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Handwork: Foundation for the 12 Senses

Updated: Mar 9, 2023


We are mid-stream in our second Handwork and the 12 Senses summer conference, and I want to share some personal insights I have experienced. Perhaps they will encourage you to investigate this seemingly complex but very important topic. The senses are the way we and our students apprehend – literally “come to grips with” – the reality of our surroundings.


Many are very familiar with five senses – touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. Steiner’s framework of the 12 senses does not ‘add’ seven additional senses; they are not re-arranged. He re-thinks and re-interprets the way we apprehend and connect with the world through our physical body. Steiner offers us a much deeper, broader, and more meaningful understanding of the human being.


Just like Waldorf Education itself - which is not science, math, and language arts, ‘plus’ a couple of extras (like handwork!) - he integrates all our capacities and includes even the more intangible aspects of the human being. The 12 senses offer a comprehensive picture of how we make sense of ourselves, the world - and each other!


The nature of a human being – child or adult – is at the center of the picture, and just like our understanding of child development, the senses change, develop, and metamorphose with time and maturity. The higher senses are always present, ready to grow, ripen, and evolve into a much deeper and more comprehensive way to ‘grasp’ our surroundings.


Typically, the 12 Senses are grouped into three sets of four (although some authors, and Steiner himself, might re-arrange them a little):

  • 4 basic, or physical, senses, which help us to know our own body: Touch; Life (or ‘Well-being’); Self-Movement; Balance.

  • 4 middle senses, which help us to meet the outer world: Warmth; Taste; Smell, Sight.

  • 4 upper senses, which help us to understand the higher nature of the other human being: Sound or Hearing; Word or Speech; Thought or Concept; sense for the ‘I’ of oneself and of others.


All of these are present, just as all capacities are present in each child from the beginning, but some are in a more latent state. The higher senses will develop and unfold over time, based in large part on the care and development we have given to the lower foundational senses. In handwork, I see students whose sense of touch may not be very differentiated in first grade, but by the time they are in third grade, they will be able to look across the room and use their sense of sight to see, for example, which ball of yarn is cotton, and which is wool. This sense of touch, if supported and nurtured, will continue to grow and develop. Touch is the most obvious sense for handwork teachers, so being aware of the place of this sense in the whole framework will mean we are teaching to the whole human being. Touch has always intrigued me since I heard about the importance of natural materials, which in themselves ‘educate’ the sense of touch to discern authenticity. We might think of the sense of touch as an ability to experience boundaries, yet at the very same time, it is also the ability to experience intimate connection. This very basic of the basic senses can later transform into the ability to discern authenticity in others. We could say we are working to educate a forty-year-old within the first grader that we teach to knit!


The deeper meaning of another sense that particularly intrigued me is the sense of self-movement – and how this can link to a perception of one’s path in life – tracing our steps to where we are now. I will have to think more about this.


One sense which I now understand much better is the sense of hearing, which Steiner includes in the ‘upper’ senses. Physiologically, hearing is linked to the sense of balance (localized in the three semi-circular canals in the ear) and keeps us upright, but how? If it fails for just one moment, I’d fall out of my chair. I have been aware of the difference between hearing and sight for many years. Sight is selective; we can look at one thing at a time, or we can close our eyes. We can reach out and almost touch something with our sense of sight (Steiner uses the phrase ‘an etheric arm’). By contrast, our sense of hearing is able to capture many impressions at the same time – the birds outside, the washing machine in the next room, the sound of the keys as I type these words, the neighbor’s gardener. According to Steiner, hearing also allows us to hear what is ‘within’ the source of the sound – am I knocking on wood or metal? Is my friend on the phone sad or angry? More than this, an educated sense of hearing (by which I mean more than knowing about the auditory system) allows us to be simultaneously aware of what another is saying/ meaning and at the same time, to stay aware of our own opinion. It is not an either-or sense; hearing allows us to find balance and stability, or equilibrium, between our thoughts and others’. An incredibly valuable skill for these times!


When you are working on your next handwork project, I invite you to contemplate which (and how many) senses you are using – and what foundation you will lay for the children when you teach even the very simplest of skills. Consider and reflect how much deeper and more important our work as handwork teachers will be for the future adult in the children we teach.


For further reading, and to discover your own favorite senses, or to experience ‘aha moments’ of your own, I recommend:


Willi Aeppli: The Care and Development of the Human Senses: Rudolf Steiner’s work on the significance of the senses in education

and

Albert Soesman: Our Twelve Senses: Wellsprings of the soul



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