The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Seven-year rhythms, birth ether body, birth astral body, birth of the I, three-step, heuristics, maturation steps, teacher autonomy, teacher competence, teacher responsibility
By: M. Michael Zech, May 2019, Revised article from the Journal of the Pedagogical Section No. 42

“Seven-year Periods” as heuristic tools – or: why Waldorf Education works

This essay deals with Steiner's development concept of seven-year rhythms and its differentiation. The author Michael Zech is of the opinion that Steiner built up a heuristic instrument for the description or diagnosis of individual development with these data and not a description of the actual or only correct development and maturation processes of humans. He concludes: „As teachers we can only achieve the balance between a collective and individualized approach if we relate the ideal-typical concept to actual individual situations. It is this – and not the postulation of a development in seven-year periods which does not exist in real life – that forms the foundation of autonomy, competence and responsibility in teaching.“

Steiner first introduced his concept of human development in seven-year periods in a small book published in 1907 under the title The Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science. (1) The concept derives from the theosophical-anthroposophical view that we incarnate gradually into the different levels of our organization and is based on the ancient idea of human development proceeding in hebdomadal (=seven-year) steps. (2) In that publication Steiner set out the following ideal-typical development: at birth we emancipate from the maternal body; at the age of seven imaginative thinking is set free from the body-centred life forces or formative forces (birth of the ether body); at the age of fourteen, with puberty, when the ether body is fully incarnated and the soul life integrated in the physical organism, our soul organism connects to the thinking and can form the foundation for independent judgment (birth of the soul or astral body) and I- maturity; and finally, at the age of 21, we achieve conscious awareness of our physical and mental processes and actions (birth of the I). Steiner’s image of the fourfold birth describes not only the ideal-typical development of our individual foundation at body, life, soul and mind level, but also the progressive emancipation of those four levels from each other that forms the foundation of self-awareness and self-control.


In his lectures on education Steiner further differentiates the ideal-typical maturation process by subdividing each seven-year period into three phases. After the physical birth mostly unconscious processes prevail as the organism is built up and motor and perceptual skills develop through imitation. During that phase learning is unreflective and will-based. With the ability to remember that children acquire in their third year events turn into experiences that are increasingly penetrated by cognition from the fifth year.


In the second seven-year period, when learning is mostly based on the child’s emotional relationship with the lesson content and the individuality of the teacher, we can also discern three phases. The initially more unconscious process of learning through (joyfully) joining in and doing changes in the tenth year with the emergence of the subject-object relationship that has also been described by Piaget: children are now more conscious of their separateness from the world around them and differentiate between inner experiences and outer perception. A keen interest in discovery arises as well as the need for contextualization of the multiple perceptions and creative learning processes. From the age of twelve the child’s imaginative powers recede with the growing need to grasp hold of the world and its causal connections through thinking. Experiences and discoveries are now cognitively permeated and worked through. Piaget referred to this change as the transition from concrete operational to formal operational thinking.


The main aspect of adolescence is, according to Steiner, the development of the power of independent judgement. Again, we can distinguish different phases in the course of which the power of judgment becomes more reflective because it is decreasingly informed by subjective and idealist naivety and increasingly by wider aspects and the readiness to take on responsibility.


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As learning in adolescence (and analogously in the first two seven-year periods) proceeds ideal-typically from body-related processes to conscious knowledge, an emancipation from the affective ties to the body takes place and, at the same time, the self incarnates and, with the independent thinking that marks the coming of age, truly self-directed actions become possible. We could therefore add to the development that proceeds (three times) from will through feeling to thinking, a movement in the opposite direction during which the I gains the capacity of self-directed action. This movement is expression of the gradual incarnation of the individuality from which we derive the stages of school maturity, the beginning of adolescence and coming of age.


It is often overlooked, even within the Waldorf movement, that Steiner added a second concept to the platonic ideal-typical developmental concept which he never envisaged to be a description of actual reality. That second concept makes each development individual, as Steiner pointed out. In a lecture given in Berlin in 1913 (3) he described how the ideal-typical (cosmic) hebdomadal cycles of body-based development are intersected and individualized by the emerging self-awareness that accounts for the fact that we do not refer to ourselves as “I” only when we are 21 but at the age of two or three. Steiner referred to the processes that are related to our awakening self-awareness as “Luciferic” anticipation. Due to those processes human development not only proceeds along biological lines but is subjected to considerable mental and cultural influences. Individual consciousness does not evolve with chronological regularity but under the influence of its inherent biographical intentions.


