This section is from the "The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health" book, by William A. Alcott. Also available from Amazon: The Young Mother
The arrangements of the infant school, also, seem designed for the same purpose—to repress as much as possible the infantile desire for amusement. Not that this was their original, nor that it now is their legitimate intention. Their legitimate object is, or should be, not to develope the intellect by over-working the tender brain, but to promote cheerfulness and health and love and happiness, by well contrived amusements, conducted as much as possible in the open air; and by unremitting efforts to elicit and direct the affections.
Infant schools should repress rather than encourage the hard study of books. Lessons at this age should be drawn chiefly from objects in the garden, the field, and the grove; from the flower, the plant, the tree, the brook, the bird, the beast, the worm, the fly, the human body—the sun, or the visible heavens. These lessons, whether given by the parent, as constituting a part of the family arrangements, or by the infant or primary school teacher, should, it is true, be regarded for the time being as study, but they should never be long; and they should be frequently relieved by the most free and unrestrained pastimes and gambols of the young on the green grass, or beside the rippling stream, uninfluenced, or at least unrepressed, by those who are set over them.
The public or common school, overlooking as it does any direct attempts to make provision for the amusement of the pupils, even during the scanty recess that is afforded them once in three hours, would appear to a stranger on this planet, at first sight, to be designed as much as possible to defeat every intention of nature with reference to the growth of the human frame. For we may often travel many hundred miles and not see so much as an enclosed play ground; and never perhaps any direct provision for particular and more favorable amusements.
I might speak of other schools and places of resort for children, and proceed to show how all our arrangements appear to be the offspring of a species of utilitarianism which rejects every sport whose value cannot be estimated in dollars and cents. I might even refer to those schools of our country where these ultra utilitarian notions are carried to an extent which excludes amusing conversation or reading even during meal-time; and devotes the hours which were formerly spent in recreation, to manual labor of some productive kind or other.—But I forbear. Enough has been said to illustrate the position I have taken, that there is in vogue a system which bears the marks of having been contrived, if not by the enemies of our race, either openly or covertly, at least by those whom ignorance renders scarcely less at war with the general happiness.
Now I would not deny nor attempt to deny that change of occupation of body or mind is of itself an amusement, and one too of great value. Undoubtedly it is so. To some children, studies of every kind are an amusement; and there are few indeed to whom none are so. Labor, with many, when alternated with study, is amusing. And yet, after all, unless such labors are performed in company, where light and cheerful conversation is sure to keep the mind away from the subjects about which it has just been engaged, I am afraid that the purposes for which amusements were designed, are very far from being all secured.
But perhaps I am dwelling too long on the general principle that people of every age, and children in particular, need, and must have amusements, whether they are of a productive kind or not; and that it is very far from being sufficient, were it either practicable or desirable, to turn all study and labor into amusement. [Footnote: I will even say, more distinctly than I have already done, that however popular the contrary opinion may be, neither study nor work ought to be regarded as mere amusement. I would, it is true, take every possible pains to render both work and study agreeable; but I would at the same time have it distinctly understood, that one of them is by no means the other; that, on the contrary, work is work—study, study—and amusement, amusement.] My business is with those who direct the first dawnings of affection and intellect. Principles are by no means of less importance on this account; but the limits of a work for young mothers do not admit of anything more than a brief discussion of their importance.
I will now proceed to speak of some of the more common amusements of the nursery.
I have seen very young children sit on the floor and amuse themselves for nearly half an hour together, with piling up and taking down small wooden cubes, of different sizes. Some of them, instead of being cubes, however, may be of the shape of bricks. Their ingenuity, while they are scarcely a year or two old, in erecting houses, temples, churches, &c., is sometimes surprising. Girls as well as boys seem to be greatly amused with this form of exercise; and both seem to be little less gratified in destroying than in rearing their lilliputian edifices.
Next to the latter kind of amusement, is the viewing of pictures. It is surprising at what an early age children may be taught to notice miniature representations of objects; living objects especially. Representations of the works of art should come in a little later than those of things in nature. I know a father who prepares volumes of pictures, solely for this purpose; though he usually regards them not only as a source of amusement to children, but as a medium of instruction.
Battledoor or shuttlecock may be taught to children of both sexes very early; and it affords a healthy and almost untiring source of amusement. It gives activity as well as strength to the muscles or moving powers, and has many other important advantages. There is some danger, according to Dr. Pierson [Footnote: See his Lecture before the American Institute of Instruction] of distorting the spine by playing at shuttlecock too frequently and too long; but this will seldom be the case with little children in the nursery. Neither shuttlecock nor any other amusement will secure their attention long enough to injure them very much.