Hon. Organizing Secretary of the Parents’ National Educational Union

 A GREAT change has come over modern thought with regard to the early training and teaching of children. The parent has become a recognised factor in the educational scheme, and Home Education a definite science. During the last twenty years the educational pendulum has swung from the point where it was considered desirable that children should be taught the three R.’s, at about three, four, or five years of age, to the point where they were to learn nothing but what could be presented to them in the way of play, and “must” and “ought” were banished from the schoolroom. Nor is the former position quite obsolete. “The other day I met a governess, . . .” writes a correspondent, “who complained that her small pupil of five was getting dull over lessons, and on enquiry I found that this poor mite had been doing lessons ever since she was three, and reads now and does dictation!”

      The exaggerated form of the first position is seen in the early teaching of John Stuart Mill, whose mental food was a pabulum of facts, and who himself deplored the absence of nourishment for his growing imagination and the consequent distaste for knowledge.

     The extremists of the second school of thought, following Rousseau, would let the children run wild up to eight or nine, and simply pick up what they can during the process. Definite training of any kind is abandoned and nature is to rule supreme.  As is almost invariably the case, truth seems to lie between these two extremes.

     The home has many functions to perform, and among others, indirectly, if not directly, it is the child’s first school. Hence a definite purpose must underlie the training of the home, so that the child may be fitly prepared for the preparatory school and may be able to gain the greatest profit from its teaching. How can this result best be attained? The child is born with  a certain disposition, with certain tendencies, some are common to all normal children, others are his by special inheritance.   This disposition is to be moulded into a true and noble character (2).

     Right habits of mind are to be inculcated and living ideas are to be presented, on which the child’s brain may grow, and become strengthened and nourished. I do not believe that one should set oneself to train each faculty of the child separately, but, looking on the mind as a whole, give it food and opportunity for exercise in every direction.

      In the first year of a child’s life its environment will furnish it with ideas and brain nourishment, but even in these early days the work of education begins. We can secure for the child the best conditions for rest and growth, absolute quiet and darkness during sleeping hours, absence of fuss, noise, or excitement during waking hours. These prepare the soil for future work, and perhaps it is difficult to estimate how much pain and trouble and nervous disorder may be due to early mistakes in these directions. Moreover, definite training in habits of obedience and attention, those two absolute essentials in a child’s mental outfit, must be commenced at the very beginning of things, and before it is two they may be gained forever. This is not the place to dwell on those other nursery habits, which, as most mothers now recognise, have to be formed in these early months.

     Probably the only direct means of adding to the “building of the child’s mind house” is through the medium of the ear. Here I think the ordinary singing of nursery rhymes may with advantage be supplemented by allowing a child to hear daily compositions of recognised musical worth. If this be continued regularly and conscientiously even the non-musical child may develop and appreciation of, and delight in, good music which will greatly increase his “enthusiasm for art.” The musical child, on the other hand, will approach his first lessons on an instrument with joy gained from an intimate knowledge of some of the best this art will hold in store for him.

     It is for the parent to see that, above everything, the child’s natural disposition towards the acquiring of knowledge, and his innate curiosity to understand everything, be not in any way lost as the years go on. Without allowing a ceaseless and oft-times unthinking fire of “why?” and “wherefore?” the parent may by wise guidance make this curiosity the most powerful lever when school work begins. It is because we are apt to overlook this absolutely innate love of knowledge that we feel it necessary in the early days of lessons to wrap up the pill in the gilt of games and nonsense stories, and in later years to have recourse to the stimulus of marks and prizes. If we can from the very first trust to interest in the subject itself as the stimulus to acquiring knowledge, and at the same time form habits of industry, dutiful application, etc., as means towards that end, we shall probably find outward goads unnecessary.

