A lecture by Rudolf Steiner on the importance of free play as a determining factor in our life as adults
We see how children devote themselves to play during the first years of their lives. Giving direction and guidance to play is one of the essential tasks of sensible education, which is to say of an art of education that is right for humanity. The child plays. When one has sharpened one’s observation of the world and human life. . . one will notice the difference between the way different children play: it varies from one child to the next. To a superficial observer, almost all children play in a similar way. On closer scrutiny, one will notice that each child plays in a different way. Children’s play is quite individual. It is a remarkable thing to observe how playing in childhood means engaging in soul and spirit in a way that can only happen when the power of thought is still working within the organism, as is the case up to the time of the change of teeth. It is truly remarkable to see how the child’s soul and spirit are active in free play. The element of thought has not yet been absorbed. And it is a kind of play which comes into being without any notion of use or practicality; it is the kind of play in which the child only follows what comes from within. This seems to contradict the principle of imitation. The way the child lives into play originates in the freedom of the child’s soul, but only seemingly so. For when one observes more exactly, one will see how children incorporate everything they experience in the world they live in. Everything that is going on around the child is put into the play activity. When one has sharpened one’s powers of observation in this respect, one will no longer look upon play of this kind as something interesting, something which just happens in a certain phase of the child’s life. One will put playing in perspective and view its character in the context of a total biography.
Only then, by learning through comparison, will one learn to observe what is taking place in the different phases of a human life. In the mineral world, one can compare zinc and copper. In the animal world, one can compare, say, a June bug to a ladybug. All kinds of comparisons of this kind can be made. In exactly the same way one can compare the different stages of human life to one another. When we have developed an eye for this in the way characterized today, we will discover something highly remarkable. We will discover the consequences of children’s play for later stages of life. We will see the outcome of the particular character of play, and what it leads to later on in life. Using tangible experiences as a starting point, one is led to the phase of life that lies more or less between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-eight, the time of life during which people find their way into the world and have to grapple with real-life experience. This is when one takes one’s first steps towards becoming independent and comes up against life. This phase constitutes a metamorphosis of the particular character of the way a person used to play as a child. Before the change of teeth, the child has freely created out of its own soul activity, using dolls and other play materials; a certain pattern or structure of activity became visible there. When one has learned to discern and recognize this, one will see how characteristic traits return between the ages of twenty and thirty. What became visible as play characteristics during early childhood can be recognized in the way a person acts when confronted with the demands of real life. When a person comes up against serious things in terms of what works and does not work in life; when faced with matters of usefulness and practicality: in those circumstances, we can see a reemerging of an attitude which showed itself in free play earlier on.
Just think what this means. We want to educate effectively and know: you observe a characteristic disposition in the play of a child; you guide and direct it now and this will bear fruit twenty years from now, when this person will be coming to terms with the world, a world which should be useful to him and in which he should find his proper place. Just think what feelings arise in the soul of the early childhood educator, who realizes: what I accomplish with this child, I accomplish for the grown-up person in his twenties. What matters here is not so much a knowledge of abstract educational principles or pedagogical rules which one can produce from an intellectual basis to determine didactic steps. What does matter is that a deep sense of responsibility develops in our hearts when we view life in this way. Real knowledge of the human being does not only speak to our intellects; it speaks to both our hearts and minds and affects our worldview and the way we stand in life. It moves us through and through and works right into our sense of responsibility as teachers. We are not merely looking for an art of education that cleverly calculates the most effective educational methods that could be applied, but we are searching for an art of education which is such that it truly meets the human condition of our time, and which acts on the basis of true insight into the nature of the human being. Such knowledge gives us a sense of responsibility that is, at the same time, a social sense of responsibility towards the whole of humanity. The art of education springs from fundamental feelings, which can only arise in us from a true view of the world.
Rudolf Steiner : 6/10/1920, in GA 335, Education in the Face of the Present-day World Situation,