Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/September 1894/Studies of Childhood II









CHILDREN'S play has been studied under different aspects. One of the most attractive of these is its imaginativeness. All play is to some extent fanciful—that is, inspired and vitalized by fantasy; and the element of fancifulness is especially rich and varied in the pastimes of the small people of the nursery.

Viewed on this side, child play may be described as the working out into actual visible shape of an inner fancy. In many cases, no doubt, the actual surroundings may supply the starting point; the child, for example, sees the sand, the shingle, and shells, and says, Let us play keeping a shop. Yet this suggestion by something present is accidental. The root impulse of play is to realize a bright, pretty idea; hence its close kinship with art as a whole. This image is the dominating force; it is for the time a veritable idée fixe, and everything has to accommodate itself to this. Since the image has to be acted out, it comes into collision with the actual surroundings. Here is the child's opportunity. The carpet is instantly mapped out into two hostile territories; the sofa-head becomes a horse, a coach, a ship, or what not, to suit the exigency of-the play.

This stronger movement and wider range of childish imagination in play is explained by the characteristics and fundamental impulse of play—the desire to be something, to act a part. The child adventurer, as he personates Robinson Crusoe or other hero, steps out of his every-day self and so out of his every-day world. In realizing his part he virtually transforms his surroundings, since they take on the look and the meaning which the part assigns to them. This is prettily illustrated in one of Mr. R. L. Stevenson's child-songs. The Land of Counterpane, in which a sick child describes the various transformations of the bed scene:

"And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bedclothes through the hills.

"And sometimes sent my ships in fleets,
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about."

Who can say to how many and what strangely play purposes that stolid, unyielding-looking object a sofa-head has been turned by the ingenuity of the childish brain?

The impulse to act a part meets us very early and grows out of the imitative instinct. The very infant, if it finds an empty cup to hand, will proceed to drink out of it.[1] Similarly, a boy of two will put the stem of his father's pipe into or, if more cautious, near his mouth, and make believe that he is smoking. A little boy not yet two years old would spend a whole wet afternoon "painting" the furniture with a dry end of a bit of rope. In such cases it is evident the playing may start from a suggestion supplied by the sight of an object. There is no need to suppose that in this simple imitative play the children consciously act a part. It is surely to misunderstand the essence of play to speak of it as a fully conscious process of imitative acting.[2] A child is one creature when it is truly at play, another when it is bent on astonishing or amusing you. It seems sufficient to say that when at play it is possessed of an idea and is working this out into visible action. Your notice, even your laughter, if kind enough, may bring in a new element of enjoyment, for, as we all know, children are disposed to be little actors in the full sense, and to aim at producing an impression. Yet your intrusion will be at least just as likely to destroy the pleasure in so far as it is that of pure childish pastime; for the play instinct comes out most distinctly, perhaps, when a child is alone, or at least self-absorbed, and this suggests that the instinct springs out of the deepest and least sophisticated part of its nature.

The essence of play is the realizing of an imaginary situation or action; it is thus in a sense dramatic; only that the child's drama, like M. Jourdain's prose, is unconscious. In this impulse to he something, the actual external surroundings play a greater or less part according to the needs of the player. Sometimes there is scarcely any adjustment of the actual objects and scene; the child plays out its action with purely imaginary surroundings, including companions or playmates. Thus one mother writes of her boy, aged two years and a half: "He amuses himself by pretending things. He will fetch an imaginary cake from a corner, rake together imaginary grass, or fight a battle with imaginary soldiers." As a recent little work shows,[3] some children have adopted permanently an invisible playmate. In such vivid realization the utmost interference with actual surroundings that is needed is change of place. Here is a pretty example of this simple imaginative play. A child of twenty months, who was accustomed to meet a bonne and child in the Jardin du Luxembourg, suddenly leaves the family living room, pronouncing indifferently well the names "Luxembourg," "bonne," and "enfant." He goes into the next room, pretends to say "good day" to his two outdoor acquaintances, and then returns and narrates what he has been doing.[4] Here the simple act of passing into an adjoining room was enough to secure the needed realization of the encounter in the garden. The movement into the next room is suggestive. Primarily it meant, no doubt, that it was the child's way of realizing the out-of-door walk; yet I suspect that there was another motive at work. Children love to enact their little play-scenes in some remote spot, withdrawn from notice, where imagination suffers no let from the intrusion of mother, nurse, or other member of the real environment. How many a thrilling, exciting play has been carried out in a corner, especially if it be dark, or, better still, screened off! The fascination of curtained spaces, as those behind the window curtains, under the table with the tablecloth hanging low, will be fresh in the memory of all who can recall their childhood.

