What Did Steiner Say about Television?

So what did Steiner have to say about television? Nothing. There were no televisions in his time. But, he said enough about early childhood education that we can surmise what his views on the tube would have been.

These reasons center on Steiner’s view of the astral body, imagination and the way a child learns.

A cornerstone in Steiner’s educational theorems was the fact that children go through three stages in their lives. First, from age 0-7, the spirit inhabiting the body of the child is still getting used to its surroundings. This explains many standards in the Waldorf curriculum such as the standard of teaching the alphabet at age 7 or 8. During the second stage, from ages 7-14, the child is said to be driven by imagination and fantasy, and during the third stage, starting at age 14, the astral body is said to be driven into the physical body, creating the onset of puberty.

Waldorf educators saw a direct link to this astral body and the watching of television. The scenes, the lack of imagination involved, and the topics covered on most channels would obviously bring on the astral stage of the body at an early age. This was one reason that television was banned from Waldorf schools.

Modern researchers, however, have just recently made this connection when they recently announced, “Watching Television may Quicken the Onset of Puberty” (Dr. Laura Markham, 2006). In her article, based on 35 different research studies she states that this connection has a lot to do with the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, which plays a key role in regulating the body’s internal clock. Light emitted by television screens suppresses melatonin levels in the blood, which disrupts sleep patterns of children and teens as well as the age at which they enter puberty. It is also interesting to note that the problems of early-onset puberty have baffled researchers since 1950. This was the same date in which televisions became widely owned in the United States.

This is not the main reason given when Waldorf Schools state on their websites that children should not watch television. When I reviewed 40 Waldorf school websites I found that 36 of them stated their main reason for discouraging television was that it hinders the imagination in the child.

And this is indeed one of the most important elements in early childhood education that Steiner, himself, promoted. Rudolf Steiner, in his 1919 Essay, “An Introduction to Waldorf Education,” states, “Of prime importance for the cultivation of the child’s feeling-life is that the child develops a relationship to the world in a way such as that which develops when we are inclined towards fantasy.” Fantasy, in Waldorf education, is not the fantasy of Disney movies or only the fantasy of fairy tales. It is a holistic process of allowing the child to expand their imagination into expanded realms. Fairy tales are one aspect of this process.

Recent studies show that television hinders this process in young children. In a study led by Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society (and concluded in 2007). He shows that television affects the brain in many ways that would weaken the imagination in children. The first effect that translates into a weaker imagination is the occurrence of “jump cuts” in television that fracture attention spans. At the same time, studies show that the brain is then programmed to reward itself with “dopamine” (the happy drug) for being able to cope with this fractured attention span. Basically, people become addicted to functioning with a fractured attention span. Extreme multi-tasking and children being enrolled in tens of “after-school activities” are also a result of this addiction. Imagination is naturally lost when our minds cannot focus. Have you ever tried to write an article while being interrupted every five minutes?

As far as being educational, brain scans performed by neuroscientist have shown that television and many interactive media games do not stimulate intellectual areas of the brain.

Teachers in Waldorf schools also discourage the watching of television because of the effects it has on the child’s behavior at school. But any teacher could tell you that! Not just a Waldorf teacher. And we have all heard that enough times to be tired of that reason. But how can we bring Steiner’s research into this and understand it on a deeper level?

Steiner said, “From birth to about the sixth or seventh year, the human being naturally gives himself up to everything immediately surrounding him in the human environment, and thus, through the imitative instinct, gives form to his own nascent powers.” If I didn’t know that Steiner was not alive during the time of television I would expect his next words to say something about the effects of television. But his next words are even more powerful. He says, “From this period on, the child’s soul becomes open to take in consciously what the educator and teacher give, which affects the child as a result of the teacher’s natural authority.”

So, what, then, would happen when that “teacher” is the television? What Steiner is saying in his statement is that the child is in a stage where he/she is imitating everything around them. Everything becomes their teacher. Any parent who has been embarrassed by a child’s actions that reflected their own knows this to be true. Rahima Baldwin Dancy’s book “You are Your Child’s First Teacher” explores this issue in much depth. It becomes only obvious, to a Waldof teacher, then, that if you allow television to be a teacher you open up the child to many things you do not want them exposed to.

