Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 2: Children's Plays


"The plays of the age are the heart-leaves of the whole future life, for the whole man is visible in them in his finest capacities and his innermost being."


Mr. W.W. Newell, in his admirable book on "Children's Games," traces to their proper source all the familiar plays which in one form or another have been handed down from generation to generation, and are still played wherever and whenever children come together in any numbers. The result of his sympathetic and scholarly investigations is most interesting to the student of childhood, and as valuable philologically as historically. In speaking of the old rounds and rhymed formulas which have preserved their vitality under the effacing hand of Time, he says,--

"It will be obvious that many of these well-known game-rhymes were not composed by children. They were formerly played, as in many countries they are still played, by young persons of marriageable age, or even by mature men and women.... The truth is, that in past centuries all the world, judged by our present standard, seems to have been a little childish. The maids of honor of Queen Elizabeth's day, if we may credit the poets, were devoted to the game of tag, with which even Diana and her nymphs were supposed to amuse themselves....

"We need not, however, go to remote times or lands for illustration which is supplied by New England country towns of a generation ago. Dancing, under that name, was little practiced; the amusement of young people at their gatherings was "playing games." These games generally resulted in forfeits, to be redeemed by kissing, in every possible variety of position and method. Many of these games were rounds; but as they were not called dances, and as man-kind pays more attention to words than things, the religious conscience of the community, which objected to dancing, took no alarm.... Such were the pleasures of young men and women from sixteen to twenty-five years of age. Nor were the participants mere rustics; many of them could boast as good blood, as careful breeding, and as much intelligence, as any in the land. Neither was the morality or sensitiveness of the young women of that day in any respect inferior to what it is at present.

"Now that our country towns are become mere outlying suburbs of cities, these remarks may be read with a smile at the rude simplicity of old-fashioned American life. But the laugh should be directed, not at our own country, but at the bygone age. It must be remembered that in mediaeval Europe, and in England till the end of the seventeenth century, a kiss was the usual salutation of a lady to a gentleman whom she wished to honor.... The Portuguese ladies who came to England with the Infanta in 1662 were not used to the custom; but, as Pepys says, in ten days they had 'learnt to kiss and look freely up and down.' Kissing in games was, therefore, a matter of course, in all ranks....

"In respectable and cultivated French society, at the time of which we speak, the amusements, not merely of young people but of their elders as well, were every whit as crude.

"Madame Celnart, a recognized authority on etiquette, compiled in 1830 a very curious complete manual of society games recommending them as recreation for business men.... 'Their varying movement,' she says, 'their diversity, the gracious and gay ideas which these games inspire, the decorous caresses which they permit, all this combines to give real amusement. These caresses can alarm neither modesty nor prudence, since a kiss in honor given and taken before numerous witnesses is often an act of propriety.'"

The old ballads and nursery rhymes doubtless had much of innocence and freshness in them, but they only come to us nowadays tainted by the odors of city streets. The pleasure and poetry of the original essence are gone, and vulgarity reigns triumphant. If you listen to the words of the games which children play in school yards, on sidewalks, and in the streets on pleasant evenings, you will find that most of them, to say the least, border closely on vulgarity; that they are utterly unsuitable to childhood, notwithstanding that they are played with great glee; that they are, in fine, common, rude, silly, and boorish. One can never watch a circle of children going through the vulgar inanities of "Jenny O'Jones," "Say, daughter, will you get up?" "Green Gravel," or "Here come two ducks a-roving," without unspeakable shrinking and moral disgust. These plays are dying out; let them die, for there is a hint of happier things abroad in the air.

The wisest mind of wise antiquity told the riddle of the Sphinx, if having ears to hear we would hear. "Our youth should be educated in a stricter rule from the first, for if education becomes lawless and the youths themselves become lawless, they can never grow up into well-conducted or meritorious citizens; and the education must begin with their plays."

