Kindergarten--What Is It?

WHAT is a Kindergarten ? I will reply by negatives. It is not the old-fashioned infant-school. That was a narrow institution, comparatively ; the object being (I do not speak of Pestalozzi’s own, but that which we have had in this country and in England) to take the children of poor laborers, and keep them out of the fire and the streets, while their mothers went to their necessary labor. Very good things, indeed, in their way. Their principle of discipline was to circumvent the wills of children, in every way that would enable their teachers to keep them within bounds, and quiet. It was certainly better that they should learn to sing by rote the Creed and the “definitions” of scientific terms, and such like, than to learn the profanity and obscenity of the streets, which was the alternative. But no mother who wished for anything which might be called the development of her child would think of putting it into an infant-school, especially if she lived in the country, amid

“ the mighty sum
Of things forever speaking,”

where any “ old grey stone ” would altogether surpass, as a stand-point, the bench of the highest class of an infant-school. In short, they did not state the problem of infant culture with any breadth, and accomplished nothing of general interest on the subject.

Neither is the primary public school a Kindergarten, though it is but justice to the capabilities of that praiseworthy institution, so important in default of a better, to say that in one of them, at the North End of Boston, an enterprising and genial teacher has introduced one feature of Froebel’s plan. She has actually given to each of her little children a box of playthings, wherewith to amuse itself according to its own sweet will, at all times when not under direct instruction,— necessarily, in her case, on condition of its being perfectly quiet; and this one thing makes this primary school the best one in Boston, both as respects the attainments of the scholars and their good behavior.

Kindergarten means a garden of children, and Froebel, the inventor of it, or rather, as he would prefer to express it, the discoverer of the method of Nature, meant to symbolize by the name the spirit and plan of treatment. How does the gardener treat his plants ? He studies their individual natures, and puts them into such circumstances of soil and atmosphere as enable them to grow, flower, and bring forth fruit, — also to renew their manifestation year after year. He does not expect to succeed unless he learns all their wants, and the circumstances in which these wants will be supplied, and all their possibilities of beauty and use, and the means of giving them opportunity to be perfected. On the other hand, while he knows that they must not be forced against their individual natures, he does not leave them to grow wild, but prunes redundancies, removes destructive worms and bugs from their leaves and stems, and weeds from their vicinity', — carefully watching to learn what peculiar insects affect what particular plants, and how the former can be destroyed without injuring the vitality of the latter. After all the most careful gardener can do, he knows that the form of the plant is predetermined in the germ or seed, and that the inward tendency must concur with a multitude of influences, the most powerful and subtile of which is removed in place ninety-five millions of miles away.

In the Kindergarten children are treated on an analogous plan. It presupposes gardeners of the mind, who are quite aware that they have as little power to override the characteristic individuality of a child, or to predetermine this characteristic, as the gardener of plants to say that a lily shall be a rose. But notwithstanding this limitation on one side, and the necessity for concurrence of the Spirit on the other, — which is more independent of our modification than the remote sun, — yet they must feel responsible, after all, for the perfection of the development, in so far as removing every impediment, preserving every condition, and pruning every redundance.

This analogy of education to the gardener’s art is so striking, both as regards what we can and what we cannot do, that Froebel has put every educator into a most suggestive Normal School, by the very word which he has given to his seminary, — Kindergarten.

If every school-teacher in the land had a garden of flowers and fruits to cultivate, it could hardly fail that he would learn to be wise in his vocation. For suitable preparation, the first, second, and third thing is, to

“ Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.”

The “ new education,” as the French call it, begins with children in the mother's arms. Froebel had the nurses bring to his establishment, in Hamburg, children who could not talk, who were not more than three months old, and trained the nurses to work on his principles and by his methods. This will hardly be done in this country, at least at present; but to supply the place of such a class, a lady of Boston has prepared and published, under copyright, Froebel’s First Gift, consisting of six soft balls of the three primary and the three secondary colors, which are sold in a box, with a little manual for mothers, in which the true principle and plan of tending babies, so as not to rasp their nerves, but to amuse without wearying them, is very happily suggested. There is no mother or nurse who would not he assisted by this little manual essentially. As it says in the beginning,—Tending babies is an art, and every art is founded on a science of observations; for love is not wisdom, but love must act according to wisdom in order to succeed. Mothers and nurses, however tender and kind-hearted, may, and oftenest do, weary and vex the nerves of children, in well-meant efforts to amuse them, and weary themselves the while. Froebel’s exercises, founded on the observations of an intelligent sensibility, are intended to amuse without wearying, to educate without vexing.”

