual work is on the decline. There are ever fewer opportunities for imitating and practising movements that are in themselves healthy. Children are often surrounded by machines that do the work. Many processes are too rapid for the eye to follow, or are hidden by complex electronic mechanisms. Children's sense perceptions are increasingly observed to be impaired in various ways.
Kant in his time already pointed to the hands as being the brain transferred to the outside. Young children first learn to walk, then to speak and then to think. Their first experiences are still pre-conscious. Young children grasp their environment with their senses and with their own individual activity. What their hands and fingers can touch and get hold of is truly "grasped". The first concepts are "grasped" and formed in this way.
During their first years, children learn by imitating everything and everybody they encounter. That is why they should experience actions around them which express love and a reasoned approach to life. Children have an urge toward perfecting their abilities. Practice becomes an important element of their lives. They find their way from play to work.
Children overcome their innate primitive reflexes and movements by means of their own activity. These are replaced by intentional movements, whose character is subtler than that of the first, innate type. In play, children acquire an unconscious image of the movements in question. Simultaneously, the finer structures of the nervous system are being developed. Speech development depends on skilful finger movement. The developmental stage of speech in an individual child can be seen by the observation of the mobility of the fingers. A large number of therapists make use of movement in order to treat developmental problems. In Waldorf Schools many special-needs teachers and curative eurythmists work in this way. Many Waldorf schools also work in this way.
In Waldorf Kindergartens and in the first grades of Waldorf schools, great stress is laid on the development of finger skills. Educators play little finger games with the children while speaking nursery rhymes or singing simple songs over and over again. Class teachers practise body geography with their classes during the first grades of school. Multiplication tables and the alphabet are acquired with the help of rhythmic walking, skipping or clapping. Poems and verses which are learnt are often also run rhythmically around the classroom or tapped with the fingers. From the first grade, painting with water colours - which takes place once a week during Main Lessons - develops artistic sensitivity at the same time as it calls for finger skills.
This form of training is continued in other subjects of the curriculum. From school entry, Waldorf classes are taught to play wooden flutes. There, the exact positioning of the fingers is essential - and easily observed by the players themselves. While playing, they watch the teacher's movements and listen to the sound they themselves are producing. During this same stage of development, boys and girls learn to sew, to crochet and to knit. What is produced, is meant for use in everyday life, from kettle holders and house shoes to shirts and shoes. The aim here is both an artistic and a utilitarian one. By training nimble fingers in these ways, Waldorf education has tried to work at making minds nimble and thoughts alive and open.