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Ch. 3: Children's Playthings


"Books cannot teach what toys inculcate."


In the preceding chapter we discussed Froebel's plays, and found that the playful spirit which pervades all the kindergarten exercises must not be regarded as trivial, since it has a philosophic motive and a definite, earnest purpose.

We discussed the meaning of childish play, and deplored the lack of good and worthy national nursery plays. Passing then to Froebel's "Mother-Play," we found that the very heart of his educational idea lies in the book, and that it serves as a guide for mothers whose babies are yet in their arms, as well as for those who have little children of four or five years under their care.

We found that in Froebel's plays the mirror is held up to universal life; that the child in playing them grows into unconscious sympathy with the natural, the human, the divine; that by "playing at" the life he longs to understand, he grows at last into a conscious realization of its mysteries--its truth, its meaning, its dignity, its purpose.

We found that symbolic play leads the child from the symbol to the truth symbolized.

We discovered that the carefully chosen words of the kindergarten songs and games suggest thought to the child, the thought suggests gesture, the melody begets spiritual feeling.

We discussed the relation of body and mind; the effect of bodily attitudes on feeling and thought, as well as the moulding of the body by the indwelling mind.

Froebel's playthings are as significant as his plays. If you examine the materials he offers children in his "gifts and occupations," you cannot help seeing that they meet the child's natural wants in a truly wonderful manner, and that used in connection with conversations and stories and games they address and develop his love of movement and his love of rhythm; his desire to touch and handle, to play and work (to be busy), and his curiosity to know; his instincts of construction and comparison, his fondness for gardening and digging in the earth; his social impulse, and finally his religious feeling.

Froebel himself says if his educational materials are found useful, it cannot be because of their exterior, which is as simple as possible, and contains nothing new; but their worth is to be found exclusively in their application. If you can work out his principles (or better ones still when we find better ones) by other means, pray do it if you prefer; since the object of the kindergartner is not to make Froebel an idol, but an ideal. He seems to have found type-forms admirable for awaking the higher senses of the child, and unlike the usual scheme of object lessons, they tell a continued story. When the object-method first burst upon the enraptured sight of the teacher, this list of subjects appeared in a printed catalogue, showing the ground of study in a certain school for six months:--

"Tea, spiders, apple, hippopotamus, cow, cotton, duck, sugar, rabbits, rice, lighthouse, candle, lead-pencil, pins, tiger, clothing, silver, butter-making, giraffe, onion, soda!"

Such reckless heterogeneity as this is impossible with Froebel's educational materials, for even if they are given to the child without a single word, they carry something of their own logic with them.

They emphasize the gospel of doing, for Froebel believes in positives in teaching, not negatives; in stimulants, not deterrents. How inexpressibly tiresome is the everlasting "Don't!" in some households. Don't get in the fire, don't play in the water, don't tease the kitty, don't trouble the doggy, don't bother the lady, don't interrupt, don't contradict, don't fidget with your brother, and don't worry me now; while perhaps in this whole tirade, not a word has been said of something to do.

Let sleeping faults lie as long as possible while we quietly oust them, little by little, by developing the good qualities. Surely the less we use deterrents the better, since they are often the child's first introduction to what is undesirable or wrong. I am quite sure they have something of that effect on grown people. The telling us not to do, and that we cannot, must not, do a certain thing surrounds it with a momentary fascination. If your enemy suggests that there is a pot of Paris green on the piazza, but you must not take a spoonful and dissolve it in a cup of honey and give it to your maiden aunt who has made her will in your favor, your innocent mind hovers for an instant over the murderous idea.

Froebel's play-materials come to the child when he has entered upon the war-path of getting "something to do." If legitimate means fail, then "let the portcullis fall;" the child must be busy.

The fly on the window-pane will be crushed, the kettle tied to the dog's tail, the curtains cut into snips, the baby's hair shingled,--anything that his untiring hands may not pause an instant,--anything that his chubby legs may take his restless body over a circuit of a hundred miles or so before he is immured in his crib for the night.

