Early childhood – the first years of life, from birth until the beginning of the change of teeth around age six or seven – marks a period of growth and development like no other. Four months after birth, children have typically doubled their body weight. Then, it is doubled again at age three and age nine. The child is literally building his or her physical body out of the substances of the world around. The child is taking in the world and making it a part of it his or her own, thus laying the foundations for his or her activity in the world during the rest of life.
For this building process, it is not enough to simply take in good and healthy nutrition. As the child’s organs mature, there is an intricate architecture that is being developed – and nowhere more so than in the child’s central nervous system. From a relatively undifferentiated organ at birth, the brain and its associated organ systems evolve into a sophisticated instrument that is able to support the child’s consciousness to the point where, around the age of six or seven, the child becomes able to sustain an independent inner life of fantasy, imagination, and mental pictures. With this, the prerequisites for all further cognitive development are established.
Where does the child find the blueprint for this developing neurological architecture? It finds it in sensory experience. The development of the central nervous system takes place under the formative influence of the child’s sensory environment. Before birth, the child is not yet directly exposed to this environment. The mother’s body mediates any sense impressions that do penetrate. Also, there is not yet any differentiated experience of the body itself. Before birth, it is suspended in liquid, in a muffled, body-temperature environment, with very limited possibilities for movement. At birth, all of this changes radically: The child now begins to experience his or her body as separate from the rest of the world. Through the awakening sense of touch, an ever clearer experience of the boundaries of the body comes about. At first, perceptions of the wellbeing of the body itself – experiences of hunger, pain, comfort and discomfort – are much stronger than those of the outer environment of sight and sound.
In the course of the first year, the child’s chaotic and reflex-driven movement becomes integrated from the head down, until the child is able to stand upright and walk independently. As the child takes hold of his or her movement and finds a relationship to the forces of gravity, the sensory world outside the body opens up more and more. The child takes in everything he or she sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. This is the other side of the nourishment needed to build up the body: the nourishment of the senses that guides the child’s activity in the world.
Through imitation – at first immediate, then ever more sophisticated – young children embody what they experience around them. And in embodying those experiences and activities, they work on building and forming the organs of their own bodies. So it is the sensory environment and the experiences it offers – of rocks, plants and animals, of people and what they do, and of the activities that the child is invited to participate in – that provide the blueprint for the child’s construction of his or her own body, of his or her brain and nervous system. Those, then, are the all important factors in early childhood education: the conditions that allow for the healthy maturing of the child’s growing physical organism.
Whether that process appears smooth and effortless, or beset with bumps and roadblocks, there is never a time when education can work as deeply into the constitution of the growing child as in the early years. By being included and bathed in the atmosphere of playful activity created by their peers, those children who face more significant challenges in integrating their sensory capacities, developing their motor capacities and establishing themselves as actors in the social world can participate in experiences that would otherwise be unavailable. And those children, who find this process easier and more straightforward, can practice perceptiveness for other human beings that lay the foundation for enhanced future capacities of social awareness. This inclusive approach to early childhood education is the mission and purpose of the Meadowsweet Early Childhood Center at Camphill Special School.
By Jan Christopher Goeschel, Director of Camphill Academy