A step toward a more realistic kind of play-action, in which, as in the modern theater, imagination is propped up by strong scenic effects, is taken when a scene is constructed, the chairs and sofa turned into ships, carriages, a railway train, and so forth.

Yet, after all, the scene is but a very subordinate part of this infantile play. Next to itself proudly enjoying the part of the rider, the soldier, the engine-driver, or what not, the child wants a living companion. Something alive there must be, or at least something to simulate life, if only a railway engine. And here we meet with what is perhaps the most interesting feature of childish play—the transmutation of the most meager and least promising things into complete living forms. I have already alluded to the sofa. How many forms of animal life, vigorous and untiring, from the patient donkey up to the untamed horse of the prairies, has this most inert-looking ridge served to image forth to quick boyish perception!

The introduction of these living things seems to illustrate the large compass of the child's realizing power. Mr. Ruskin speaks somewhere of "the perfection of childlike imagination, the power of making everything out of nothing. . . . The child," he adds, "does not make a pet of a mechanical mouse that runs about the floor. . . . The child falls in love with a quiet thing, with an ugly one—nay, it may be with one to us totally devoid of meaning. The besoin de croire precedes the besoin d'aimer."

The quotation brings us to the focus where the rays of childish imagination seem to converge, the transformation of toys.

The fact that children make living things out of their toy horses, dogs, and the rest is known to every observer of their ways. To the natural, unskeptical eye the boy on his rude-carved wooden "gee-gee," slashing the dull flanks with all a boy's glee, is realizing the joy of actual riding; is possessed for the moment with the glorious ideas that the stiff, least organic-looking of structures which he strides is a very horse.

The liveliness of this realizing imagination is seen in the extraordinary poverty and meagerness of the toys which to their happy possessors are wholly satisfying. Here is a pretty picture of child's play from a German writer:

"There sits a little charming master of three years before his small table, busied for a whole hour in a fanciful game with shells. He has three so-called snake-heads in his domain—a large one and two smaller ones; this means two calves and a cow. In a tiny tin dish the little farmer has put all kinds of petals—that is, the fodder for his numerous and fine cattle. When the play has lasted a time the fodder dish transforms itself into a heavy wagon with hay; the little shells now become little horses, and are put to the shaft to pull the terrible load."[5]

The doll takes a supreme place in this fancy-realm of play. It is human, and satisfies higher instincts and emotions. As a French poet says, the little girl

"Rêve le nom de mère en berçant sa poupée."

But the boy has his doll-love also, and is often hardly less faithful than the girl. Endless is the variety of rôle assigned to the doll as to the tiny shell in our just-quoted description of play. The doll is the all-important comrade in that solitude à deux of which the child, like the adult, is so fond. Mrs, Burnett, in her pleasant memoir of her childhood,[6] tells us that while sitting and holding her doll in the armchair of the parlor she would sail across enchanted seas to enchanted islands, meeting with all sorts of thrilling adventures. At another time, when she wanted to act an Indian chief, the doll just as obediently took up the part of squaw.