The child of four or five years is still interested in objects, in the concrete. He wants to see and to hear, to examine and to work with his hands. How absurd then for us to make him fold his arms and keep his active fingers still; or strive to stupefy him with such an opiate as the alphabet. If we can possess our souls and primers in patience for a while, and feed his senses; if we will let him take in living facts and await the result; that result will be that when he has learned to perceive, compare, and construct, he will desire to learn words, for they tell him what others have seen, thought, and done. This reading and writing, what is it, after all, but the signs for things and thoughts? Logically we must first know things, then thoughts, then their records. The law of human progress is from physical activity to mental power, from a Hercules to a Shakespeare, and it is as true for each unit of humanity as it is for the race.

Everything in Froebel's playthings trains the child to quick, accurate observation. They help children to a fuller vision, they lead them to see. Did you ever think how many people there are who "having eyes, see not"?

Ruskin says, "Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, religion, all in one."

A gentleman who is trying to write the biography of a great man complained to me lately, that in consulting a dozen of his friends--men and women who had known him as preacher, orator, reformer, and poet--so few of them had anything characteristic and fine to relate. "What," he said "is the use of trying to write biography with such mummies for witnesses! They would have seen just as much if they had had nothing but glass eyes in their heads."

What is education good for that does not teach the mind to observe accurately and define picturesquely? To get at the essence of an object and clear away the accompanying rubbish, this is the only training that fits men and women to live with any profit to themselves or pleasure to others. What a biographer, for example, or at least what a witness for some other biographer, was latent in the little boy who, when told by his teacher to define a bat, said: "He's a nasty little mouse, with injy-rubber wings and shoe-string tail, and bites like the devil." There was an eye worth having! Agassiz himself could not have hit off better the salient characteristics of the little creature in question. Had that remarkable boy been brought into contact, for five minutes only, with Julius Caesar, who can doubt that the telling description he would have given of him would have come down through all the ages?

I do not mean to urge the adoption of any ultra-utilitarian standpoint in regard to playthings, or advise you rudely to enter the realm of early infancy and interfere with the baby's legitimate desires by any meddlesome pedagogic reasoning. Choose his toys wisely and then leave him alone with them. Leave him to the throng of emotional impressions they will call into being. Remember that they speak to his feelings when his mind is not yet open to reason. The toy at this period is surrounded with a halo of poetry and mystery, and lays hold of the imagination and the heart without awaking vulgar curiosity. Thrice happy age when one can hug one's white woolly lamb to one's bibbed breast, kiss its pink bead eyes in irrational ecstasy, and manipulate the squeak in its foreground without desire to explore the cause thereof!

At this period the well-beloved toy, the dumb sharer of the child's joys and sorrows, becomes the nucleus of a thousand enterprises, each rendered more fascinating by its presence and sympathy. If the toy be a horse, they take imaginary journeys together, and the road is doubly delightful because never traveled alone. If it be a house, the child lives therein a different life for every day in the week; for no monarch alive is so all-powerful as he whose throne is the imagination. Little tin soldier, Shem, Ham, and Japhet from the Noah's Ark, the hornless cow, the tailless dog, and the elephant that won't stand up, these play their allotted parts in his innocent comedies, and meanwhile he grows steadily in sympathy and in comprehension of the ever-widening circle of human relationships. "When we have restored playthings to their place in education--a place which assigns them the principal part in the development of human sympathies, we can later on put in the hands of children objects whose impressions will reach their minds more particularly."

Dr. E. Seguin, our Commissioner of Education to the Universal Exhibition at Vienna, philosophizes most charmingly on children's toys in his Report (chapter on the Training of Special Senses). He says the vast array of playthings (separated by nationalities) left at first sight an impression of silly sameness; but that a second look "discovered in them particular characters, as of national idiosyncrasies; and a closer examination showed that these puerilities had sense enough in them, not only to disclose the movements of the mind, but to predict what is to follow."

He classifies the toys exhibited, and in so doing gives us delightful and valuable generalizations, some of which I will quote:--

"Chinese and Japanese toys innumerable, as was to have been expected. Japanese toys much brighter, the dolls relieved in gold and gaudy colors, absolutely saucy. The application of the natural and mechanical forces in their toys cannot fail to determine the taste of the next generation towards physical sciences.

