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The four foundational senses

According to Waldorf Education and the deep study and research on child development at its core, we speak of twelve senses. The main task during the first 7 years of children’s life is to develop the so-called four foundational or inner senses. These senses create the child’s connection to her own body and whose sound development our Foundation Year program is designed to promote.

The middle four senses establish the child’s connection to the outer world, which are specifically nurtured in grade school years (7 to 14 years old). The last four establish the child’s connection to another human as a whole being and would usually mature in the high school years (14 to 21 years old).

The four foundational senses

The four foundational senses give us a certain consciousness of our body:

Sense of Life

This sense allows us to experience our own constitution, whether we feel well or not. When we are healthy, we are not aware of the life in us. It teaches us to pay attention to discomfort and to look after ourselves. However, children’s sense of life is often damaged by modern lifestyle; to nurture the sense of life, the right rhythm, (physical) warmth, nutrition, and sleep are very important.

Sense of Touch

This sense, besides revealing the qualities of the objects that we touch, we also learn where we end and where something else in the world begins. Touch helps us to learn about boundaries and helps us to feel separate from the things we encounter. When the sense of touch has not received enough stimulation in infancy and the early years, problems may arise. This is why free play in a natural setting with a wonderful variety of sensory stimulations is such an important feature of Waldorf early childhood education.

Sense of Movement

Also called proprioception, it gives us a sense of our joints and muscles when we move. It is developed through all kinds of movement: sitting, crawling, walking, jumping, running, etc. Performing household chores is also a great way to develop healthy movement.

Being able to move freely gives us a sense of freedom and of willpower, which is closely connected with self-motivation and perseverance as a child embarks on the learning journey.

Sense of Balance

This sense gives us our relationship to the dimensions of space: above/below, right/left and front/back. We use the sense of balance to orient ourselves in the world. Again, this sense is best developed in young children when they get to play freely in a natural setting.

Supporting academic capacities

The twelve senses are deeply interrelated. Expressed in a positive way, this means that any activity that helps one of the four lower senses will also be vital to the development of its companion higher sense. Expressed in the opposite way, so-called learning difficulties—such as inabilities to pay attention or stay with the class, struggles to form or remember thoughts, hindrances with language or listening skills—fall into the four higher sense categories. Therefore, if a child has a learning difficulty, you can look at this as a problem of incomplete development of the matching lower senses.

Therefore, our Foundation Year activities prioritise the development of the above physical senses, as throughout life these four senses transform themselves into essential elements:

  • Physical, emotional and spiritual self-consciousness
  • Empathy and social skills
  • Readiness for learning throughout the whole life

A healthy development of the four physical senses is the very foundation not only for a fulfilled school life, but for a more fulfilling life.

Further readings

Teacher Ana

Main Teacher for Foundation Year