Froebel’s Second Gift for children, adapted to the age from one to two or three years, with another little book of directions, has also been published by the same lady, and is perhaps a still greater Loon to every nursery; for this is the age when many a child’s temper is ruined, and the inclination of the twig wrongly bent, through sheer want of resource and idea, on the part of nurses and mothers.

But it is to the next age — from three years old and upwards — that the Kindergarten becomes the desideratum, if not a necessity. The isolated home, made into a flower-vase by the application of the principles set forth in the Gifts1 above mentioned, may do for babies. But every mother and nurse knows how hard it is to meet the demands of a child too young to be taught to read, but whose opening intelligence and irrepressible bodily activity are so hard to be met by an adult, however genial and active. Children generally take the temper of their whole lives from this period of their existence. Then “ the twig is bent,” either towards that habit of self-defence which is an ever-renewing cause of selfishness, or to the sun of love-in-exercise, which is the exhaustless source of goodness and beauty.

The indispensable thing now is a sufficient society of children. It is only in the society of equals that the social instinct can be gratified, and come into equilibrium with the instinct of self-preservation. Self-love, and love of others, are equally natural; and before reason is developed, and the proper spiritual life begins, sweet and beautiful childhood may bloom out and imparadise our mortal life. Let us only give the social instinct of children its fair chance. For this purpose, a few will not do. The children of one family are not enough, and do not come along fast enough. A large company should be gathered out of many families. It will be found that the little things are at once taken out of themselves, and become interested in each other. In the variety, affinities develop themselves very prettily, and the rough points of rampant individualities wear off. We have seen a highly gifted child, who, at home, was — to use a vulgar, but expressive word — pesky and odious, with the exacting demands of a powerful, but untrained mind and heart, become “ sweet as roses ” spontaneously, amidst the rebound of a large, well-ordered, and carefully watched child-society. Anxious mothers have brought us children, with a thousand deprecations and explanations of their characters, as if they thought we were going to find them little monsters, which their motherly hearts were persuaded they were not, though they behaved like little sanchos at home,—and, behold, they were as harmonious, from the very beginning, as if they bad undergone the subduing influence of a lifetime. We are quite sure that children begin with loving others quite as intensely as they love themselves,— forgetting themselves in their love of others, — if they only have as fair a chance of being benevolent and self-sacrificing as of being selfish. Sympathy is as much a natural instinct as self-love, and no more or less innocent, in a moral point of view. Either principle alone makes an ugly and depraved form of natural character. Balanced, they give the element of happiness, and the conditions of spiritual goodness and truth, — making children fit temples for the Holy Ghost to dwell in.

A Kindergarten, then, is children in society,—a commonwealth or republic of children,—whose laws are all part and parcel of the Higher Law alone. It may be contrasted, in every particular, with the old-fashioned school, which is an absolute monarchy, where the children are subjected to a lower expediency, having for its prime end quietness, or such order as has “reigned in Warsaw ” since 1831.

But let us not be misunderstood. We are not of those who think that children, in any condition whatever, will inevitably develop into beauty and goodness. Human nature tends to revolve in a vicious circle, around the individuality; and children must have over them, in the person of a wise and careful teacher, a power which shall deal with them as God deals with the mature, presenting the claims of sympathy and truth whenever they presumptuously or unconsciously fall into selfishness. We have the best conditions of moral culture in a company large enough for the exacting disposition of the solitary child to be balanced by the claims made by others on the common stock of enjoyment,— there being a reasonable oversight of older persons, wide-awake to anticipate, prevent, and adjust the rival pretensions which must always arise where there are finite beings with infinite desires, while Reason, whose proper object is God, is yet undeveloped.