"Chinese dolls are sober in color, meek in demeanor, and comprehensive in mien.... The favorite Chinese toy remains the theatrical scene where the family is treated à la Molière.

"Persia sends beautiful toys, from which can be inferred a national taste for music, since most of their dolls are blowing instruments.

"Turkey, Egypt, Arabia, have sent no dolls. Do they make none, under the impression, correct in a low state of culture, that dolls for children become idols for men?

"The Finlanders and Laplanders, who are not troubled with such religious prejudices, give rosy cheeks and bodies as fat as seals to their dolls.

"The French toy represents the versatility of the nation, touching every topic, grave or grotesque.

"From Berlin come long trains of artillery, regiments of lead, horse and foot on moving tramways.

"From the Hartz and the Alps still issue those wooden herds, more characteristic of the dull feelings of their makers than of the instincts of the animals they represent.

"The American toys justify the rule we have found good elsewhere, that their character both reveals and prefaces the national tendencies. With us, toys refer the mind and habits of children to home economy, husbandry, and mechanical labor; and their very material is durable, mainly wood and iron.

"So from childhood every people has its sympathies expressed or suppressed, and set deeper in its flesh and blood than scholastic ideas.... The children who have no toys seize realities very late, and never form ideals.... The nations rendered famous by their artists, artisans, and idealists have supplied their infants with many toys, for there is more philosophy and poetry in a single doll than in a thousand books.... If you will tell us what your children play with, we will tell you what sort of women and men they will be; so let this Republic make the toys which will raise the moral and artistic character of her children."

Froebel's educational toys do us one service, in that they preach a silent but impressive sermon on simplicity.

It is easy to see that the hurlyburly of our modern life is not wholly favorable to the simple creed of childhood, "delight and liberty, when busy or at rest," but we might make it a little less artificial than we do, perhaps.

Every thoughtful person knows that the simple, natural playthings of the old-fashioned child, which are nothing more than pegs on which he hangs his glowing fancies, are healthier than our complicated modern mechanisms, in which the child has only to "press the button" and the toy "does the rest."

The electric-talking doll, for example--imagine a generation of children brought up on that! And the toy-makers are not even content with this grand personage, four feet high, who says "Papa! Mamma!" She is passée already; they have begun to improve on her! An electrician described to me the other day a superb new altruistic doll, fitted to the needs of the present decade. You are to press a judiciously located button and ask her the test question, which is, if she will have some candy; whereupon with an angelic detached-movement-smile (located in the left cheek), she is to answer, "Give brother big piece; give me little piece!" If the thing gets out of order (and I devoutly hope it will), it will doubtless return to a state of nature, and horrify the bystanders by remarking, "Give me big piece! Give brother little piece!"

Think of having a gilded dummy like that given you to amuse yourself with! Think of having to play,--to play, forsooth, with a model of propriety, a high-minded monstrosity like that! Doesn't it make you long for your dear old darkey doll with the raveled mouth, and the stuffing leaking out of her legs; or your beloved Arabella Clarinda with the broken nose, beautiful even in dissolution,--creatures "not too bright or good for human nature's daily food"? Banged, battered, hairless, sharers of our mad joys and reckless sorrows, how we loved them in their simple ugliness! With what halos of romance we surrounded them! with what devotion we nursed the one with the broken head, in those early days when new heads were not to be bought at the nearest shop. And even if they could have been purchased for us, would we, the primitive children of those dear, dark ages, have ever thought of wrenching off the cracked blonde head of Ethelinda and buying a new, strange, nameless brunette head, gluing it calmly on Ethelinda's body, as a small acquaintance of mine did last week, apparently without a single pang? Never! A doll had a personality in those times, and has yet, to a few simple backwoods souls, even in this day and generation. Think of Charles Kingsley's song,--"I once had a sweet little doll, dears." Can we imagine that as written about one of these modern monstrosities with eyeglasses and corsets and vinaigrettes?


  "I once had a sweet little doll, dears,
  The prettiest doll in the world,
  Her face was so red and so white, dears,
  And her hair was so charmingly curled;
  But I lost my poor little doll, dears,
  As I played on the heath one day,
  And I sought for her more than a week, dears,
  But I never could find where she lay.