On the website of one Waldorf school in Ireland it states, “Television, as well as film, videos, DVDs, recorded music, computers and electronic games have a very powerful effect on children. It can take several days for the effects of a single video to wear off. If children are watching every day, the effects never wear off at all; many children now speak a lot of the time in ‘cartoon’ voices, make ‘sound effects’ to accompany their jerky movements (kicking, punching) and compulsively repeat lines from videos they have seen over and over again. This is now seen as normal childish behaviour, but it really comes from these media, not from the children themselves.”

Another concern about television watching is that it will hinder the child’s ability to reflect on and carry through on the lessons they were taught during the day. Steiner believed that “What is learned more slowly at any given age is more surely and healthily absorbed by the organism, that what is crammed into it.” (Spiritual Ground for Education by Rudolf Steiner). This is one reason that when a child is given a lesson in a Waldorf manner that they are allowed time to reflect on it and often given the “same” lesson twice. Lessons often depend on the child taking in the content of the first lesson, sleeping and reflecting on it and then coming back the next day to recall and work through it. During this time of sleep and reflection the lesson will have been digested, together with mental pictures a child has made for themselves and it is this that makes the lesson really “sink in” to a child’s being.

If children are watching television or using any other electronic devices during this process, these devices will “over-ride” the lesson. So instead of reflecting and creating images of the lesson, the child’s head will be filled with images of the television or media. Once again, his own imagination is denied him. This view on the damage of television ties into the modern studies done on television watching and its effects on concentration that I discussed earlier.

Recent studies are also showing that TV can be linked to obesity, autism, and even diabetes. Steiner gave numerous lectures on the topic of nutrition and education and believed that the health of the body was greatly affected by how it learned, and how a person learned was also greatly effected by their health. Knowing, what we know today about the health effects of television on the body, we can assume that Steiner would not have approved of this as a healthy medium for holistic learning.

Article reprint courtesy of Kristie Karima Burns, MH, ND of www.TheWaldorfChannel.com

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(3) Readers Comments

  1. This is such a to the point article . Great for parents who have to explain ,why TV is just not such a great idea!

  2. My mother-in-law is such a huge fan of TV that it horrifies her when I say I don’t like the TV (she watches all day long, to the exclusion of any other activities – if other things are done, they are done while watching TV). This reinforces my belief in my stance. Thank you for that

    But, what is one to do when living in a multi-family home where one family watches a great deal of TV? (I don’t live with my MIL, but SpongeBob is on almost all day long when school is not in session.) On days when the weather is inappropriate for outdoor activities, what might one do?

  3. Thank you Martha!

    Annon, I think that trying to re-educate your mother-in-law is a tough job, but do-able if you live there. Is SHE watching the Sponge Bob or does she have the TV on for the purpose of having it as a “babysitter” for the children? You write multi-family home and then “I do not live with my MIL” so I am a bit confused…

    I do know this…. I was in a similar situation for about 3 months and it frustrated me so much that I changed the situation. My child’s mental development was more important than my living situation at the time. I tried to educate the other person, to no avail and what occurred was a constant battle that made me feel like I was losing a constant stream of energy fighting against it. In my case the TV was on because, in truth, the person did not want to play and interact with the child. I was angry then, but after I understood that she did not know how and wanted to be liked, so she did what she thought the child wanted.

    I went to the library and got videos to replace the standard tv cartoon channel (and it’s barrage of commercials) and the videos I got were old fashioned TV. Think Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, etc. Since I was the one responsible for bills, I came up short, lost hours and had to let the cable lapse… aaaawwww… too bad. Well, at least we had a video player. After 2 months she had the cable turned back on… I realized that there were other messages sent to my child I did not like, so I moved. It was a tough choice – but one I do not regret at all. In retrospect, it was about me not being afraid to live alone with my child and make it work. I found a job in a natural place where they had no TV and where my child could be with me all of the time. (It was at a working dude ranch and I was the gardener). That experience did not last too long, but it did give me the first step out of there and made me realize that I create my own reality – and the reality I wanted was a home with no TV. So I sacrificed my situation on a belief that I would make it better… and I did. I learned to overcome fears with that step I took, and it was a good thing for me and my child. But that is my experience….

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