Let the teacher always take for granted that the law of love is quick within, whatever are appearances, and the better self will generally respond. In proportion as the child is young and unsophisticated, will be the certainty of the response to a teacher of simple faith:

“ There are who ask not if thine eye
Be on them, — who, in love and truth,
Where no misgiving is, rely
Upon the genial sense of youth.
“ And blest are they who in the main
This faith even now do entertain,
Live in the spirit of this creed,
Yet find another strength, according to their need.”

Such are the natural Kindergartners, who prevent disorder by employing and entertaining children, so that they are kept in an accommodating and loving mood by never being thrown on sell-defence,—and when selfishness is aroused, who check it by an appeal to sympathy, or Conscience, which is the presentiment of reason, a fore-feeling of moral order, for whose culture material order is indispensable.

But order must be kept by the child, not only unconsciously, but intentionally. Order is the child of reason, and in turn cultivates the intellectual principle. To bring out order on the physical plane, the Kindergarten makes it a serious purpose to organize romping, and set it to music, which cultivates the physical nature also. Romping is the ecstasy of the body, and we shall find that in proportion as children tend to be violent they are vigorous in body. There is always morbid weakness of some kind where there is no instinct for hard play; and it begins to be the common sense that energetic physical activity must not be repressed, but favored. Some plan of play prevents the little creatures from hurting each other, and fancy naturally furnishes the plan, —the mind unfolding itself in fancies, which are easily quickened and led in harmless directions by an adult of any resource. Those who have not imagination themselves must seek the aid of the Kindergarten guides, where will be found arranged to music the labors of the peasant, and cooper, and sawyer, the wind-mill, the watermill, the weather-vane, the clock, the pigeon-house, the hares, the bees, and the cuckoo. Children delight to personate animals, and a fine genius could not better employ itself than in inventing a great many more plays, setting them to rhythmical words, describing what is to be done. Every variety of bodily exercise might be made and kept within the bounds of order and beauty by plays involving the motions of different animals and machines of industry. Kindergarten plays are easy intellectual exercises; for to do anything whatever with a thought beforehand develops the mind or quickens the intelligence ; and thought of this kind does not try intellect, or check physical development, which last must never be sacrificed in the process of education.

There are enough instances of marvellous acquisition in infancy to show that imbibing with the mind is as natural as with the body, if suitable beverage is put to the lips ; but in most cases the mind’s power is balanced by instincts of body, which should have priority, if they cannot certainly be in full harmony. The mind can afford to wait for the maturing of the body, for it survives the body; while the body cannot afford to wait for the mind, but is irretrievably stunted, if the nervous energy is not free to stimulate its special organs at least equally with those of the mind.

It is not, however, necessary to sacrifice the culture of either mind or body, but to harmonize them. They can and ought to grow together. They mutually help each other.

Doctor Dio Lewis's “Free Exercises" are also suitable to the Kindergarten, and may be taken in short lessons of a quarter of an hour, or even of ten minutes. Children are fond of precision also, and it will be found that they like the teaching best, when they are made to do the exercises exactly right, and in perfect time to the music.

But the regular gymnastics and the romping plays must be alternated with quiet employments, of course, but still active. They will sing at their plays by rote; and also should be taught other songs by rote. But there can be introduced a regular drill on the scale, which should never last more than ten minutes at a time. This, if well managed, will cultivate their ears and voices, so that in the course of a year they will become very expert in telling any note struck, if not in striking it. The ear is cultivated sooner than the voice, and they may be taught to name the octave as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and their imaginations impressed by drawing a ladder of eight rounds on the blackboard, to signify that the voice rises by regular gradation. This will fix their attention, and their interest will not flag, if the teacher has any tact.

