A sign of good mental power in a young child is an innate sense of rhythm. This shows itself at a very early age by a swaying to and fro of the body as an accompaniment to any music which is heard, and by the regularity with which the child claps hands or beats time with any article capable of making a noise.
These actions indicate an aesthetic craving of the child's nature, which needs careful cultivation, for a sense of rhythm is of universal importance, and should not be confined to the musician and poet. The sense of rhythm is the foundation of orderliness, which is a desirable characteristic for every human being, and as orderliness is largely a matter of habit, it is capable of cultivation.
Leaving for the present the subject of rhythmic movements, we will see how the feeling for rhythm can be cultivated by means of poem and song, both of which have important uses as far as a child's training is concerned.
Nursery rhymes and jingles take a powerful hold on little folks, and even nonsense rhymes make a strong appeal to their sense of the ridiculous. Such rhymes are very easily learnt by quite young children, and have a distinct use. Without any apparent effort a child can commit to memory a large number of simple rhymes. A young child's brain is not over-burdened with knowledge, and is therefore able to retain what is once learnt. This fact accounts for a matter of common observation that young children appear to have wonderful memories.
The Value of Aural Training
Every rhyme and poem taught to children should be through the ear, even though the children may have mastered the initial difficulties of reading. In the matter of rhythm the ear grasps quickly the lilt and swing of words, while years of practice are necessary before the eye can interpret rhythm into what it reads. Moreover, children are characterised by strong powers of imitation, and what is heard and imitated is easily remembered.
Grown-up people may scoff at nursery rhymes and regard the learning of them as waste of time, but they are composed of words into which a child is able to put a definite meaning. Thus not only is a child's vocabulary increased by the introduction of new words, but its powers of expression are developed. If accustomed to repeat words which express ideas in her mind, she will find that the expression of other ideas by the same means is made easy.
A Child's Medium of Expression
A young child gropes in the dark for means of self-expression. Words are the most valuable and useful agent, and their use must be cultivated; a young child finds self-expression possible in plastic media and in the result of its own handiwork.
As the verbal memory strengthens, simple poems of literary worth should be brought to the child's notice, and our English literature is sufficiently rich in these to satisfy even the quickest learners. Such poems train the literary sense and develop poetic feeling. Few children fail to appreciate the beauty of such a simple poem as George Macdonald's "Little White Lily," and of many poems in Stevenson's "Child's Garden of Verse," Blake's "Songs of Innocence," the simple poems of Eugene Field, Jean Ingelow, Wordsworth, and others. It might be pointed out in this connection that "We are Seven," though written around a child, is not for children, the reason lying in one line of the poem itself, "What should he know of death?"
The great point which must be insisted upon in teaching rhymes or poems is distinctness of articulation. By giving the child a clearly enunciated model to copy, the foundation of distinct and fluent speech is laid, and, the habit once formed, is not likely to be broken in later life.
Long before a child is able to reproduce what is heard the ear should be accustomed to tune. The power of music on young infants is clearly shown by the effect of lullabies. (See article on Lullabies, page 965.)
Apart from the cultivation of the aesthetic sense, which means a valuable faculty of finding pleasure in simple things, singing is valuable from a health point of view. It has frequently been noticed that people who sing much rarely suffer from consumption. Adenoids, a modern trouble of young folks, can be kept at bay by means of suitable breathing exercises, and of such none give greater pleasure than singing.
Acting a story. "Little Red Riding Hood." The dramatic instinct is strong in children and should have opportunities for its expression. This can be done by teaching children to dramatise fairy tales and nursery rhymes
The vocal exercises of young children must be of a very simple character, for children's voices have a very small compass, and if singing below or above the natural range be attempted, there will be a strain on the voice which can never be set right when more ambitious flights of song are wished for later. There are several pleasurable exercises which a child can perform as soon as he has mastered the practice of inspiring through the nose. A comb covered with tissue paper makes a simple musical instrument; blowing out a paper bag. which is afterwards burst by clapping, answers the same end, as do blowing feathery down or dandelion seeds into the air, or the fascinating game of soap bubbles.
During the past few years attempts have been made to revive folk songs, and their use for children of school age has been suggested by the Board of Education. To meet the demand for such songs, a collection has been arranged by C. V. Stanford, and published by Boosey & Co., at 3s. net. The lyrics of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Burns, Moore, and others are set to music with varied and powerful rhythms, representing the peculiar charm of the graceful airs.
Connected with the subject of music as a vocal exercise in the training of the ear, children should be exercised in the recognition of simple and well-known airs, which are played or hummed. They should be trained to recognise the different results of the more common musical instruments by means of sound without sight. Even the sounds which can be produced by striking such simple substances as wood, iron, glass, parchment, etc., and the noises peculiar to various animals, should be recognisable without reference to the sense of sight so that the sense of hearing may be fully cultivated.
In this connection also must be mentioned the "Mutter und Kose-lieder" of Froebel. This has often been called "the Bible of the Kindergarten," and, in spite of some obvious defects and crudities, it embodies the leading principles of the great educational reformer. Modified to suit special circumstances, it forms a valuable hand-book for those interested in the training of the young. Froebel says of it, "He who knows what I mean by this book has caught my deepest secret." To be continued.