Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/June 1894/The Kindergarten a Natural System of Education




THE kindergarten is a natural system of education, because it recognizes the natural laws of human growth, and supplies the necessary conditions to stimulate the special powers of each individual child. It recognizes the fact that each child has an individuality peculiarly its own, and that the greatest evil of school life in the past has been the dwarfing of individual power. No two children are alike, no two should be alike. All should be in unison by having the same desire to live for the right, but the powers of each and the methods of using them should be his own. The mightiest, holiest part of each individual is the quality or power in which he differs from all others. Schools generally manufacture men and women "to pattern." Whatever the ability, general or special, possessed by the different pupils of a class, they have all been expected to rise or fall to the same dead level. Usually the level has been very dead. The kindergarten is founded on the broad principle that the Creator had a special purpose in giving life to each child, and that the school should aid the child in becoming as nearly as possible what God meant him to be when he first let him enter the world. The kindergarten insists on the proper control of each child, because uncontrolled spontaneity commonly leads to anarchy and unbridled evil, but it never allows power to be destroyed by controlling it.

The kindergarten values the child more than the knowledge to be communicated to it or acquired by it. It values knowledge highly, but it places its highest estimate on the child, who has power to give the only real value to knowledge. It knows that the development of the child increases his capacity for gathering and using knowledge. It believes that the child's powers should grow forever, that they grow most rapidly in early years, and that true growth in childhood is the only basis for the highest development of maturity. Therefore it makes the child and his universal tendencies and activities the chief study of the educator. The highest function of the teacher is not to select the knowledge most appropriate for children, or to decide the best plans for fixing it in their minds; his greatest study is the child and the ways in which he educates himself in those most prolific years before he goes to school. Some teachers claim that the teacher's duty is to teach the child how to "go." The child was set going long before he went to school. He was kept going before he went to school more rapidly than he ever goes after that time. Others say, the teacher's duty is to start the child to grow. How he had been growing before he went to school! How he grew physically; how his mind unfolded and defined itself; how his spiritual nature recognized the Creator in the wondrous material creation, and reached out to the mysteries of the unknown! He was ever going before he went to school, and growing because he was going. The reason he stops growing rapidly as soon as he goes to school is that his teachers interfere with his going. They stop his going altogether during school hours, and the reason he does not stop growing altogether physically, intellectually, and spiritually is that he is fortunately not kept in school all the time. How full of gratitude we should be for the fact that the blighting processes of the schoolroom last but six hours of five days in each week! We should be even more grateful when we remember that the school hours may become the most productive of the day in real growth. This is a part of the revelation which the kindergarten bears to all teachers who study it with sympathetic spirit. There is no good reason why the child's development should be checked after it goes to school. It should continue to improve with accelerated speed throughout life. Teachers will do vastly better than they do now when they keep up, after the child goes to school, the rate of advancement attained before he goes to school. They can never hope to do this until they study and understand the fundamental principles that underlie the motives of children, and guide them in the infinitely varied activities of their childish work and play. All their activities are in harmony with a divine purpose in the accomplishment of their fullest development. Man can best learn how to teach from the greatest teacher. His power and the unequaled success of his plans can be learned by the careful and continuous study of childhood. The teaching profession has been learning this fact from the kindergarten. There are several organized agencies already in existence for recording and comparing the characteristics, the tendencies, the habits, the activities, the capabilities, and the progressive development of children in different parts of the world. The new era has begun.