     In dealing with the mental training of children, it will be best to take the years from two up to six or seven together, as it is almost impossible to say when a child is ready for receiving any special ideas. Given the principles, it is not difficult to apply them to each case. Probably the most fundamental principle, and,, even in this age of child worship, the most neglected, is respect for the children. A respect which will forbid our neglecting their environment, or giving them anything but what is really good and true, both as regards the people and the things which surround them. We know that the little child does notice, does see and does hear, and we are careful that our respect for his powers in these directions shall act as a safeguard. We put the child in an atmosphere of love and refinement, and above all, see that as far as possible he is not cheated of his right to Nature as a nurse.  A country field and hedge, will give a child most of the mental food which his mind requires, and will afford opportunity for exercising his powers of observation, etc. A wise educationist will let the child find out for himself what nature has to show him, and will leave him free with this teacher, only occasionally throwing in an answer to his many questions, and directing a little, though it must be very little.  Here we can form habits of accuracy, truthfulness and intellectual honesty, by making the child absolutely clear as to what he has found out for himself, what he has been told to look for, and what has been definitely imparted to him. This is the time to give the children a nodding acquaintance with all the flowers, trees and birds, and, when the desire for knowing the names is strong, to let natural objects become familiar friends, by telling their simple English names. The love of collecting is very great in childhood, and thus, with a little guidance here and there, will add zest and joy to many a country ramble. The habit of “sight seeing” (Home Education, Chap. II.) can be formed in the long days spent out of doors, and thus a power gained which will give the children a lasting pleasure through life.

     Verbal accuracy and power of narration as well as the power of imagining may be much nourished in these early years. Storytelling is always a delight to children, and I believe that we should, from the beginning, give them a knowledge of true literature. Long before a child can read he will know and love good poetry and good prose. We shall not neglect nursery rhymes and such familiar nursery Classics as Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe, but we shall let the little ones extend their range of favourites and learn to love Malory’s Morte d’ Arthur and Tennyson’s poems. I believe so strongly in the educational value of reading aloud to children, that I wish it were more generally recognised. The habit of attention is, perhaps, almost the very best equipment with which a child can start his schooldays, and probably no means of forming this is so generally successful as that of letting the children learn to be good listeners. If they are encouraged to relate what they have heard, their powers of narration will be strengthened, and gradually they will reconstruct the ideas received and will tell stories, the apparent originality and beautiful imagination of which will surprise the heavier adult mind. Malory’s Morte d’ Arthur, portions of Froissart and other chronicles, passages from Chaucer and Spenser, the old favourite fairy tales—these are but examples of the literary treasures we may offer our children. Provided what we present is good, and full of action and “go,” the children will delight in it. Such writings tell of the childhood of the world, and the child feels akin to the old world heroes, and rejoices in books which tell of them far more than in the books which treat of children whose lives are very much like his own. If we want to counteract slipshod style and bad taste in reading, writing, and speaking, we shall not lightly abandon this custom of reading aloud to children, even when they are grown boys and girls. We can also greatly strengthen the children’s power of narration (and we know how great this is, both in the childhood of the race and of the man), by encouraging them to describe what they have seen in those hours when Nature has been their chief teacher.  Here I would suggest that the potent cause of the early loss of this graphic use of words is to be found in the fact that the child is too early made to write his own little stories, his letters, or his Nature diary.  Hampered by his inability to write well and quickly, his flow of language and power of word painting leave him. I would advocate that even when schooldays have begun he should be encouraged to narrate instead of write his compositions, the substance of his history lessons, etc. The habit of this vivâ voce reproduction would also help him in gaining the power of lucid expression which is becoming more and more necessary.

     Early training in the exact use of words, and in giving an accurate answer to the question put, is one means by which the “unconscious preparation of a child’s mind for Science” can be effected. He can from the first be made to do and say things in a scientifically accurate manner, and thus we can counteract that tendency to exaggeration and untruth, all too prevalent in adult society. The slipshod expression of inaccurate thought, which is commonly taken for opinion, is due to general untidiness in one’s way of thinking, and any early training which would result in more scientific habits of mind should be earnestly carried out.

     We all believe now in early hand and eye training, we give the children paintbrushes and colour and chalk, and help them to express themselves in various directions. We teach them basketmaking, chair-caning, sewing and knitting, clay modelling, and, later on, Sloyd (cardboard and wood), woodcarving and bent iron work. We do this because we believe in their educational value, but we ought not to hurry these occupations, and certainly not let them encroach on the children’s leisure hours; much training in deftness of finger and hand can be gained incidentally in arranging specimens, and even in putting away toys and tidying drawers and cupboards. It has been wisely suggested that a foundation for science teaching may be laid by accustoming the children to handle pencil, ruler and compass, and in thus unconsciously evolving geometrical shapes. A word as to toys: most parents are alive to the futility of furnishing the children with so-called educational toys and games. Stones, paper, bricks and balls are within the reach of all children alike, and we shall find that the innate love for these will last when expensive toys are discarded and broken.  A child will spend many happy hours at a sand trough, and if such a one can be contrived to be filled with water, on which mock fleets can be sailed, instead of sand from time to time, there will be very little demand for any other kind of toy. But while we deprecate what are termed educational toys, we may with advantage make use of geometrical forms for bricks, etc., and thus unconsciously the child becomes familiar with what, when science lessons begin, are otherwise mere abstractions.

