Out of the Mouths of Babes: A New Way to Teach the Very Young

WHEN Daisy Ashford’s Young Visiters was first published, doubters had to be assured by no less a person than J. M. Barrie that that gently ironic tale was really written by a small person of nine. I now find myself called upon to vouch for a collection of naïve stories written, or rather for the most part dictated, by children from four to eight years of age.

These youthful authors went to my school in either Rome, Paris, or New York. Their stories are the natural, spontaneous expression of childish realism or fantasy, such as any normal child is capable of producing under the guidance of a teacher who has won his confidence, so that he feels safe in revealing to her his inner thoughts.

When you first read these coherent, logical stories, you may be inclined to accuse me of having polished them. It is true that punctuation has been inserted, but otherwise they are printed here exactly as they were told, in the children’s own words, with nothing else added and nothing taken away. Perhaps I owe it to the doubting Thomases to explain a little by way of preface how I teach and what I mean by education.

First it must be confessed that I am not what is understood in America as a ‘progressive.’ In all the years when the volcanic doctrine of untrammeled liberty for children was rocking educational circles in this country, I was isolated in my own school for British and American children in Rome. Only faint echoes of the eruption reached me. I was far too absorbed in personal discoveries in the fascinating field of teaching to ‘pay them any mind,’ as we say in my native North Carolina.

I was finding out that a child is a sensitive plate, recording every impression, good or bad. His teacher, it seemed, could best serve him as an interpreter, to help him discern the good from the bad, assimilate the one and eliminate the other. The child needed most of all, not a preceptor, but a reservoir of understanding and sympathy, a pilot to help him steer clear of rocks and shoals.

Secondly, he needed his own materials and media of self-expression, not hand-me-downs from the adult world calling for intellectual grasp beyond his development. For example, give a child a medium for painting suited to his years — such as brightly colored mud, in which he can dabble with his hands without having first to master a brush — and he will achieve surprising decorative effects without any instruction, just the natural, unhampered expression of his inner fantasy. The children call them Finger Paintings. My slender claim to fame in America rests largely upon the sensation caused in art circles last year by an exhibit in a Manhattan art gallery of Finger Paintings by some of my children.

That educational innovation was simply an outgrowth of the same educational theory which is responsible for the stories which the children tell when allowed to use their natural direct medium — the voice — instead of having first to master writing and spelling.

Most of these stories were dictated. In the case of very young children, they were usually taken down by me or by one of the older children. Some of them were spoken into a dictaphone and later transcribed by a typist. But do not for a moment picture the child sitting quietly at my knee as he dictates. More than likely he is acting out every word of the story as he goes along. From infancy a child needs to use his body muscles, and the more freedom he is allowed in the use of his body while absorbing his A B C’s, the better.

Here may be as good a place as any for another confession. I do believe in teaching children their letters. Letters are so fascinating in themselves. I send them to the dictionary when we play word games, and they have to know their letters to use the dictionary.

The idea of writing as a means of communication interests the youngest. His imagination is stimulated by the thought that he may write something, and somebody else far away will be able to read it. He learns that writing is different from printing, because your writing is your own, just as individual as your face. You can recognize a person’s handwriting.

First steps in reading follow storytelling as the night the day. Suppose one of the children wants to tell a story about an elephant. Then, while his interest is caught by elephants, I print the word ELEPHANT in his book for him, let him draw an elephant on the same page, and gaze at the picture and at ‘his’ word until he recognizes it whenever and wherever he may see it again. And he always will. It is just as easy for him to learn ‘elephant’ at the propitious moment, when his mind is filled with the idea of elephants, as it would be to learn ‘cat.’ Incidentally, it teaches him seven letters instead of only three.

But, though the child’s interest in reading and writing may be stimulated at an early age, his story-writing need not wait until he has mastered their technique. You read him stories out of a book written especially for children. The author is far away somewhere and cannot be thanked personally for his story. But the child can pay back just the same by telling a story in his turn and giving it to the world. Thus he plays his part in the give-andtake of life, the warp and woof of the universal pattern.