Very humanly, on the whole, is the little doll-lover wont to use her pet, even though, as George Sand reminds us, there come moments of rage and battering. A little boy of two and a half years asked his mother one day, "Will you give me all my picture books to show dolly? I don't know which he will like best." He then pointed to each in turn, and looked at the doll's face for the answer. He made believe that it selected one, and then gravely showed it all the pictures, saying, "Look here, dolly," and carefully explaining them. In this way does the child seek to bring his mute playmate into the closest intimacy with himself, sharing his life to the full. The same thing is touchingly illustrated in the fact that Laura Bridgman, when visited by Dickens in 1842, was found to have put a tiny band over her doll's eyes to match the band she herself had to wear. It is illustrated further in the fact that a child is apt to insist on dolly's being treated by others as courteously as himself, expecting them to say good night to it on saying good night to himself, and so forth.

Here, nobody can surely doubt, we have the clearest evidence of play illusion. The lively imagination endows the inert wooden thing with the warmth of life and love. How large a part is played here by the alchemist, fancy, is known to all observers of children's ways. The faith, the devotion, often seem to increase as the first meretricious charms, the warm tints of the cheek and the lips, the well-shaped nose, the dainty clothes, prematurely fade, and the lovely toy which once kept groups of hungry-looking children gazing long at the shop window is reduced to the naked essence of a doll. A child's constancy to its doll when thus stripped of exterior charms and degraded to the lowest social stratum of dolldom is one of the sweetest and most humorous things in child life.

And then, what rude, unpromising things are adopted as doll pets! Mrs. Burnett tells us she once saw a dirty mite sitting on a step in a squalid London street, blissfully engaged in cuddling warmly a little bundle of bay tied round the middle by a string. Laura Bridgman made a "baby" of a man's large boot. In these cases, surely, the besoin d'aimer was little if any behind the besoin de croire.

Do any of us really understand this doll superstition? Writers with clear, long-reaching memory have tried to take us back to childhood, and restore to us for a moment the whole undisturbed trust, the perfect Satisfaction of love which the child brings to its doll. Yet even the imaginative genius of a George Sand is hardly equal, perhaps, to the feat of resuscitating the buried companion of our early days and making it live once more before our eyes. The truth is, the doll illusion is one of the first to pass. There are, I believe, a few sentimental girls who make a point, when they attain the years of enlightenment, of saving their dolls from the general wreckage of toys. Yet I suspect that the pets, when thus retained, are valued more for the outside charm of pretty face and hair, and most of all of their lovely clothes, than for the inherent worth of the doll itself—of what we may call the doll soul, which informs it and gives it to the child its true beauty.

Yet, if we can not get inside the old doll superstition, we may study it from the outside, and draw a helpful comparison between it and other known forms of sweet credulity. And here we have the curious fact that the doll exists not only for the child but for the "Nature-man." Savages, Sir John Lubbock tells us,[7] like toys such as dolls, Noah's arks, etc. The same writer remarks that the doll is "a hybrid between the baby and the fetich, and that it exhibits the contradictory character of its parents." Perhaps the changes of mood toward the doll of which George Sand writes illustrate the alternating preponderance of the baby and the fetich aspect. But, as Sir John also remarks, this hybrid is singularly unintelligible to grown-up people, and it seems the part of modesty here to bow to one of Nature's mysteries.

The vivification of the doll is the outcome of the play impulse, and this, as we have seen, is an impulse to act out, to realize an idea in outward show. The absorption in the idea and its outward expression serves to blot out the incongruities of scene and actors which you or I, a cold observer, would note.

