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Nature or Nurture – and Eureka!

You hear ever again the argument: is nature or nurture the most important influence in childhood, or is it both? Yes, of course both are important, and the more research that is done the more we find how much the environment a child grows up in, not just physical but even more important emotional, will influence the child for life. Yet something important is still missing.

In a roundabout way, it provided me with inspiration for writing about the ‘third year’ in early childhood (in previous blogs I have written about the first two years). It came together with something else:

We’ve all had such experiences: sudden thoughts, inspirations, helping us find a solution to something. It turns out the Eureka moments have greater insight and accuracy than lengthy analysis*. A puzzle – it would seem to contradict our modern rational order of things! Something inexplicable happens – something new enters.

The missing essential ingredient

Hold a baby in your arms. The smiling, the crying, the eyes looking up. Hand on heart, who can honestly say, ‘There lies simply a bunch of molecules!’ Another ‘presence’ is there, another being with consciousness. The vibrancy, the delicacy, the innocence of the new being – it is no wonder that small children are referred to as angels, that the cherubim are often drawn looking like young children.


Step by step in the first years, you sense something more of that essential human spirit making its appearance. Life’s greatest miracles, as I have referred to some of these steps. They resemble the Eureka moments, where, in awe, you witness something new: the essential upright human quality manifesting around year one; the wonder of language development in the second year – the soul is now able to express herself in a uniquely human way.

Then in the third year…  An extremely important period for something that at the same time is harder to observe: a new stride in the special human thinking ability. All that came before influences this development: it’s also why play and conversation are so important. And then another Eureka moment happens in the third year: the child for the first time says ‘I’.

We sometimes pass over the significance of this, perhaps because self, self-consciousness, is one of the least understood and least material elements of the human being. But pause for a moment to think of the experience behind this word. With it I am clarifying: I stand here, the world is there. Something new of the child’s self appears that wasn’t there before. It is a small seed, a small archetype, for what appears later in much greater force when the child becomes an adult.

Experiencing herself no longer at one with the world, the soul after three begins asking many questions about it, in that lovely child’s way. Why is the sky blue? Where do the flowers come from?

‘Ah’, the government ministers say. ‘Time to set them down and explain! Time for school!’ But they read the signs wrong. We need to meet the children where they are at: in a wonderful world of activity and imaginative creativity. The ministers forget the lessons of the first three years.

An archetypal learning process

Nature or Nurture - and Eureka!It is the most effective way for real learning throughout education. The young child uses it naturally, and we as adult can learn from it:

First engage in activity, and bring all the senses into play… The flower? Ahh, let’s explore. Look at how tallll it stands. Such a soft delicate flower on top of such a strong stalk. Let’s have a smell

Then more experiential elements. The emotions are stirred… Ohhh, what a wonnn-derful smell the flower has. Mmmm – It reminds me of Mama’s perfume! Look, a bee!

Lastly comes thinking, the building of concepts. But the thinking of the young child is still very much connected with the fantasy and activity-full world – even neurologists note that the brain before seven hasn’t developed to the stage to allow more logical abstract thought. The sky is the limit in the child’s fantasy and curiosity… The story we had about Mother Earth – I think Mother Earth is just like Mama. She’s showing her absolutely best perfumes with the flowers!… At this age, the creativity in thinking is the most important thing, not absorbing ‘facts’.

The nature of thinking gradually changes, yet the archetypal learning process can be applied to all ages, adapted to the stage of child development. Geography lesson in school? Go outdoors! Explore the surroundings, the landscapes. What do we experience? Let the pupils give expression to their inner life: writing, drawing, painting. For Mendelssohn music best expressed Fingal’s  Caves. You arrive not just at reflective thoughts but the process encourages an inner feeling of connection with the world; the creativity fosters new insights, a mobility in thinking, and the pupil is invigorated to explore further. Our modern education is primitive: it emphasises pre-set factual outcomes, not the process, the inner spark. Thoughts becomes boring – the fire goes out.

Returning to the Eureka moment and the old nature or nurture argument. They are indeed ignoring the most essential part. With inspiration, something new enters – it’s not just a rearrangement of molecules. It is the third element, coming to the fore in the third year: the spark of the spirit. Together the three are a foundation for life.

I muse on the hidden wisdom in words. Take ‘inspiration’: it does after all mean ‘the taking in of spirit’.

Richard Brinton

* ‘Insight solutions are correct more often than analytic solutions’, in Thinking and Reasoning by Salvi et al, Feb 2016

Richard Brinton

Richard Brinton trained and worked as a Steiner Waldorf teacher, later as Principal at Hawkwood College, UK. He now lives and writes in Stroud, England with his wife, also a teacher.

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