     And now let us take our child of five and a half or six when he should first enter the home schoolroom and begin his real lessons. What does he know and what can he do? He should, we believe, be an interesting, and interested little pupil. His will is trained to ready, cheerful obedience; he has the habits of attention, of quick bright observation, of accurate description, of neatness and promptitude. He is eager to learn, lessons have no terrors for him; he wants to know, and he is not afraid of work. He has an intimate and loving everyday acquaintance with the names and habits of the flowers, birds, and insects around him. His ear, hand, and eye have had definite training. In fact, the ground has been prepared for good teaching, and he has been put in the right attitude towards the good teacher. Can he read and write? Not always. I do not advocate definite instruction other than what has been sketched out before the child is six. Before that age many children will have “taught themselves to read,” i.e, picked it up almost without our knowing how. Other children, with the ground well prepared, will learn reading very quickly, stimulated by the desire to read for themselves the many books they have learnt to love. Writing has possibly gone hand in hand with drawing, and in all probability dexterity has been reached in this also.

     I should put as the first principle underlying all good teaching the belief in the child’s desire to know and learn, and the conviction that the interest in the subject is so great, and the idea presented so vivifying, that hardly any other spur is necessary than that the child should be put face to face with knowledge. Let the lessons be short and brisk and bright. Let the teacher be fired with enthusiasm and be interested in them himself, let him be sure that each day a definite step is gained, that there is no going back, that a fresh idea is added to the old ones, and that the habits of good work are strengthened. Let the teacher be the interpreter of knowledge to the child, not the mediator between it and him. Above all let the teacher make use of living books instead of trusting to oral teaching. From the first the child should be a student and worker, not a mere recipient of the result of the teacher’s work. This will foster a reverent attitude towards knowledge and counteract a tendency to priggishness and superficiality (3).

     It is a truism to say that in teaching our chief attention should be given to methods rather than to subjects. Still I believe that if we made use of a wide curriculum, and let our children learn through books as well as through things, many of our educational mistakes would tend to disappear. Though specialization for boys destined for public schools must begin earlier than for girls, most modern efforts in postponing this have, I think, been marked by success. We want to give the children open doors through which they may afterwards wander into those realms of knowledge which appeal most fully to their own special needs. Moreover, too exclusive a mental diet does not tend towards mental development.

     The following sketch of work for children from six and a half to ten is taken from the programme of work and timetables, arranged by Miss Mason for the children working in their home schoolrooms in connection with the “Parents’ Union School.”

     Class IA. Children averaging from six and a half to seven and a half.

 Bible lessons taught as far as possible from the Bible direct, with explanatory description of the countries and people dealt with, gained in the teacher’s own reading.

 Recitations.—Poems from the Children’s Garland of the Best Poets, Hymns and Psalms. Children to be encouraged to listen to the poems, etc., when read aloud.

 Number.—On the Sonnenschein and Nesbitt method.  The apparently slow progress with “rules,” etc., does not mean that the child will not be equal to his schoolfellows when he goes to a preparatory school. On the contrary, this method of teaching “pays in every way.”

  Singing.—French and English songs.

  Drill.—Swedish and Ball drill.

 Writing.—Child to master one letter a day and not go back. Perfect execution and cleanliness to be aimed at.

     Reading.—Child to be taught on a combination of the Look and Say and the Phonetic methods, and from an easy book straight away. “Readers” composed of words of one syllable are not interesting. The child can simultaneously with reading make up words with loose letters, and copy them so that spelling, dictation and reading can go hand in hand. Here again the progress is not apparently rapid, but the interest is maintained. A child, working with others, is taught from the very first how to “study,” and as he finds his power of reading grows he begins to read for himself, and is not afraid of tackling a real book. This method is doubtless the one used unconsciously by a child, when he teaches himself to read.