Some stories come tumbling out so fast that the scribe must race to keep up with them. Others, like the one called ‘Colors of Life,’ come intermittently, like a serial, lasting a whole day.

Such a simple one-sentence ‘ poem ’ as that entitled ‘A House’ sums up a child’s whole philosophy of his need for privacy and noninterference from grown-ups as clearly as Virginia Woolf does it for her sex in A Room of One’s Own.

Something of the child’s mute acceptance of the strange ways of grownups in whose hands his fate lies may be glimpsed in the sketch of Livingston Fairbank by another child who missed him when he had to go to Paris with his family ‘because of grown-up ways.’ It almost seems as if children had some mysterious telepathy of their own for communicating when thus cruelly separated.

‘A Feathered Maid’ raises the question of racial memory. How else could a child born in London of English parents, who had studied only the Greek and Roman myths, have conceived of ideas peculiar to Teutonic sagas, reminiscent of Siegfried, Rheingold, and Der Ring?

Emotional upsets occasionally reveal themselves in gruesome stories like the one entitled ‘A Spider and a Woman.’ Here the blessing of unhampered expression is unquestionable. Lucky is the child with a free passage for his thought stream. He will soon purge his own soul of horrible concepts and escape the tragic consequences of bottled emotions.

The author of ‘A Funny Story’ was heir to the titles and estates of an old reigning prince. Always, except at school, he was surrounded by servants and relatives doing him obeisance. This strange behavior of adult persons toward a small boy plainly bothered him. In school he chose to call himself Smith so that he could just be himself.

Poems come in the same way as stories. Children have a natural feeling for rhythm; sometimes, not always, a gift for rhyme. Blank verse is the earliest expression of the primitive, and in that sense children are primitive.

Rules of grammar and metre may safely be left to manifest themselves later in the free expression of the child’s ideas. I once overheard a child explaining to another the phenomenon of perspective in finger painting, which she had found out for herself. ‘It’s simple,’ said the friendly mentor. ‘You make the far-off things first. And they are far away. Then you make the close-up things last. And they are close up.’

By now the reader may suspect that my credo of education is to teach children to think for themselves, to let them discover universal laws in applying them, and finally to help them establish friendly relations with the adult universe through the simple medium of give-and-take.

I hope these stories will give others as much pleasure as their authors took in telling them to me.


(Age, five years)

I can’t tell a talk-story. Why can’t I? Cause it is too hard to do. Urbano and George can tell stories because they think it’s easy. But somehow their stories are not like mine. Mine are not stories, but just dreams out loud. I don’t think them up; they come like dreams and like babies. They are not ’spected.

But you have to work to get stories and babies. For stories, you have to think very much; and for babies, you have to please God. But that’s something I don’t know. But stories — I’ve written fourteen, or maybe more.


(Age, six years)

Green Life: Life like when you want something when somebody else has it. You are green, and it is wants that turn you green. The world wants something so bad. That’s why it turns green in spring.

Red Life: Red life is like fire. Red is hot and full of things like a circus — hot sun and pain and blood and excitement.

Purple Life: A jolly life, when you wanted things — real things — and you get them. When you get wanted things you feel nice and comfortable and soft, like a warm purple night. Purple flowers and purple velvet are full of smell, and soft.

Brown Life: Brown is worry, when you don’t want to dance or want anything to happen for fear of what will come. And like you feel when you stay in at recess.

Orange Life: Orange life is like when a bee stings you. You see orange, and it hurts.

Light Blue Life: Is one of the nicest. It is good and like high skies and bluebells and my mother’s blue eyes. You are happy and you have not pain or excitements. You walk on tiptoes and laugh without much noise — that’s a smile.

Black Life: Is when a mother is cross to a child and the child is wrong, and feels like no one loves him. That is black life. You walk heavy on your whole foot.

Gray Life: Is when all the colors have faded, and some black has come into it, and your eyes are teared.

Yellow Life: Is sunshine-like. It is bright like yellow flowers, golden birds, and yellow curls on Mary’s head — and Mimsie’s smile.

