Although, from Comenius downwards, all educationists have agreed that the mother is the best teacher of young children, it was not until Froebel revolutionised the methods of teaching the young that the idea received any practical attention. Froebel addressed his theories chiefly to mothers, but realising that many mothers are so handicapped by work and lack of means that they cannot fulfil what he considered their first duty to their children, he established special schools for children between the years of three and seven where they could be trained by the methods which he advocated for home education.
The schools thus established were known as kindergartens - not on account of the garden with which each was provided, but because the children in them were tended so as to develop in their three-fold aspect of body, mind, and spirit as perfectly as do plants when cultivated in a garden.
The history of the kindergarten movement is of great interest, and at the present moment many kindergartens are doing splendid work in this and in other countries. '1 here is a tendency, moreover, to cast off any unimportant details of the Froebelian method, and act more and more in accordance with the spirit of its founder.
Most large towns have at least one kindergarten whose teaching forms an excellent preparation for the routine work of the ordinary school.
The superiority of kindergarten methods has been so fully demonstrated that all parents with the well-being of their children at heart should make an effort for their little ones to attend such a school if possible.
There are many cases, however, in which attendance at a kindergarten is impossible, and there are the years of a child's life before school age is reached to be considered. Thus there is an urgent call for every mother to become a teacher. A child is learning from the moment of its birth. It is important that it should learn what is best worth learning, and every mother can ensure this if she will take the necessary pains and trouble to fit herself for the high office of caring for the mind and soul, as well as the body of her child.
Froebel's motto was, "Come, let us live for our children," and it should be the guiding principle of every mother. The word "for" might be altered with advantage to "with," for it is only by living"with " children that a mother can learn the individuality of each, and adapt her methods to its special needs.
Mother-love is undoubtedly a noble thing, but it is sympathy that is the key to the successful management of children. A mother must never "put away childish things." She must be one with her children, and play with them, not as a child plays with a toy, but as children play with each other. In this way she can direct their play so as to ensure the perfect development of their latent powers, and, as childhood is outgrown, the bond of sympathy established by play will become stronger and more potent in its influence in the more complicated issues of later life.
It is proposed to show in this series of articles how a mother of ordinary intelligence, but without special training, can work out Froebelian principles in the nursery, so that young minds may be prepared for the difficult and often uninteresting tasks of learning to read, write, and cypher, bodies may be developed by suitable occupations and exercises, and, highest good of all, the character formed by the awakening of good impulses and the suppression of evil ones.
The Value of Stories
The oldest of the arts is narration, and the craving for stories is as instinctive in children as in primitive peoples. Children, owing to their vivid powers of imagination, are born actors, and during the narration of a story will assume its characters, so that fiction becomes reality for the time being. This natural taste can be used as a foundation for serious teaching, for the possibilities of story-telling are infinite.
It must be remembered that the growth of the brain is most rapid during the first seven years of life, and that while growing rapidly it lacks firmness of consistency and definiteness of elaboration. Hence, during this time there should be no forcing and no undue tension. A young child is physically incapable of long-sustained attention; therefore, all lessons must be of short duration and all occupations varied. A long period of sitting still causes a child to become dull and inert, so that the attention wanders; yet without sustained interest no progress can be made.
When children are listening to a story they should be seated easily on low chairs, or even allowed to sit on the floor, provided that no draught blows beneath the door. In fine weather as much time as possible should be spent in the open air.
Leaving out of the question for the present the subject matter of stories, let us see how they can be presented so as to leave a lasting impression. The story that is told is always more effective than the story that is read, and particularly if the narrator sinks her own personality, as does the actress, and feels herself acting what she describes. A well-modulated voice emphasises important points, and raises in the listeners the feeling of surprise and wonder which rivets the attention and draws the children into the story so that each one feels he is acting the part. From ten to fifteen minutes is the longest time which should be devoted to telling a story. The occupation should be changed then, although it should still maintain the interest of the theme.
After the mental work of listening, the hands should be occupied. Here an idea contained in the story can be embodied in a concrete illustration by means of drawing, tracing in sand, paper-folding, modelling, thread or stick laying. These are all simple occupations which will be described in detail in subsequent papers, and can be used somewhat after this manner.
Supposing the subject of the story was a pigeon, the pigeon-house can be represented by stick laying, a bird's nest can be drawn or traced, birds' eggs can be modelled, and paper can be folded like a letter for the bird to carry. An exercise for arms and fingers, to represent birds flying, will afford pleasant relief, and a little song or poem will carry on the idea without allowing it to become monotonous.
Yet further interest can be maintained by dramatising the subject and letting the children act their own individual conceptions of the story. This is an appeal to natural dramatic talent, but it is something more. It is an opportunity for self-expression, which does so much towards developing character and individuality.
The child should take the lead in these performances, the original narrator simply encouraging him to speak while acting so as to develop the power of clear expression. Very little is required by way of scenic accessories, for children have the fairy wand of a glorious imagination, which changes everything according to their wishes.
The children should be called upon occasionally to re-tell a tale they have heard, or even to invent a new one. This latter can be done more easily if the child closes his eyes and pretends to see what he describes. It is most important not to interrupt a child while he is telling a story, for, if interrupted, he becomes confused, and halts in his narrative. And thus the invaluable habit of concentration is only imperfectly formed.
Stories gain in value if they are illustrated by a picture which appeals to the imagination and sympathies. The subject should be simple and in good taste, and the children should be encouraged to weave their own stories around it.
A wealth of stories lies ready to hand, even when the grotesque and blood-curdling are excluded! Fairy tales, nature lore, history, biography, and mythology are all available; while last, but not least, stand those tales from the Bible which are bright and simple, and come within the range of a child's experience of life.