In the kindergarten the child's spontaneity is respected. He is not guided too much. He is allowed to work out, with the material given him, the plans, the designs, the problems, that arise in his own mind. The kindergarten dictates plans, designs, or problems to him only so far as may be necessary to help his mind to recognize new conceptions. He never has a lesson in which he is a follower or an imitator all the time. The idea that he should produce a result similar to his neighbor's is never presented to him. He is trained to depend on his own mind for the plan or design, and for its execution. Nature's plan before the child goes to school is to let him find his own problems. His greatest mental power is the ability to recognize in the material world by which he is surrounded the new things he has not seen before and the new problems he does not understand. If he has the privilege of growing up among the beauties of natural life, if the trees and flowers, and birds and butterflies, and bees and crickets, are his companions, if he has sand and stones and sticks for his playthings, there are few of the problems of science and material philosophy that do not present themselves to his mind. He solves thousands of them unaided, and brings those that are too deep for him to his mother or father, or most sympathetic older friend. These problems are not forced upon his mind by any external agency, they lie all around his path awaiting recognition by his mind. The recognition comes under such conditions exactly at the right moment, when the mind is ready to deal with the problem. No wonder that, under such conditions, knowledge is acquired and mental power defined and developed so rapidly. But when the child goes to school all these conditions are absolutely reversed. The teacher finds the problems and brings them to the child. Worse than this, the problems are those that suggest themselves to the teacher's mind and not the child's. Such problems can not be appropriate for the child. The problems suitable for one child can not be the best for other children at the same time. No mind but the child's own can decide the character of the problems suited to its present condition of development. Mind-growth can be dwarfed in no other way so completely as by the presentation of unsuitable problems. Loss of interest and loss of power, negation instead of positivity, indifference in place of aggressive wonderment, must follow when the child is forced to deal with problems that are not in harmony with his mental development.

One of the greatest improvements in school-teaching will be the placing of the children in such conditions that they may find their own problems. In the kindergarten this is the foundation principle of mental growth. Self-activity does not mean activity in working out the directions of a teacher or any other superior mind; it means the revelation or execution of the conceptions of the child himself. The child's work should be self-expression, not imitation, not mere responsive action in accord with the suggestion of a teacher. "The children are not interested in study, and most of them need to be forced to learn; so it would be worse than folly to expect them to find problems for themselves." So says the teacher who has had no true inspiration, no clear enlightenment. My dear friend, it is quite true that the children are not interested in your problems. It is true, moreover, that the few who gratify you and their parents by paying attention to your problems and learning your lessons usually make weak men, lacking in originality and force. Every head boy who leaves school with a load of prizes in his arms and a load of knowledge in his head, and then becomes a respectable nonentity, is an unripe, falling apple to set educational Newtons thinking.

The pupils do rebel against your problems; but they do not rebel against the problems of Nature before they go to school. Wake up! There are apples falling all around you. The greatest development in school processes during the next twenty-five years will be the introduction into the schoolroom of appropriate material, calculated to stimulate the investigative and executive powers of children, and thus continue the natural educational processes that led to such rapid and definite growth before school life began.

By reversing Nature's plan, and bringing the problems to children, instead of allowing them to find them for themselves, teachers prevent the development of the power to recognize new problems. This is the most important of all intellectual powers. The solution of new problems is a simple matter when we can clearly recognize them. The ability to see the things yet unseen must precede the knowledge of the things yet unknown. The power to see new problems should grow in strength and clearness more rapidly than any other mental power. It can not grow unless it has the opportunity for exercise. The greatest teacher is the one who presents to the child the best opportunities for the recognition of new problems by his own mind, and the most perfect facilities for expressing or representing his new conceptions in material form. The wonderment of the child in regard to the material world should become much more than a mental stimulus; it should ultimately become our highest, broadest, keenest spiritual insight. We are ever in the midst of new spiritual problems that we fail to recognize, because our wonder power was not allowed to act up to its natural limit.

In the kindergarten, knowledge is made clear by the self-activity of the child. All growth of human power is based on the self-activity of the individual to be developed. No thought is ever definite until it has been consciously lived out or wrought out. The kindergarten makes use of self-expression in the child to define the thought already in its mind, and to reveal new thought. There is no other way by which thought can be clearly revealed and defined. Self-activity on the part of the child secures four very important results: it enables the teacher to be sure that the child is paying attention to its work, it reveals the nature of the child's own conceptions, it is an accurate test of the clearness of the thought received from the instruction of the teacher, and it is the most productive incentive to originality.