Pink-Rose Life: Is having jolly times, and laugh out loud, and wear new clothes, and go to parties, and throw serpentines, and eat ice cream, drink orangeade, and be merry.

White Life: Is the mixing of all the colors and is a life of when the sky is white and beautiful. Sometimes a red sun comes in it and gives heat into its radiators, and gives heat to a clean soul. Blue comes, and brings in happiness; pink brings festas; purple brings shadows from the soft, velvet night which is so full of wanted things. Green comes in with spring and gives new love with which you can decorate your life. Brown comes, and is like a brown shadow across the sky — like worry. Orange is like the lightning, which can flash so quick, and may kill or wound. The black is like black, black rainclouds that walk heavy on your soul. The gray is all the others fading out, but you are so tired and lonely until the yellow, happy sunshine comes out — and then I wake up, take my life to the end, and give it to God who made me and the other angels.


(Age, four years)

Once upon a time there was Mr. Sterling. And he, Mr. Sterling, had good manners, and he had five manners and sometimes more. One was for his family, one was for use in his garden, one was for his ‘ husband ’ [for use when he was a husband], one was for his little schoolboys, and the other was for his godmother, and another for himself.

One morning he went to look at the flowers and the roses in his garden. He used his garden manners. Then he went in his house and writ and smoked all he wanted. He used his Mr. Sterling manners. His family manners he used in his house, never outside.

Then Mr. Sterling went out to help the children at school and he said to Miss Shaw, ‘Do the children know to write poems?’ And Miss Shaw said, ‘Yes, they do know to write poems.’ Then he said, ‘That is nice school manners that the children know how to write poems. I will use my school manners now.’ And he did.

Then he went to see his friends and used his quick good manners, the best he had. He had such good manners that he knew enough to teach!


(Age, eight years)

Dixie is our gray cat.
She is a great lump
Of ‘purrs’ and ‘meows’
Of cat-contentment,
She has great jumping desires.
Julia is our white Persian.
She is the Empress.
She gets in lovely poses,
And turns not to you,
But as if to a king
In far-off times.


(Age, five years)

A house is to get in
And to close the doors
And be by yourself,
Or sometime with your friend John.


(Age, five years)

One morning Livingston came to school, and he looked around to all the children, and said ‘Good morning!’ to me inside his head, and forgot to say it out loud because he was so new in school.

He sat by me, and when even we were singing he wanted me to read to him, and I did afterwards. I read ‘The Little Red Hen’ nearly nineteen times. Now he does n’t come to school any more because he had to go away to Paris, because of grown-up ways.

He did n’t go to church one Sunday, and he bumped his car on the rocks. He was not hurt, or even killed or frightened. It was because his mother told him he was n’t scared.

I am sad because he is gone, because he was so little and had on such soft clothes. He was pretty, and blue, pink, and white, and he loved me and thought I was his truly friend, and liked my dress. He would look for me when he came in, and when he found me he would talk, while away, and while close to me.

And he said, ‘Read, my Mimsie!’ — and I read most a whole book one day. And he liked Julia and every pussy, and still I read and read. And he loved Julia so much that she squeaked a little bit. But I did n’t squeal because he loved me so much.

I am so sad. I want him to come again, because I did love him, and the little spot on my heart is lonesome for him.


(Age, four years)

Once upon a time in England, I was a little baby. But before I was a baby I was borned. And before I was borned I was a princess from a long way ago.

I could fly. I had feathers, and I could take off my feather dress and be a beautiful girl.

Once I went swimming in the water in the sea with a beautiful boy. I pulled off my feathers so they would n’t get wet. I put them on a rock to keep them safe.

The beautiful boy stole my pretty feathers and ran away. I ran away, too, to catch him and switch him for touching my feathers.

He ran so fast that I could n’t catch him. He hid my feathers, and I ran away to the fairies to keep him from finding me.

I stayed a long time with the fairies, until I wanted to see the beautiful boy. I wanted to come back.

I came to my mother and was her baby. I have n’t found my beautiful boy now, but I will another day when I am bigger.