Slates and pencils are indispensable in a Kindergarten from the first. One side of a slate can be ruled with a sharp point in small squares, and if their fancy is interested by telling them to make a fish-net, they will carefully make their pencils follow these lines, — which makes a first exercise in drawing. Their little fingers are so unmanageable that at first they will not be able to make straight lines even with this help. For variety, little patterns can be given them, drawn on the blackboard, (or on paper similarly ruled,) of picture-frames and patterns for carpets. When they can make squares well, they can be shown how to cross them with diagonals, and make circles inside of the squares, and outside of them, and encouraged to draw on the other side of the slate, from their own fancy, or from objects. Entire sympathy and no destructive criticism should meet every effort. Self-confidence is the first requisite for success. If they think they have had success, it is indispensable that it should be echoed from without. Of course there will be poor perspective; and even Schmidt’s method of perspective cannot be introduced to very young children. A natural talent for perspective sometimes shows itself, which by-and-by can be perfected by Schmidt's method.2

But little children will not draw long at a time. Nice manipulation, which is important, can be taught, and the eye for form cultivated, by drawing for them birds and letting them prick the lines. It will enchant them to have something pretty to carry home now and then. Perforated board can also be used to teach them the use of a needle and thread. They will like to make the outlines of ships and steamboats, birds, etc., which can be drawn for them with a lead pencil on the board by the teachers. Weaving strips of colored card-board into papers cut for them is another enchanting amusement, and can be made subservient to teaching them the harmonies of colors. In the latter part of the season, when they have an accumulation of pricked birds, or have learned to draw them, they can be allowed colors to paint them in a rough manner. It is, perhaps, worth while to say, that, in teaching children to draw on their slates, it is better for the teacher to draw at the moment on the blackboard than to give them patterns of birds, utensils, etc., because then the children will see how to begin and proceed, and are not discouraged by the mechanical perfection of their model.

Drawing ought always rather to precede reading and writing, as the minute appreciation of forms is the proper preparation for these. But reading and writing may come into Kindergarten exercises at once, if reading is taught by the phonic method, (which saves all perplexity to the child’s brain,) and accompanied by printing on the slate. It then alternates with other things, as one of the amusements. We will describe how we have seen it taught. The class sat before a blackboard, with slates and pencils. The teacher said, “Now let us make all the sounds that we can with the lips: First, put the lips gently together and sound m,” (not em,) — which they all did. Then she said, — “Now let us draw it on the blackboard, — three short straight marks by the side of each other, and join them on the top, — that is m. What is it ? ” They sounded m, and made three marks and joined them on the top, with more or less success. The teacher said, — “ Now put your lips close together and say p.” (This is mute and to be whispered). They all imitated the motion made. She said, — “ Now let us write it; one straight mark, then the upper lip puffed out at the top.” M and p, to be written and distinguished, are perhaps enough for one lesson, which should not reach half an hour in length. At the next lesson these were repeated again. Then the teacher said, — “ Now put your lips together and make the same motion as you did to say p ; but make a little more sound, and it will be b” (which is sonorous). “ You must write it differently from p;—you must make a short mark and put the under lip on.” “ Now put your teeth on your under lip and say f.” (She gave the power.) “ You must write it by making a short straight mark make a bow. and then cross it with a little mark across the middle.” “ Now fix your lips in the same manner and sound a little, and you will make v. Write it by making two little marks meet at the bottom.”

This last letter was made a separate lesson of, and the other lessons were reviewed. The teacher then said, — “ Now you have learned some letters, — all the lip-letters,” — making them over, and asking what each was. She afterwards added w, — giving its power and form, and put it with the lip-letters. At the next lesson they were told to make the letters with their lips, and she wrote them down on the board, and then said, — "Now we will make some tooth-letters. Put your teeth together and say t.” (She gave the power, and showed them how to write it.) “ Now put your teeth together and make a sound and it will be d.” "That is written just like b, only we put the lip behind.” “Now put your teeth together and hiss, and then make this little crooked snake (s). Then fix your teeth in the same manner and buzz like a bee. You write z pointed this way.” “Now put your teeth together and say j, written with a dot.” At the next lessons the throat-letters were given ; first the hard guttural was sounded, and they were told three ways to write it, c, k, q, distinguished as round, high, and with a tail. C was not sounded see, but ke (ke, ka, ku). Another lesson gave them the soft guttural g, but did not sound it jee; and the aspirate, but did not call it aitch.

Another lesson gave the vowels, (or voice-letters, as she called them.) and it was made lively by her writing afterwards all of them in one word, mieaou, and calling it the cat’s song. It took from a week to ten days to teach these letters, one lesson a day of about twenty minutes. Then came words : mamma, papa, puss, pussy, etc. The vowels were always sounded as in Italian, and i and y distinguished as with the dot and with a tail.