We talk a great deal about the strength of early impressions. I wonder if we mean all we say; we do not live up to it, at all events. "In childish play deep meaning lies." "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world." "Give me the first six years of a child's life, and I care not who has the rest." "The child of six years has learned already far more than a student learns in his entire university course." "The first six years are as full of advancement as the six days of creation," and so on. If we did believe these things fully, we should begin education with conscious intelligence at the cradle, if not earlier. The great German dramatic critic, Schlegel, once sneered at the brothers Jacob and William Grimm, for what he styled their "meditation on the insignificant." These two brothers, says a wiser student, an historian of German literature, were animated by a "pathetic optimism, and possessed that sober imagination which delights in small things and narrow interests, lingering over them with strong affection." They explored villages and hamlets for obscure legends and folk tales, for nursery songs, even; and bringing to bear on such things at once a human affection and a wise scholarship, their meditation on the insignificant became the basis of their scientific greatness and the source of their popularity. Every child has read some of Grimm's household tales, "The Frog Prince," "Hans in Luck," or the "Two Brothers;" but comparatively few people realize, perhaps, that this collection of stories is the foundation of the modern science of folk-lore, and a by-play in researches of philology and history which place the name of Grimm among the benefactors of our race. I refer to these brothers because they expressed one of the leading theories of the new education.

"My principle," said Jacob Grimm, "has been to undervalue nothing, but to utilize the small for the illustration of the great." When Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten, in the course of his researches began to watch the plays of children and to study their unconscious actions, his "meditation on the insignificant" became the basis of scientific greatness, and of an influence still in its infancy, but destined, perhaps, to revolutionize the whole educational method of society.

It was while he was looking on with delight at the plays of little children, their happy, busy plans and make-believes, their intense interest in outward nature, and in putting things together or taking them apart, that Froebel said to himself: "What if we could give the child that which is called education through his voluntary activities, and have him always as eager as he is at play?"

How well I remember, years ago, the first time I ever joined in a kindergarten game. I was beckoned to the charming circle, and not only one, but a dozen openings were made for me, and immediately, though I was a stranger, a little hand on either side was put into mine, with such friendly, trusting pressure that I felt quite at home. Then we began to sing of the spring-time, and I found myself a green tree waving its branches in the wind. I was frightened and self-conscious, but I did it, and nobody seemed to notice me; then I was a flower opening its petals in the sunshine, and presently, a swallow gathering straws for nest-building; then, carried away by the spirit of the kindergartner and her children, I fluttered my clumsy apologies for wings, and forgetting self, flew about with all the others, as happy as a bird. Soon I found that I, the stranger, had been chosen for the "mother swallow." It was to me, the girl of eighteen, like mounting a throne and being crowned. Four cunning curly heads cuddled under my wings for protection and slumber, and I saw that I was expected to stoop and brood them, which I did, with a feeling of tenderness and responsibility that I had never experienced in my life before. Then, when I followed my baby swallows back to their seats, I saw that the play had broken down every barrier between us, and that they clustered about me as confidingly as if we were old friends. I think I never before felt my own limitations so keenly, or desired so strongly to be fully worthy of a child's trust and love.

Kindergarten play takes the children where they love to be, into the world of "make-believe." In this lovely world the children are blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights; birds, bees, butterflies; trees, flowers, sunbeams, rainbows; frogs, lambs, ponies,--anything they like. The play is so characteristic, so poetic, so profoundly touching in its simplicity and purity, so full of meaning, that it would inspire us with admiration and respect were it the only salient point of Froebel's educational idea. It endeavors to express the same idea in poetic words, harmonious melody and fitting motion, appealing thus to the thought, feeling, and activity of the child.

Physical impressions are at the beginning of life the only possible medium for awakening the child's sensibility. These impressions should therefore be regulated as systematically as possible, and not left to chance.

Froebel supplies the means for bringing about the result in a simple system of symbolic songs and games, appealing to the child's activities and sensibilities. These he argues, ought to contain the germ of all later instruction and thought; for physical and sensuous perceptions are the points of departure of all knowledge.

When the child imitates, he begins to understand. Let him imitate the airy flight of the bird, and he enters partially into bird life. Let the little girl personate the hen with her feathery brood of chickens, and her own maternal instinct is quickened, as she guards and guides the wayward motion of the little flock. Let the child play the carpenter, the wheelwright, the wood-sawyer, the farmer, and his intelligence is immediately awakened; he will see the force, the meaning, the power, and the need of labor. In short, let him mirror in his play all the different aspects of universal life, and his thought will begin to grasp their significance.