How complete this play illusion may become here can be seen in more ways than one. We perceive it in the child's jealous insistence that everything shall for the time pass over from the everyday world into the new fancy-created one. About the age of four, writes M. Egger of his boy, "Felix is playing at being coachman. Emile happens to return home at the moment. In announcing his brother, Felix does not say, 'Emile is come'; he says, 'The brother of the coachman is come.'"[8] Pestalozzi's little boy, aged three years and a half, was one day playing at being butcher, when his mother called him by his usual diminutive, "Jacobli." He at once replied: "No, no; you should call me butcher now."[9]

The intensity of the imaginative realizing powers in play is seen, too, in the stickling for fidelity to the original in all playful reproduction, whether of scenes observed in everyday life or of what has been narrated. The same little boy who showed his picture books to dolly was, we are told, when two years and eight months old, fond of imagining that he was Priest, his grandmamma's coachman. "He drives his toy horse from the armchair as a carriage, getting down every minute to 'let the ladies out' or to 'go shopping.' The make-believe extends to his insisting on the reins being held while he gets down, and so forth." The same thing shows itself in acting out stories. The full enjoyment of the realization depends on the faithful reproduction, the suitable outward embodiment of the vivid detailed idea in the player's mind. A delightful example of boyish exactitude in acting out a story may be found in Mark Twain's picture of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn playing at being shipwrecked on a desert island.

The following anecdote bears another kind of testimony—a most winsome kind—to the reality of children's play: One day two sisters said to one another, "Let us play being sisters." This might well sound insane enough to hasty ears, but is it not really eloquent? To me it suggests that the girls felt they were not realizing their sisterhood, not enjoying all the possible sweets of it, as they wanted to do; perhaps there had been a quarrel and a supervening childish coolness, and they felt that the way to get this vivid sense of what they were or ought to be one to the another was by playing the part, enacting a scene in which they would come close to one another in intense conjoint activity.

But there is still another and some will think a more conclusive way of satisfying ourselves of the reality of the play illusion. The child finds himself confronted by the unbelieving adult, who may even be cruel enough to laugh at his play and his day dreamings; and this frosty aloofness, this unfeeling quizzing of their little doings, is apt to cut the sensitive little nerves to the quick. I have heard of children who will cry if a stranger suddenly enters the nursery when they are hard at play and shows himself unsympathetic and critical. But here is a story which seems to me even more conclusive on the point: "I remember" (writes a lady) "that one of my children, when about four, was playing 'shops' with the baby. The elder one was shopman at the time when I came into the room and kissed her. She broke out into piteous sobs; I could not understand why. At last she sobbed out, 'Mother, you never kiss the man in the shop.' For the time being her game was spoiled." The mother's kiss, though sweet in itself, had here wrought a sudden disillusion.

It is only right to say that this same lady adds that her children varied considerably in this susceptibility to the play illusion, and that she feels sure her second child, who is less intelligent, would not have troubled about the kiss.

Play may produce not only the vivid imaginative realization at the time, but a sort of mild permanent illusion. Sometimes it is a toy horse, in one case communicated to me it was a funnylooking toy lion, more frequently it is the human effigy, the doll, which, as the result of successive acts of imaginative vivification, gets taken up into the relation of permanent companion and pet. Clusters of happy association envelop it, endowing it with a fixed vitality and character. A mother once asked her boy of two years and a half if his doll was a boy or a girl. He said at first, "A boy," but presently correcting himself added, "I think it is a baby." Here we have a challenging of the inner conviction by a question, a moment of reflection, and as a result of this, the unambiguous confession that the doll had its place in the living human family.

Here is a more stubborn exhibition on the part of another boy of this lasting faith in the plaything called out by others' skeptical attitude. "When" (writes a lady correspondent) "he was just over two years old, L—— began to speak of a favorite wooden horse (Dobbin) as if it was a real living creature. 'No tarpenter (carpenter) made Dobbin,' he would say; 'he is not wooden, but kin (skin) and bones, and Dod (God) made him.' If any one said 'it' in speaking of the horse his wrath was instantly aroused, and he would shout indignantly: 'It! You muttent tay it, you mut tay he' He imagined the horse was possessed of every virtue, and it was strange to see what an influence this creature of his own imagination exercised over him. If there was anything L—— particularly wished not to do, his mother had only to say, 'Dobbin would like you to do this,' and it was done without a murmur."