At first only one word was the lesson, and the letters were reviewed in their divisions of lip-letters, throat-letters, toothletters, voice-letters. The latter were sounded the Italian way, as in the words arm, egg, ink, oak, and Peru. This teacher had Miss Peabody’s “ First Nursery Reading-Book,” and when she had taught the class to make all the words on the first page of it, she gave each of the children the book and told them to find first one word and then another. It was a great pleasure to them to be told that now they could read. They were encouraged to copy the words out of the book upon their slates.

The “First Nursery Reading-Book” has in it no words that have exceptions in their spelling to the sounds given to the children as the powers of the letters. Nor has it any diphthong or combinations of letters, such as oi, ou, ch, sh, th. After they could read it at sight, they were told that all words were not so regular, and their attention was called to the initial sounds of thin, shin, and chin, and to the proper diphthongs, ou, oi, and au, and they wrote words considering these as additional characters. Then “ Mother Goose ” was put into their hands, and they were made to read by rote the songs they already knew by heart, and to copy them. It was a great entertainment to find the queer words, and these were made the nucleus of groups of similar words which were written on the blackboard and copied on their slates.

We have thought it worth while to give in detail this method of teaching to read, because it is the most entertaining to children to be taught so, and because many successful instances of the pursual of this plan have come under our observation ; and one advantage of it has been, that the children so taught, though never going through the common spellinglessons, have uniformly exhibited a rare exactness in orthography.

In going through this process, the children learn to print very nicely, and generally can do so sooner than they can read. It is a small matter afterwards to teach them to turn the print into script. They should be taught to write with the lead pencil before the pen, whose use need not come into the Kindergarten.

But we must not omit one of the most important exercises for children in the Kindergarten, — that of block-building. Froebel has four Gifts of blocks. Runge’s “ Kindergarten Guide” has pages of royal octavo filled with engraved forms that can be made by variously laying eight little cubes and sixteen little planes two inches long, one inch broad, and one-half an inch thick. Chairs, tables, stables, sofas, garden-seats, and innumerable forms of symmetry, make an immense resource for children, who also should be led to invent other forms and imitate other objects. So quick are the fancies of children, that the blocks will serve also as symbols of everything in Nature and imagination. We have seen an ingenious teacher assemble a class of children around her large table, to each of whom she had given the blocks. The first thing was to count them, a great process of arithmetic to most of them. Then she made something and explained it. It was perhaps a light-house, — and some blocks would represent rocks near it to be avoided, and ships sailing in the ocean ; or perhaps it was a hen-coop, with chickens inside, and a fox prowling about outside, and a boy who was going to catch the fox and save the fowls. Then she told each child to make something, and when it was done hold up a hand. The first one she asked to explain, and then went round the class. If one began to speak before another had ended, she would hold up her finger and say, — "It is not your turn.” In the course of the winter, she taught, over these blocks, a great deal about the habits of animals. She studied natural history in order to be perfectly accurate in her symbolic representation of the habitation of each animal, and their enemies were also represented by blocks. The children imitated these ; and when they drew upon their imaginations for facts, and made fantastic creations, she would say, — “ Those, I think, were fairy hens ” (or whatever); for it was her principle to accept everything, and thus tempt out their invention. The great value of this exercise is to get them into the habit of representing something they have thought by an outward symbol. The explanations they are always eager to give teach them to express themselves in words. Full scope is given to invention, whether in the direction of possibilities or of the impossibilities in which children’s imaginations revel,— in either case the child being trained to the habit of embodiment of its thought.

Froebel thought it very desirable to have a garden where the children could cultivate flowers. He had one which he divided into lots for the several children, reserving a portion for his own share in which they could assist him. He thought it the happiest mode of calling their attention to the invisible God, whose power must be waited upon, after the conditions for growth are carefully arranged according to laws which they were to observe. Where a garden is impossible, a flowerpot with a plant in it tor each child to take care of would do very well.