(Age, six years)

We went to see the Pope one day. That was a big day. It was a Saturday. We kissed his finger and he did n’t kiss me back. (It was we because I did n’t do it alone.)

He talked to me and to Louis. He said, ‘How old are you?’ Not these words, but Italian words which mean that.

Miss Shaw said, ‘Tell him cinque,’ because she was excited and wrong. But I felt that I must n’t say a wrong number to the Pope, because then you would be telling him a joke, and you can’t joke with a Pope. He is a great man.

So I said, ‘Sei anni’ It took me a long time to say it, because my breath went out. It went down to my toes and curled in again and back to my face. Then I could say, ‘Sei anni,’ but by that time he was ready to move on. I was n’t disappointed, because it is much excitedness to talk to big people.

The Pope is big and children are little, and he must have been excited to speak to a child, because he did n’t speak to another child and there were twenty other ones.

Just the same the Pope and I are good friends, because the Pope likes me and I like the Pope. I have known him one half of my life, and he has known me three years.


(Age, eight years)

Corn grows in the summer. You plant it in March before the full moon, if the land is not too cold. If it is, you have to wait until about the first of April.

Corn grows to be about as tall as me, then it grows on, till it’s over six feet, and sometimes seven. Then you go and cut it and fix it for food for yourself, or to sell, or something like that. You can do much with corn.

It can be cooked in all ways. You can eat corn on the cob, and not on the cob, and from cans.

Corn is a very useful thing, I think. For you can do a lot of things with it. You can sell it, you can eat it on or not on the cob, you can save it up for the winter, and all those sorts of things.

People grow corn nearly all the time in America. And some people earn their living by selling it. All the people most like corn to eat, on or not on the cob or from cans; but I like it on the cob best, because it is so pleasant.

You can’t get corn much in Rome unless it comes from America or England in cans, on or not on the cob. We had it just out of Paris on the cob, and the French people are beginning to have corn, too. It shows they are improving in appreciation of good things, especially to eat.

Corn is the great American sport. To eat corn on the cob is to me much worth while — and a trip to America.


(Age, six years)

I like tomato soup. I like it indeed, because I am just that way, and tomato soup is its way.

Tomato soup is cooked tomato juice. It is good tomato juice, with a few good peas, celery, and smoke coming out of it. It is good, and good for me.


(Age, five years)

A spider has children. They are playing inside a woman’s shoe. The woman is asleep in the bed. The shoe is under the bed. There is dust under the bed. Spiders with children come and make webs under her bed, and swing on the webs. Flies are flying around.

The woman is the kind who wears scarfs over her head. Her hair is unwashed. Spider webs and dust on it. Her finger-nails are bitten and unclean, because she does not becare of them. Her neck is never washed, and every skin of her is dirty. She is kind of old in her head. The doctors have even left her alone now. She is completely runned over. Her life has been a war. She has a leg broken and a thumb without use. But she is lazy and ’pertending’ like rich. She is covered with flies.

She has only cold water, which you can’t get clean in. Even her hot water is cold. She lies there late every morning, and all the evening. She puts drops up her nose, herself; they fall on her covers. She laughs at crumbs in her bed. She cries when she peeps at the spiders, who look at her out of round dotted eyes. She trembles when she touches a spider web. She screams, she hollers, she takes the knife out of the kitchen to kill the million spiders, when there is just one spider and his family there.

She thinks the spider gets bigger and bigger, with six feet turning into hands with long scratching nails which are like kitchen knives.

The spider creeps up the pillow and kisses her, and she screams and then sleeps. She has gone dumb.

She will never be better. She is getting badder and badder all the time. There is no cure for her but to die.


(Age, six years)

Adam and Eve were first. God made a great big garden for them, and put in some fruit trees, besides everything else. They did n’t have a house; perhaps it was because in such a big garden with no clothes and summer time they did n’t need a house. Before it was cold enough for a house and clothes, they sinned and were sended away.

This is how they sinned. They had fruits in the garden, and God said, ‘Now don’t eat the fruit, the one fruit in the middle.’ Then God went away just to work — work to make and find things. Because, you know, if things are lost, people say, ‘ God knows where it is,’ and how could He know unless He had found them already?