There is another domain of childish activity closely bordering on that play where we may observe a like suffusion of the world of sense by imagination. I refer to pictures and artistic representations generally. If in the case of adults there is a half illusion, a kind of oneiratic trance condition, induced by a picture or dramatic spectacle, in the case of the less instructed child the illusion is apt to become more complete. I have several strikingstories about the effect of pictures on children's minds. A picture seems very much of a toy to a child. A baby of eight or nine months will talk to a picture as to a living thing; and something of this tendency to make a fetich of a drawing survives much later.

A quaint anecdote is recorded in a collection of children's thoughts recently published in America.[10] One day F——, a boy of four, called on a friend, Mrs. C——, when she had just received a picture, a scene in winter, in which persons were represented as going to church, some on foot and others in sleighs. . . . F—— wanted to know where they were going, and Mrs. C—— told him. The next day he came and noticed the picture, and looked at Mrs. C—— and then at the picture, and said, "Why, Mrs. C——, them people haven't got there yet, have they?" What, it may be asked, did the boy mean by his question? Did he in his vivid imaginative realization actually confuse the representation with the reality represented, after the manner of the sailors who, visiting a theater where the actors were representing a struggle of smugglers with a captain, took the performance to be a reality and rushed on the stage in order to protect the captain? There seems to be less excuse for confounding representation and reality in the case of the picture than in that of the stage. Perhaps, however, the boy F was less stupid than is here suggested. Did he, as the result of an intense realization of the scene pictured, excogitate the idea that the picture must at least represent something actual that is to say, going on at the moment? Here is an opportunity for the mind quick to disentangle childish thought.

However this be, the vivid realization of pictures by children is a well-certified fact. Here is a story of a little boy, aged three years and some months: "His mother had gone to the sea and L—— (the child) was staying at his grandfather's. One day he was looking at a picture of a stormy sea, and on the sea was a little boat with an old man and a girl in it. He had heard the story of Grace Darling and her father, and at once decided that the picture represented them. After talking about them for some time his thoughts turned to his mother, and he began to imagine all sorts of things about her: 'And mamma is on de tea (sea) in a ickle (little) boat, and de waves are dashing over it, and (with great excitement) it will be turned over and mamma ill be drowned, and de master (one of the names for himself) will not be dere to tave (save) her!' By this time the big tears were rolling down his cheeks, and he was in such an agony of grief that his grandmother had to take the picture from him and try to divert his thoughts."

Here, it is pretty evident, we have to do with a degree of illusion which equals if it does not surpass that of the most absorbing play. We must remember that a detailed pictorial representation, especially if it is colored, gives to the eye a full presentment of a scene and so favors a particularly clear and vivid imaginative realization. It is probable, too, that the abstract mode of representation in pictorial art, as compared, say, with that of the stage, hardly counts for the child's perception. Even the ordinary adult, innocent of artistic aims and methods, is wont, when gazing upon a painting, to lose all count of the picture as such, his consciousness being focused for the intense imaginative realization of its meaning.

I do not, of course, mean that all realization of form by the young mind is of this illusory intensity. One striking characteristic of children's fancy is to interpret rapidly the boldest hints of a representation of a familiar form, more especially that of man and of animals. All observers of imaginative children can testify as to the quickness with which they detect the semblance of a human or animal form in the irregular lines of a cracked ceiling, in the veining of marble, or in the lineal design of a carpet, not to speak of slight and imperfect pictorial sketches. They are apt, as already remarked, to show this imaginative facility with respect to the forms of letters. Here is an example: The pen of a little boy, well on in his fourth year, when tracing a letter L, happened to slip, so that the horizontal limb formed an angle upward, thus: xxxx. He instantly saw the resemblance to the bent knee of the human form, and said, "Oh, he's sitting down." Similarly, when he made an F turn the wrong way, and then put the correct form to the left, thus, F F, he exclaimed, "They're talking together." Here, it is to be presumed, illusion is less complete, fancy amusing itself, so to speak, with the form and making it suggestive and representative. And probably the same applies to some of the earliest and clumsiest of children's attempts to draw men and horses, and so forth; only that here we have to do with a pre-existing idea and an artistic intention to give outer embodiment to this idea a—circumstance which tends to make the process of imaginative realization steadier and more dominant.