Thus kindergarten play may be defined as a "systematized sequence of experiences through which the child grows into self-knowledge, clear observation, and conscious perception of the whole circle of relationships," and the symbols of his play become at length the truth itself, bound fast and deep in heart knowledge, which is deeper and rarer than head knowledge, after all.

To the class occupied exclusively with material things, this phase of Froebel's idea may perhaps seem mystical. There is nothing mystical to children, however; all is real, for their visions have not been dispelled.


      "Turn wheresoe'er I may,
      By night or day,
  The things which I have seen, I now can see no more."


As soon as the child begins to be conscious of his own activities and his power of regulating them, he desires to imitate the actions of his future life.

Nothing so delights the little girl as to play at housekeeping in her tiny mansion, sacred to the use of dolls. See her whimsical attention to dust and dirt, her tremendous wisdom in dispensing the work and ordering the duties of the household, her careful attention to the morals and manners of her rag-babies.

The boy, too, tries to share in the life of a man, to play at his father's work, to be a miniature carpenter, salesman, or what not. He rides his father's cane and calls it a horse, in the same way that the little girl wraps a shawl about a towel, and showers upon it the tenderest tokens of maternal affection. All these examples go to show that every conscious intellectual phase of the mind has a previous phase in which it was unconscious or merely symbolic.

To get at the spirit and inspiration of symbolic representation in song and game, it is necessary first of all to study Froebel's "Mutter und Kose-Lieder," perhaps the most strikingly original, instructive, serviceable book in the whole history of the practice of education. The significant remark quoted in Froebel's "Reminiscences" is this: "He who understands what I mean by these songs knows my inmost secret." You will find people who say the music in the book is poor, which is largely true, and that the versification is weak, which is often, not always, true, and is sometimes to be attributed to faulty translation; but the idea, the spirit, the continuity of the plan, are matchless, and critics who call it trifling or silly are those who have not the seeing eye nor the understanding heart. Froebel's wife said of it,--


  "A superficial mind does not grasp it,
  A gentle mind does not hate it,
  A coarse mind makes fun of it,
  A thoughtful mind alone tries to get at it."


"Froebel[1] considers it his duty to picture the home as it ought to be, not by writing a book of theories and of rules which are easily forgotten, but by accompanying a mother in her daily rounds through house, garden, and field, and by following her to workshop, market, and church. He does not represent a woman of fashion, but prefers one of humbler station, whom he clothes in the old German housewife style. It may be a small sphere she occupies, but there she is the centre, and she completely fills her place. She rejoices in the dignity of her position as educator of a human being whom she has to bring into harmony with God, nature, and man. She thinks nothing too trifling that concerns her child. She watches, clothes, feeds, and trains it in good habits, and when her darling is asleep, her prayers finish the day. She may not have read much about education, but her sympathy with the child suggests means of doing her duty. Love has made her inventive; she discovers means of amusement, for play; she talks and sings, sometimes in poetry and sometimes in prose. From mothers in his circle of relations and friends, Froebel has learned what a mother can do, and although he had no children of his own, his heart vibrated instinctively with the feelings of a mother's joy, hope, and fear. He did not care about the scorn of others, when he felt he must speak with an almost womanly heart to a mother. His own loss of a mother's tender care made him the more appreciate the importance of a mother's love in early infancy. The mother in his book makes use of all the impressions, influences, and agencies with which the child comes in contact: she protects from evil; she stimulates for good; she places the child in direct communication with nature, because she herself admires its beauties. She has a right feeling towards her neighbors, and to all those on whom she depends. A movement of arms and feet teaches her that the child feels its strength and wants to use it. She helps, she lifts, she teaches; and while playing with her baby's hands and feet she is never at a loss for a song or story.

[Footnote 1: Eleonore Heerwart.]

"The mother also knows that it is necessary to train the senses, because they are the active organs which convey food to the intellect. The ear must hear language, music, the gentle accents and warning voices of father and mother. It must distinguish the sounds of the wind, of the water, and of pet animals.

"The eyesight is directed to objects far and near, as the pigeons flying, the hare running, the light flickering on the wall, the calm beauty of the moon, and the twinkling stars in the dark blue sky."

Of the effect of Froebel's symbolic songs and games, with melodious music and appropriate gesture, kindergartners all speak enthusiastically. They know that--

First: The words suggest thought to the child.

Second: The thought suggests gesture.

Third: The gesture aids in producing the proper feeling.