But the best way to cultivate a sense of the presence of God is to draw the attention to the conscience, which is very active in children, and which seems to them (as we all can testify from our own remembrance) another than themselves, and yet themselves. We have heard a person say, that in her childhood she was puzzled to know which was herself, the voice of her inclination or of her conscience, for they were palpably two, and what a joyous thing it was when she was first convinced that one was the Spirit of God, whom unlucky teaching had previously embodied in a form of terror on a distant judgment-seat. Children are consecrated as soon as they get the spiritual idea, and it may be so presented that it shall make them happy as well as true. But the adult who enters into such conversation with a child must be careful not to shock and profane, instead of nurturing the soul. It is possible to avoid both discouraging and flattering views, and to give the most tender and elevating associations.

But children require not only an alternation of physical and mental amusements, but some instruction to be passively received. They delight in stories, and a wise teacher can make this subservient to the highest uses by reading beautiful creations of the imagination. Not only such household-stories as “ Sanford and Merton,” Mrs. Farrar’s "Robinson Crusoe,” and Salzmann’s “ Elements of Morality,” but symbolization like the heroes of Asgard, the legends of the Middle Ages, classic and chivalric tales, the legend of Saint George, and “ Pilgrim’s Progress,” can in the mouth of a skilful reader be made subservient to moral culture. The reading sessions should not exceed ten or fifteen minutes.

Anything of the nature of scientific teaching should be done by presenting objects for examination and investigation.3 Flowers and insects, shells, etc., are easily handled. The observations should be drawn out of the children, not made to them, except as corrections of their mistakes. Experiments with the prism, and in crystallization and transformation, are useful and desirable to awaken taste for the sciences of Nature. In short, the Kindergarten should give the beginnings of everything. “ What is well begun is half done.”

We must say a word about the locality and circumstances of a Kindergarten. There is published in Lausanne, France, a newspaper devoted to the interests of this mode of education, in whose early numbers is described a Kindergarten ; which seems to be of the nature of a boarding-school, or, at least, the children are there all day. Each child has a garden, and there is one besides where they work in common. There are accommodations for keeping animals, and miniature tools to do mechanical labor of various kinds. In short, it is a child's world. But in this country, especially in New England, parents would not consent to be so much separated from their children, and a few hours of Kindergarten in the early part of the day will serve an excellent purpose, — using up the effervescent activity of children, who may healthily be left to themselves the rest of the time, to play or rest, comparatively unwatched.

Two rooms are indispensable, if there is any variety of age. It is desirable that one should be sequestrated to the quiet employments. A pianoforte is desirable, to lead the singing, and accompany the plays, gymnastics, frequent marchings, and dancing, when that is taught,—which it should be. But a hand-organ which plays fourteen tunes will help to supply the want of a piano, and a guitar in the hands of a ready teacher will do better than nothing.

Sometimes a genial mother and daughters might have a Kindergarten, and devote themselves and the house to it, especially if they live in one of our beautiful country-towns or cities. The habit, in the city of New York, of sending children to school in an omnibus, hired to go round the city and pick them up, suggests the possibility of a Kindergarten in one of those beautiful residences up in town, where there is a garden before or behind the house. It is impossible to keep Kindergarten by the way. It must be the main business of those who undertake it; for it is necessary that every individual child should be borne, as it were, on the heart of the garteners, in order that it be inspired with order, truth, and goodness. To develop a child from within outwards, we must plunge ourselves into its peculiarity of imagination and feeling. No one person could possibly endure such absorption of life in labor unrelieved, and consequently two or three should unite in the undertaking in order to be able to relieve each other from the enormous strain on life. The compensations are, however, great. The charm of the various individuality, and of the refreshing presence of conscience yet unprofaned, is greater than can be found elsewhere in this work-day world. Those were not idle words which came from the lips of Wisdom Incarnate: — “ Their angels do always behold the face of my Father”: “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

  1. These Gifts, the private enterprise of an invalid lady, the same who first brought the subject of Kindergartens so favorably before the public in the Christian Examiner for November, 1858, can be procured at the Kindergarten, 15 Pinckney Street, Boston.
  2. See Common School Journal for 1842-3.
  3. Calkin’s Object Lessons will give hints.