Steiner’s first concept characterizes the bodily foundation of human development in evolutionary, that is, generally human terms. His second concept refers to the incarnation of the human individuality, which Steiner sees as an entity of soul and spirit that existed before birth and has experienced repeated incarnations. According to Steiner we cannot educate this individuality or self. It manifests early, in the third year, as verbally pronounced self-awareness and, in incarnating, it individualizes the bodily development outlined above. (That development acquires greater specificity due to cultural and environmental influences which need to be systematically interpreted). In Steiner’s view education should aim to establish conditions for the body’s development that will allow the individuality to realize itself within and through that foundation. Education therefore facilitates individuation if learning and self-realization can take place in the dialogue between the foundation provided by general human evolution and the individual self. (4)


Contrary to the naïve view that sees in the hebdomadal concept temporal or qualitative development targets or even an account of actual processes of human development or maturation, Steiner – in my view – intended his ideal-typical schematic model, on the one hand, as an experiential tool for the description or diagnosis of individual development (which does not mean that development is only right if it follows this model). On the other hand he saw it as the fundamental principle of an education where all learning-based processes take place in the dialogue between the physical, psychological and mental potential and the approaching self of the growing person. In allocating to each phase of maturation typical latent questions that education has to respond to, Steiner’s concept corresponds to that of the ‘developmental tasks’ used in today’s developmental psychology. These tasks, or latent questions, are motivated by anthropological and psychosocial preconditions (maturation) and, at the same time, they constitute educational aims in that they have to create these preconditions. In other words: an education that focuses on stages of maturation promotes and presupposes development: depending on the maturity and pedagogical progress achieved it can either build on particular preconditions or it has to first create them. According to Steiner such an education is effective because it focuses on principles that underlie every biography even though the developmental processes differ in each individual case.


If we educate on the basis of Steiner’s concept we ‘cultivate’ in the above sense rather than focus on actual biological phases. These phases – and that was the case also in Steiner’s time – can   be deferred or the various levels (of physical, psychological and mental development) can diverge, which means that development on these levels or the differentiated maturation of physical body, ether body, astral body and I are not in synchrony. If we teach the various ages, in content and methods, according to Steiner’s concept we facilitate development. And if, as Waldorf education requests, we educate to support individuation, we must not systematically focus on these phases, but analyse and interpret the situation we find in a class or in the individual pupil on the basis of that concept. We can only derive appropriate teaching contents and methods from the concept if we apply it heuristically, acknowledging each individual situation for what it is. Only then will our teaching truly address the growing child or adolescent. 


The obvious objection that the Waldorf concept of developmental psychology tries to make individual maturation processes fit into a general scheme is justified if the concept is not applied in dialogue with the reality of the individuation process. The human individuality, on the other hand, will be better able to take hold of the bodily foundation, according to Steiner, if we consider bodily development in educating, because individuation, that is, the incarnation of the self into its bodily foundation, can then proceed in the best possible way. Steiner identifies two possible obstacles that can hinder the unfolding individuality: either the self remains ineffective, which means that decisions and intentions are not put into practice because the connection between the self’s intentions and the bodily foundation has not been established or fostered, or, the body is predominant because the self cannot consciously emancipate itself from its natural foundation. We need to consider this dual threat to individual freedom for Steiner’s educational intention to become apparent. By establishing a relationship between the human individuality and the universally (i.e. cognitively) interpreted principle of evolution we can create a sustainable basis for individuation.


A concept like “Rubicon crisis,” which is the technical term in Waldorf education for the transition of the individual to a more consciously experienced subject-object relationship that occurs – ideal-typically – in the child’s tenth year (Piaget refers to it as the entrance into the phase of concrete operational thinking), does not serve to justify a rigid curriculum. It serves rather as a differentiated analyzing tool that can be used to describe an aspect of maturation from which we can derive whether the learning process can build on a particular capacity and/or whether it has to facilitate or bring about a particular developmental step. If we therefore apply an approach to teaching that differentiates the phenomena of the world, in the study of animals or plants for instance, it will work “age-appropriately” if the relevant physical and mental preconditions have been prepared by development and education. And it will constitute a challenge if it encourages children to change the way they learn and experience the world. As teachers we can only achieve the balance between a collective and individualized approach if we relate the ideal-typical concept to actual individual situations. It is this – and not the postulation of a development in seven-year periods which does not exist in real life – that forms the foundation of autonomy, competence and responsibility in teaching.  


Translated by Margot Saar



Michael Zech, Dr., Professor of Cultural Studies and their Didactics at the Alanus University for Art and Society in Bonn/ Alfter, Germany. National and international lecturer in Waldorf Education, History and Literature since 1992. Since 2006, he has been leading the teacher training seminar for Waldorf Education in Kassel/Germany. Research and publications in the fields of Waldorf education and didactics, in particular didactics of history.



(1)   Rudolf Steiner: The Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science.

(2)   The ancient hebdomadal tradition was known in Jewish and Greek culture. Cf. Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher: Die Hebdomadenlehren der griechischen Philosophen und Ärzte. Südwestdeutscher Verlag für Hochschulschriften. ISBN 978-3-86932-168-4, Paperback, 252 pages.

(3)   Rudolf Steiner: Das Leben zwischen dem Tode und einer neuen Geburt im Verhältnis zu den kosmischen Tatsachen. GA 141 (Lecture given in Berlin on 14 January 1913), p. 116-118. Published in English as Life Between Death and Rebirth.

(4)   Cf. Rudolf Steiner: Erfahrungen des Übersinnlichen. Die drei Wege der Seele zu Christus. GA 143 (Lecture given in Stockholm on 16 April 1912), p.119

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