Tales.—Fairy tales and heroic stories to be read to the children and retold by them.

 Nature Lessons.—Lessons about insects, stories about animals, naming and mounting wild flowers or fruit. The child to keep a Nature notebook, painting flowers, etc., and relating little facts and scenes noticed. Descriptions to be dictated.

 French.—Oral teaching.

Geography.—Sand maps, talks about places, etc.

     We need not be afraid of teaching children correct terms. Pistil and stamen in botany; current, whirlpool, prairie in geography, are really not more difficult to the early student in nomenclature than “Elizabeth” or “Caroline,” the names of their friends or relations. In the adoption of fancy terms, such as “officer” and “soldier” for pistil and stamen; in the relating of little make-believe stories in order to interest the child, we are guilty of want of respect for our pupils, and want of belief in the interest of the facts themselves, illuminated by the vivifying idea, which the good teacher will draw out.  Every subject is capable of being degraded into a mere collection of dry facts, just as (if the teacher be a true master of his art) the ideas underlying every subject may be used as pegs on which to hang such facts. Though we deprecate teaching through games, when we see that the child finds in his lessons new ideas for his own games, that he will play at Christopher Columbus or Robinson Crusoe, and make rivers and islands and mountains with mud or sand, or even with his vegetables and gravy (oh, horrified nurse!) we may know that his lessons have been well “taken,” and hence well “given.” No lesson is valuable which does not promote self-activity by making the children think and do and work. So in later years I would not advocate lectures from teachers, but lessons where, as has already been said, the teacher is but the interpreter, not the mediator, and where he stands aside as much as possible, teaching the children to learn and study from books, and not merely to listen. In this way habits of self-study are formed, the necessity for out-of-school preparation disappears, and leisure and growing times are secured for the children.

Picture Talk.—Children, especially those who have not learnt to look long and well before schoolroom days began, will be much helped in their powers of description by ten minutes in the week being given to this subject. The child is encouraged to look steadily at some good picture, and then the picture having been removed, to describe what he saw. The power of visualizing is too valuable in after life to be neglected in the school days, and much training can be imparted through this lesson.

Arts and Handicrafts. — Brush-drawing, sewing and knitting, paper-folding, basket-work, clay-modelling, etc., a selection of these can be made for the little ones.

Music.—To be taught in such a manner that the child may learn its wonders and history from the first, and may learn to read by sight, write from ear, make his own scales and transpose simple tunes, before he attempts to play more than little duets, etc.

     If it be urged against the following timetable that the lessons are very short (and the same objection may be raised all through the timetables here quoted), I would answer that, after a little practice, the teacher will welcome the spur against dawdling in himself and the child, and will find that the rapid change of lesson not only can be done, but when done is beneficial all round.

     N.B.—The tales which are not mentioned in the timetable would probably be taken by the mother in the “Children’s Hour.”

 M T  W  Th F  S
 9-2:20  Old 
 New Testament  Writing  Old Testament  New Testament  Week’s Work
 9:20-9:40  Printing  Drawing  Reading  Reading  Reading  Reading
 9:40-9:50  Repetition
 Continue Reading  Continue Reading  Repetition
 9:50-10  French  Picture Talk  French  French  Natural History  Object Lesson
 10-10:20 Number  Handicrafts  Number  Handicrafts  Number  Number
 Drill or Dancing  Sol-fa 
 Drill or Dancing  French Song
 Drill or Dancing  Sol-fa
 10:50-11:20  Reading  Number  Handicrafts  Writing and Brush-Drawing  Handicrafts  Printing and Brush-Drawing
 11:20-11:30  Natural History  Reading  Geography  Number  Geography  Natural History


1. Reprinted from Vol. VI of  “Reports on Educational Subjects,” issued by the Board of Education. Reprints of this article can be had, price 3d., from the P.N.E.U. Office, 20, Victoria Street, S.W.

2. See Home Education, by C. M. Mason, Chapters III. and IV.

3. Some Suggestions for the School Curriculum of Girls and Boys under Fourteen. A most important pamphlet. See also the Parents* Review forJuly, 1902. Both to be obtained from the Secretary, 26, Victoria St., S.W.

© 2016 by the Charlotte Mason Institute

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