Belly Laughs September 09 2016

The first grade class teacher kiddingly told the first grader that he was “full of soup,” that he was tricking her and she tickled him as she challenged his playful trick. The little boy let out a deep belly laugh as he conceded that he was caught out and that he was indeed playing a practical joke on the teacher.

The laugh gave the teacher a reason to pause. It was almost December and she had never heard this child laugh like that before. He lived in a difficult home situation and there had been questions around the boy’s placement in first grade. He was repeating first grade following the decision of the previous teacher and so was new to this class.

In the first days of the second time at first grade, the teacher noticed that the boy’s voice had a disembodied quality. Whenever he was anxious, his voice would reach a high-pitched quality that could shatter glass in its intensity. Inwardly the teacher named the voice “homeless,” and in thinking about the boy, she visualized finding a home for the boy’s voice, the boy’s soul. It clearly was not yet at home in the fellow’s body!

So the belly laugh was the first symptom that the voice was indeed coming home at last to the little boy’s physical organism.

Think about it. Belly laughter is a dying phenomenon in our culture. Almost gone are the days of laughing till we cry. It takes a kind of deep relaxation to get a laugh all the way down into the belly. In the original lectures to the first Waldorf teachers, Rudolf Steiner startles us by indicating that our first task as teachers is to teach our children to breathe. Belly laughing is one of the best teachers of good breathing precisely because it is so deep and so relaxed. In December, the belly laughs of the kindergartners and the first and second graders during the Shepherds’ Play at the slapstick shenanigans of the humble shepherds has always been one of the signals that Christmas could officially begin!

Dr. Steiner also explained to those first teachers that every well done lesson should have in it a chance for inward or outward mirth in which children smile a bit on the inside, if not laugh out loud bursting forth on the outside; and a balancing moment in which the child feels inwardly almost like crying. This expansion and alternative contraction give exercise to the child’s soul, educates the child’s feelings about all the reactions possible for a human experience, and stimulates the child’s rhythmic breathing for lifelong habits of healthful breathing.

Children’s belly laughs are the best and the most reassuring and the most therapeutic to hear as well as for the child to generate.  Belly laughter is authentic and cannot be feigned. Something has to be genuinely funny to prompt a laugh from that far down in the physical body. The bell-like voices of children engaged in this primal activity is like no other sound on earth. One can imagine angels joining in whenever children laugh hard and long and deeply.

A fifth grade teacher once substituted in a first grade class. He was asked to do some math with the children and it was explained to him that the arithmetic gnomes were the best way to introduce the math for the teaching period in question. The teacher reported afterwards that each time he mentioned the arithmetic gnomes, the whole class dissolved for a few minutes into rich, long, belly laughter.  He was charmed. It was so refreshing! And the math with the class went especially well. He reported this in a faculty meeting and the first grade teacher laughed herself and told the ridiculous story of the arithmetic gnomes from grade one that she had told and got us all laughing. The only way out of their problems was to count, to add, to subtract, to multiply and to divide numbers to fix their tumbled up topsy turvy difficulties. Hoorrah for that first grade teacher!  Belly laughs are just the ticket for relaxation, mirth, happy anticipation, and, yes, deep, deep breathing. All of these are good for learning as well, by the way.

At the next Monday morning assembly, the teacher who led the assembly in song, mentioned the arithmetic gnomes and the whole school got to hear the instant, deep laughter of the first graders; everyone left feeling better—happy and relaxed. That’s what belly laughing does for us.

The young fellow in grade one who laughed so hard at being caught in his prank got his voice down into his own body before his second first grade ended. He was happy and relaxed in his class. We should all imagine children belly laughing their whole lives through.