We all believe thoroughly in the influence of mind on body, the inward working outward, but we are not as ready to see the influence of body on mind. Yet if mind or soul acts upon the body, the external gesture and attitude just as truly react upon the inward feeling. "The soul speaks through the body, and the body in return gives command to the soul." All attitudes mean something, and they all influence the state of mind.

Fourth: The melody begets spiritual impressions.

Fifth: The gestures, feeling, and melody unite in giving a sweet and gentle intercourse, in developing love for labor, home, country, associates, and dumb animals, and in unconsciously directing the intellectual powers.

Learning to sing well is the best possible means of learning to speak well, and the exquisite precision which music gives to kindergarten play destroys all rudeness, and does not in the least rob it of its fun or merriment.

"We cannot tell how early the pleasing sense of musical cadence affects a child. In some children it is blended with the earliest, haziest recollection of life at all, as though they had been literally 'cradled in sweet song;' and we may be sure that the hearing of musical sounds and singing in association with others are for the child, as for the adult, powerful influences in awakening sympathetic emotion, and pleasure in associated action."

Who can see the kindergarten games, led by a teacher who has grown into their spirit, and ever forget the joy of the spectacle? It brings tears to the eyes of any woman who has ever been called mother, or ever hopes to be; and I have seen more than one man retire surreptitiously to wipe away his tears. Is it "that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin"? Is it the perfect self-forgetfulness of the children? Is it a touch of self-pity that the radiant visions of our childhood days have been dispelled, and the years have brought the "inevitable yoke"? Or is it the touching sight of so much happiness contrasted with what we know the home life to be?

Sydney Smith says: "If you make children happy now, you will make them happy twenty years hence by the memory of it;" and we know that virtue kindles at the touch of this joy. "Selfishness, rudeness, and similar weedy growths of school-life or of street-independence cannot grow in such an atmosphere. For joy is as foreign to tumult and destruction, to harshness and selfish disregard of others, as the serene, vernal sky with its refreshing breezes is foreign to the uproar and terrors of the hurricane."

For this kind of ideal play we are indebted to Friedrich Froebel, and if he had left no other legacy to childhood, we should exalt him for it.

If you are skeptical, let me beseech you to join the children in a Free Kindergarten, and play with them. You will be convinced, not through your head, perhaps, but through your heart. I remember converting such a grim female once! You know Henry James says, "Some women are unmarried by choice, and others by chance, but Olive Chancellor was unmarried by every implication of her being." Now, this predestinate spinster acquaintance of mine, well nigh spoiled by years of school-teaching in the wrong spirit, was determined to think kindergarten play simply a piece of nauseating frivolity. She tried her best, but, kept in the circle with the children five successive days, she relaxed so completely that it was with the utmost difficulty that she kept herself from being a butterfly or a bird. It is always so; no one can resist the unconscious happiness of children.

As for the good that comes to grown people from playing with children in this joyous freedom and with this deep earnestness of purpose, it is beyond all imagination. If I had a daughter who was frivolous, or worldly, or selfish, or cold, or unthoughtful,--who regarded life as a pleasantry, or fell into the still more stupid mistake of thinking it not worth living,--I should not (at first) make her read the Bible, or teach in the Sunday-school, or call on the minister, or request the prayers of the congregation, but I should put her in a good Kindergarten Training School. No normal young woman can resist the influence of the study of childhood and the daily life among little children, especially the children of the poor: it is irresistible.

Oh, these tiny teachers! If we only learned from them all we might, instead of feeling ourselves over-wise! I never look down into the still, clear pool of a child's innocent, questioning eyes without thinking: "Dear little one, it must be 'give and take' between thee and me. I have gained something here in all these years, but thou hast come from thence more lately than have I; thou hast a treasure that the years have stolen from me--share it with me!"

Let us endeavor, then, to make the child's life objective to him. Let us unlock to him the significance of family, social, and national relationships, so that he may grow into sympathy with them. He loves the symbol which interprets his nature to himself, and in his eager play, he pictures the life he longs to understand.

If we could make such education continuous, if we could surround the child in his earlier years with such an atmosphere of goodness, beauty, and wisdom, none can doubt that he would unconsciously grow into harmony and union with the All-Good, the All-Beautiful, and the All-Wise.


Kate Douglas Wiggin