I have here dealt with children's play and kindred forms of activity as the outcome of a strong bent to imaginative realization, to the vivid, half-illusory picturing out of things. At the same time it is to be noticed that, in the forms in which this imaginative impulse works itself out, we see a good deal more of the child's mind; we see intelligence and, to some extent, also character. Thus, before there can be the faithful mimetic play of our little coachman, there must have been close observation and memory of what was observed. On the other hand, that most useful quality of intelligence which we call resource and invention comes out clearly in all the freer and more original sorts of play. Again, while all children are players—did not Victor Hugo rightly make the little body-starved and mind-starved Fantine conserve the play instinct?—they exhibit many and even profound differences of mind and character in their play. How unlike the girl's passive, dreamy play—as when sitting and holding her doll—to the more active boy's play, with its vigorous fightings, its arm-aching draggings of furniture! How different, again, the inchoate idealess play of a stupid child with the contents of a Noah's ark from the well-considered, finished, and varied play of a bright, intelligent child with the same material! Curious differences of taste, too, and even of moral instinct reflect themselves in the play of children. There is a quaint precocity of the practical instinct, the impulse to make one's self useful, in some children, which is apt to come out in their play. The little boy referred to above, who would spend a whole wet afternoon "painting" the furniture, must have had a decided bent toward useful work. Other children are no less quaintly precocious in the matter of morals, laying down commands on their dolls, punishing them for being naughty, and so forth—all with the appearance of a real and earnest conscientiousness.

While the forms of imaginative activity in play are thus selectively determined by individual aptitudes and dispositions, they will, of course, throughout remain dependent on the special experiences and fields of observation. Play is largely imitative of what has been experienced by the child, seen by him, or told him by others. The richer the surroundings, the fuller the sources of instruction, the more elaborate and various can the play representation become. Boys' play is often an imitation of the doings of their fathers and others—that is to say, when, as in the case of the farmer, the engineer, or the soldier, the paternal vocation lends itself to an interesting kind of play action. The sons of literary men do not, so far as I have heard, render their sires this flattering attention. Possibly, now that women's occupations also are getting differentiated, girls will be found to follow in their play the special lines of activity of their respective mothers.

Enough has probably been said to show how interesting a subject for study is offered us in children's play. Here, as has been well said, we seem to catch the child in his own world, acting out his own impulses without stimulus, guidance, or restraint from others. Here, with something of the poet, the artist, of the serious man of business, too, yet being in truth none of these, he sets about creating his own world—a world which, like those we all create in our several fashions, bears on every feature the stamp of the creative mind.

  1. Of course, as Preyer suggests, this drinking from an empty cup may at first be due to a want of discriminative perception.
  2. M. Compayré seems to go too far in this direction when he talks of the child's play with its doll as a charming comedy of maternity. (L'Evolution intellectuelle et morale de l'Enfant, p. 274.)
  3. The Invisible Playmate, by Canton. London, Isbister; pp. 33 and following.
  4. Egger, quoted by Compayré, L'Evolution intellectuelle et morale de l'Enfant, pp. 149, 150.
  5. Goltz, Buch der Kindheit, pp. 4, 5.
  6. The One I knew the Best of All.
  7. Origin of Civilization. Appendix, p. 521.
  8. Quoted by Compayré, op. cit., p. 150.
  9. De Guimps's Life of Pestalozzi (English translation), p. 41.
  10. The Study of Children at the State Normal School at Worcester, Mass.