Nature study begins in grade 1, embedded in the narrative part of the lessons and in “general knowledge”. The children hear about the human being’s kinship with all the kingdoms of nature, but not in a way that involves scientific explanations. “Not scientific” here means not geared towards the elucidation of natural laws, not leading up to, or introducing, classification schemes. Of course, this in no way implies that it means “fanciful”, “woolly”, “contrived” or “incongruous”; rather it refers to using imagination to express the essential quality of a natural phenomenon. For instance, through the teacher’s words an oak can become much “oakier” than the oak tree in the park; in a conversation with a pony in the meadow, the cow can reveal her nature much more fully than a holiday encounter with one. In a similar way, the animal and plant fables and legends of the saints (e.g. Francis, Beatus, Brendan) told in grade 2 make a contribution to nature study. The creativity of the teacher can also play its part in the invention and telling of little “teaching stories”.
In grade 3 the Old Testament creation story gives a pictorial account of the coming-into-being of the earth, plants, animals and humanity. Subsequent to the comprehensive complexity of this narrative, a more selective, concrete description of certain plants and animals is then given in the context of the agriculture main-lesson. It is important here that the experience of plants and animals “as they really are” be permeated by the teacher – as they will then also be for the child – with a sense of gratitude, respect and reverence for the creation. There can be no question here of inculcating these feelings into the child in a sentimental way. They can grow out of a mental attitude to the earth as an arena of complementary relationships and human responsibility for all the kingdoms of nature. Objectifying nature, however, is not necessary (or, indeed, possible) in the first three years of school, for the child’s being is still very much bound up with it. At a time when nature is being destroyed on a global scale, the teaching of nature study, which is, in effect, first steps in ecology, attains a special urgency. Steiner’s intention was that this subject should provide concrete experience of the reciprocal dynamics of nature:
“Just as the world of the plants should be related to the earth and the child should learn to think of it as the offspring of a living earth-organism, so should the animal-world as a whole be related to man. The child is thus enabled in a living way to find his own place in Nature and in the world. He begins to understand that the plant-tapestry belongs to the living earth. On the other hand, however, we teach him to realize that the various animals spread over the world represent, in a certain sense, stages of a path to the human state.” (Rudolf Steiner GA 307, 13.08.1923 (German edition 1986, p.167))
The Waldorf principle of always proceeding from the whole to the parts, which, of course, applies to the teaching of nature study, obviates the need for “environmental studies” as a separate subject, since it predisposes the students to a holistic turn of mind.
If nature study be regarded as also having the task of exploring the kingdoms of nature, thus drawing the child ever closer to the earth in a more conscious way, then this subject can begin in grade 4 with something the child can most easily relate to. Animal study in combination with consideration of the human being is a suitable place to start. Indeed, the bodily organisation of the human being in terms of head-, chest- and limb-system provides both starting point and structure of the main lesson. “The animal kingdom, especially its higher forms, is much more readily accessible to being understood in physiognomic terms than are the still, silent forms of the plant world. For an animal’s alert and active inner life is expressed in its form, movements and behaviour. The animal is not a frozen image of a single soul impulse, as in the case of a plant, it is thoroughly permeated with the energy of an ongoing inner life, of desires and drives, passions and instincts, likes and dislikes, various degrees of wakefulness and other kinds of inner activity.” (Kranich 1993: p. 189)
While this might be thought quite naturally to lead to the theme of sex education, in the primary school (grades 1 to 4) this theme need not to be explicitly addressed.
Animal study continues in class 5. Plant study (classes 5 and 6) then turns from the world of instincts etc. to one more akin to thinking, but the thinking done in the lessons is still conducted in a pictorially concrete manner. In “understanding” plants the child should mainly experience feelings of joy, at moments when his or her “eyes are opened” to little details and wider relationships.
For the study of animals and the human being the three-fold organisation of the human organism into head-, chest- and limb system can be taken as the basic frame of reference. On the botanical side the approach can evoke an evolutionary relationship between humans and plants, but above all it should bring out their relationship to the human soul. “Having made clear the relationship between man and animal, the attempt must also be made to clarify the relationship between man and plant […] While the animal world must be compared more to the bodily nature of man, the plant world must be compared more to the soul-nature of man […] The very fact of the human soul’s relationship to the plant world must form the basis of how you show the order of plant life itself.” (Rudolf Steiner GA 295, 30.08.1919 and 02.09.1919 (German edition 1984, p. 103, 109, 122)). A detailed account of the method involved here is found in Pflanzen als Bilder der Seelenwelt by E-M Kranich, and much useful methodological insight may also be found in Thinking like a plant by Craig Holdrege, and New eyes for plants by Margaret Colquhoun and Axel Ewald. In addition, Steiner’s advice is to describe the evolutionary stages leading up to today’s plants in a way that draws a parallel with the development of the human being from infant to adult.