"I found my poor little doll, dears, As I played on the heath one day; Folks say she is terribly changed, dears, For her paint is all washed away; And her arms trodden off by the cows, dears, And her hair not the least bit curled; Yet for old sake's sake she is still, dears, The prettiest doll in the world."


Long live the doll!


  "Dolly-o'diamonds, precious lamb,
  Humming-bird, honey-pot, jewel, jam,
  Darling delicate-dear-delight--
  Angel-o'red, angel-o'white!"


"Take away the doll, you erase from the heart and head feelings, images, poetry, aspiration, experience, ready for application to real life."

Every mother knows the development of tenderness and motherliness that goes on in her little girl through the nursing and petting and teaching and caring for her doll. There is a good deal of journalistic anxiety concerning the decline of mothers. Is it possible that fathers, too, are in any danger of decline? It is impossible to overestimate the sacredness and importance of the mother-spirit in the universe, but the father-spirit is not positively valueless (so far as it goes). The newspaper-pessimists talk comparatively little about developing that in the young male of the species. In three years' practical experience among the children of the poorer classes, and during all the succeeding years, when I have filled the honorary and honorable offices of general-utility woman, story-teller, song-singer, and playmaker-in-ordinary to their royal highnesses, some thousands of babies, I have been struck with the greater hardness of the small boys; a certain coarseness of fibre and lack of sensitiveness which makes them less susceptible, at first, to gentle influences.

Once upon a time I set about developing this father spirit in a group of little gamins whose general attitude toward the weaker sex, toward birds and flowers and insects, toward beauty in distress and wounded sensibility, was in the last degree offensive. In the bird games we had always had a mother bird in the nest with the birdlings; we now introduced a father bird into the game. Though the children had been only a little time in the kindergarten, and were not fully baptized into the spirit of play, still the boys were generally willing to personate the father bird, since their delight in the active and manly occupation of flying about the room seeking worms overshadowed their natural repugnance to feeding the young. This accomplished, we played "Master Rider," in which a small urchin capered about on a hobby horse, going through a variety of adventures, and finally returning with presents to wife and children. This in turn became a matter of natural experience, and we moved towards our grand coup d'état.

Once a week we had dolls' day, when all the children who owned them brought their dolls, and the exercises were ordered with the single view of amusing and edifying them. The picture of that circle of ragged children comes before me now and dims my eyes with its pathetic suggestions.

Such dolls! Five-cent, ten-cent dolls; dolls with soiled clothes and dolls in a highly indecorous state of nudity; dolls whose ruddy hues of health had been absorbed into their mothers' systems; dolls made of rags, dolls made of carrots, and dolls made of towels; but all dispensing odors of garlic in the common air. Maternal affection, however, pardoned all limitations, and they were clasped as fondly to maternal bosoms as if they had been imported from Paris.

"Bless my soul!" might have been the unspoken comment of these tiny mothers. "If we are only to love our offspring when handsome and well clothed, then the mother-heart of society is in a bad way!"

Dolls' day was the day for lullabies. I always wished I might gather a group of stony-hearted men and women in that room and see them melt under the magic of the scene. Perhaps you cannot imagine the union of garlic and magic, nevertheless, O ye of little faith, it may exist. The kindergarten cradle stood in the centre of the circle, and the kindergarten doll, clean, beautiful, and well dressed, lay inside the curtains, waiting to be sung to sleep with the other dolls. One little girl after another would go proudly to the "mother's chair" and rock the cradle, while the other children hummed their gentle lullabies. At this juncture even the older boys (when the influence of the music had stolen in upon their senses) would glance from side to side longingly, as much as to say,--

"O Lord, why didst Thou not make thy servant a female, that he might dandle one of these interesting objects without degradation!"

In such an hour I suddenly said, "Josephus, will you be the father this time?" and without giving him a second to think, we began our familiar lullaby. The radical nature, the full enormity, of the proposition did not (in that moment of sweet expansion) strike Josephus. He moved towards the cradle, seated himself in the chair, put his foot upon the rocker, and rocked the baby soberly, while my heart sang in triumph. After this the fathers as well as the mothers took part in all family games, and this mighty and much-needed reform had been worked through the magic of a fascinating plaything.


Kate Douglas Wiggin