In the kindergarten, knowledge is applied as it is gained. The old plan of learning definitions or tables, or the names or powers of letters, or the theoretical principles of any science as a preparation for practical work to be done in geometry, algebra, arithmetic, reading, or science, was not in harmony with natural laws of growth. It is unnatural to value knowledge of any kind for itself alone. Knowledge has no value except as it is used; and an assumed value based on any other foundation must be fictitious and misleading. The child should not be interested in knowledge that it is not required to use in some way. When it becomes conscious of a lack of knowledge that is essential to the accomplishment of any definite purpose in its mind, it needs no artificial stimulus to make it give active and persistent attention. The consciousness of necessity should precede the effort to acquire. The kindergarten leads the child to define knowledge by using it, and uses knowledge as soon as it is acquired.

The kindergarten trains the executive powers of children. Formerly only their receptive powers were cultivated. They were made receptacles for knowledge communicated by the teacher, and their powers of receiving knowledge independently were developed. When teachers had accomplished the two purposes of storing the minds of their pupils and training their powers of observation, so as to qualify them for gaining knowledge readily and accurately themselves, they were satisfied. Better teachers were soon convinced that the accumulation of knowledge by even the most perfect methods was not the true aim of education, and gradually the reflective power received attention as well as the receptive powers. The lesson that the kindergarten has for us is that the best training of the receptive and reflective powers is practically valueless unless the executive powers are trained too. It will not do to leave the training of the executive powers to the circumstances of life outside of school. The receptive powers receive a great deal of good training outside of school; so do the reflective powers; so, too, do the executive powers. There is no reason for leaving the development of the executive powers to the conditions outside of school that does not apply with equal force to the culture of the receptive and reflective powers. Such a course would do away with schools altogether. There are two reasons that render the training of the executive powers of children absolutely essential in a complete education: First, the receptive and reflective powers are really useful to the individual and humanity only when they are made productive by executive ability; and, second, the training of the executive powers is the only way by which the receptive and reflective powers can be thoroughly cultivated. Nature's sequence is: Receive, reflect, use. The first two steps must be imperfect without the third. The kindergarten always completes the ascent; it never destroys the unity of the trinity.

The kindergarten makes children creative; or it is better to say that it preserves and utilizes their creative powers. Men and women were not intended to be mere imitators or servile followers of other men and women. They should be independent, original, creative. Man can not be creative as God is creative, but the divine in each human being gives him power to be and do what others have never been or done. There is something for each of us to discover and reveal; something for each to produce; something for each to add to the helpful agencies that serve to make man happier; something that will aid in the realization of the highest hopes of the heart of humanity. The kindergarten aims from the first to develop the truly productive more than the reproductive tendencies and talents of the child. It makes children not merely submissive and responsive, but suggestive, inventive, creative. The schools and universities will learn to do so in due time.

The discipline of the kindergarten is natural. It is based on love and executed by love. There is no heart whose feelings are not purified and ennobled by the consciousness of the love of another heart; no mind that is not aroused and stimulated to grander efl'ort by the full sympathy of another mind. The young heart yearns for the mother-love, and there is no other who could make so perfect a teacher as the mother of the child to be taught, if her education and her time were sufficient for the work. There will come a time when noble mothers will train great daughters and sons for humanity to a much greater extent than they do now. As women more clearly realize their powers and their responsibilities, it will be impossible to satisfy them with the society customs of semi-civilization. The social instinct has been terribly degraded. The period of its ennobling is at hand, when social unity shall in no sense be formalism. The kindergarten emphasizes the need of mother-love as an educational force. It does not propose that the kindergarten shall be a substitute for the mother; but it tries to provide for the little ones a beautiful home, where they may enjoy the sympathetic affection of a true woman's heart, and have at the same time the advantages of the culture of a trained educator. It is only when the child's nature opens to the light that its complete life grows; it is only when the child's heart is happy that its mind is free. In the true kindergarten no woman can find a place whose heart is not young, whose life is not pure, and whose aims are not unselfish. Love is the greatest controlling force and the greatest intellectual stimulus.