A further aspect worth pursuing is the life of the plant in relation to the seasonal changes of earth and sun, widening this then to take in the whole earth. Much in the way of discoveries will occur on excursions and local walks. In this connection it should be noted that for this age-group it is important not to give explanations out in the field, but to characterise beforehand what the children are likely to encounter, and then, in looking back on the experience, bring things into the sphere of understanding. Otherwise observation will always be associated with explanation. It is important that the experience is sequenced in a way that children first are allowed to establish a connection to plants. Once that has happened, they will continue to feel kinship and connection.
If in botany the forms of plants are predominantly characterised in relation to soul-qualities, observing and describing minerals is done more in a way that appeals to, and schools, causal logic. “We keep the minerals till last because for them almost nothing but the power of logical discrimination is necessary and this does not call upon anything through which man is related to the outside world.” (Rudolf Steiner GA 294, 15.09.1919 (German edition 1990, p. 190)) – “Minerals can be understood in terms of cause and effect, as can the physical world in general.” ( Rudolf Steiner GA 307, 16.08.1923 (German: edition 1986, p. 224) Of course, here also the approach should be from the whole to the parts: first the configuration of a mountain range, then the rock, and then the minerals it contains.
Thus, via animal study and botany, we have advanced into the “dead” realm of mineralogy. Whereas the threefold structure of the human body, and later the picture of the human being’s inner nature, first formed the background to nature study, now, in mineralogy, this triune principle becomes clearly visible in the threefold structure of granite or the three main rock-types (sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous). In this way the bodily structure of the human being forms the main theme of nature study in the following four classes (i.e. through the middle school to class 10).
It is precisely during puberty that it is important to find the proper relationship to one’s own body. This creates the basis for taking responsibility not only for one’s own personal wellbeing (Health and Nutrition, class 7), but also in relation to others and to the world. This involves taking account of the differences between the sexes, and also of how the laws of the “outside world” express themselves in the form of the skeleton, the mechanics of muscles and bones, the function of the eye and of the larynx. (Human biology, class 8).
The demands upon the pedagogical skill of the teacher are greatest in connection with the theme of sex education in the middle school (grades 5 to 8). Since physical and psychological development are now likely to diverge (puberty shifted earlier, inner development later), the situation is fraught with special difficulties and dangers. At the same time, however, this provides opportunities to address young people in new ways. During these years it is essential to make space in lessons for the topics of pubertal development, reproduction and sexuality. Bringing in an outside specialist to deal with this subject is an option here, but in doing so teachers would be giving up the possibility of using a Waldorf approach to helping the students in their development in a way appropriate to their needs.
With the process of sexual, or, as Steiner called it, earthly maturity, the whole question of how to define the nature and limits of the human being takes on a new tone of urgent immediacy. “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” – these questions live as constant preoccupations in the souls of young people, even though they usually only speak of them in a cryptic or reserved way. All attempts to offer a definitively fixed answer here (the human being is “a product of his environment”, “the slave of his genes”, “an egotist, controlled by urges and desires”, “what he eats”, “a naked ape” etc.) are both factually and methodologically insupportable. Factually: the human being is characterised by the fact that he is always in process of becoming and never finished. Methodologically: the child, or later the adolescent, has the right to participate in the gradual unfolding of the idea of the human being from a variety of perspectives. This is one of the most important aims in the teaching of nature study and (human) biology. In this context we should not speak of an “image of the human being”, for this implies ready-made knowledge. “Of course, in this case you must remember to give children something that can remain for the rest of life. You may not give children dead, unchanging concepts about the details of life. You must give them living concepts about the specifics of life in the world, concepts that develop organically with the children. However, you must relate everything to the human being. In the end, everything in the children’s comprehension must stream together into their concept of the human being. The concept of the human being may remain. Everything you provide children when you tell them a story and relate it to humans – when you relate the squid and mouse to humans in natural history, when you excite a feeling of wonder for the telegraph that is completed by the ground wire – all of these things that connect the whole world in its details to the human being. This is something that can remain. We form the concept of human being only slowly, we cannot teach children a finished concept of the human being.” (Rudolf Steiner 1996, GA 293, 1.9.1919, (german edition p. 155)). The Foundations of Human Experience, translated by Robert F Lathe and Nancy Parsons Whittaker.