When He came back in the afternoon at tea time, He went way back into the garden and could n’t see Adam and Eve, because they had hid in another place behind a place where they had walked away, because they did n’t want to see God anyhow.

Because, when God had gone away in the morning, a big snake came walking on his tail and said, ‘Eat the fruit!’ God had said, ‘Don’t eat the fruit!’ But Eve and Adam thought it smelt good and looked good, and they ate the fruit, and hided themselves because of vergogna [shame]. They did not want God to see them when they ate fruit. They did n’t have any clothes, but could n’t find any but a thing around here.

God called them and they did n’t want to come, but He found them and said, ‘Just come on here and tell me what you have done!’

Then Eve said, ‘I ate the fruit because the snake gave it to me. Anybody would eat things if a snake talked to him!’

Then Adam said, ‘I ate the fruit because Eve told me to, and anybody would eat the fruit if Eve told him to.’

Then God said, ‘Get out, you two people! Out of my garden! Because you ate the fruit!’

Then He called His angel to guard His garden gate and not let Adam and Eve or anybody in, because they ate all His fruit, even His special.

Then afterwards at tea time, when God came in from work, He could have His tea in quiet, and not be disturbed about people eating His fruit.

Adam and Eve just went out and lived in another place where they had to work hard. But they did not steal any more of God’s fruit. The angel saw to that.


(Age, eight years)

Once upon a time there was a donkey which had so many friends and relations that no one knew them all — 1259. His name, therefore, he called Ruspoli.

One day he went out in the forest of Rome, and he went to look for himself, because he was n’t sure that he himself was himself.

He saw a piece of glass and looked into it, and he was himself in it. ‘Then,’ said he, ‘I know I am the real Ruspoli donkey, because I have two long ears, and with these two ears and the singing mouth below, I am quite good-looking. Therefore, I am myself. Now that I know that I am myself, I will go home and feed myself.’

He walked home, putting on airs and very proud of himself, until he met a distant cousin who looked so much like himself that he was all upset again.

He had to go to bed because all friends and relations had gone; but every minute or two in the night he went to look at himself in the mirror to be sure he was himself. He was so unhappy that he changed his name to Smith, and then it made no difference who he was.


(Age, six years)

When you draw anything, first you get your piece of paper, and you get your pencils, then you have a ‘fought’ in your bean (‘No, Louis, your mind’) — then, in your mind. Then what you have in your mind you try to draw on your paper. If you have a horse, you make a head and some ears, eyes, and a mouth. Then you connect it with a neck to a body which has four legs and a long tail. A rat has a long tail, but not like a horse’s. A rat’s is long and thin, and a horse’s is like a longhaired switch. Then you put on some other little marks, and ecco the horse!

If you want to do a cow, you make a head with horns and ears, a different kind of mouth, eyes, and connect by a fat neck to a square, fattish body which has a tail like a shoeing brush on the end of a long rope. Then you do cowlegs, four of them, and shoes, cowshoes, which are not like us, but are like two thick finger-nails. When it is on the ground, running, the nails or hoofs open somewhat. When you have done all this, there you have a cow. Do a small cow, but a little different, and you have a calf.

To do a goat, do about the same as of a cow, but change enough to look like a goat and not a cow. The horns are longer and the tail is different, and the hair and the size and the smell.

When you draw a boy, that is easy. First you make a head, then some hair and a nose, ears, and mouth. Then, instead of doing a body, you do trousers and stick legs out; a coat or sweater, and stick on arms and five fingers, and five more for the other hand. Make some shoes, make some stockings and a hat and a book in his arm, and you have a boy going to school.

To make a girl, I really don’t know. She is somewhat the same as a boy, but some difference, such as hair, skirts, and such. Well, no, they are not alike, and, yes, they are different after all.

To draw a man and woman, just do the same difference as for a boy and girl. It depends on what is in your mind.

To draw pictures, remember to think first, and make your think. That’s what I do, and Mother says I do well.