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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Some Practical Points in the Physical Education of Children, Part 1

by John Mason, M.D.e
Volume 4, 1893/94, no. 2, pgs. 96-102


Nerves, Clothing, Exercise, Hours of Work, Sleep and Food.
[A Lecture delivered before the members of the Parents' National Educational Union at Kendal.]

The questions which I shall bring before you in this paper are entirely practical. I shall not deal with any vague and abstruse though interesting problems, such as reflex actions, the education of nerve cells, and the like, but confine myself to those things which every mother should know and think about. I may say at once that I believe there is nothing original to be said on these subjects, but there is much that is frequently ignored even by enlightened people, and which will be all the better for being put freshly before you and emphasised once more.

I shall be glad if you will take these first remarks to apply to children from two or three years old to nine.

Nerves.--Children are the most nervous creatures living. Many animals are shy and easily alarmed, but in one particular form of nervousness children surpass them. I mean in what one might call nervous disturbance--or shall we say nervous displacement?--in the loss of balance consequent on shock or nerve irritation, whether mental or physical. We are very prone to forget this; because children are noisy and romping and vigorous, the opposite of the shy trembling creatures we commonly designate nervous, we forget how easily alarmed they are; and more than this, how a shock once applied acts and reacts on the sensitive brain of a child. This is the case both in health and disease: a very trifling derangement, say of the digestive organs, will produce as great a nervous cataclysm as the profoundest organic disease will do.

The nervous system of a child is more sensitive, more active, and more intensely on the go than the adult's. The nerve cells do not act more instantly, but they do so with greater disturbance to themselves; and this energy let loose in the brain is more liable to overflow into side channels and to affect the rest of the brain and the body generally than in the adult. This is not to be wondered at since the child's brain learns (I do not mean only the facts and theories which we call learning, but) the things that pertain to its own life and functions, much more constantly than the adult's has to do. When we are grown up, most things, in fact nearly everything we do, is to a great extent automatic and routine. We acquire a regular habit by which we perform the ordinary affairs of life, and so save our brain the effort of thinking. But with the child every new movement and sensation has to be acquired and pondered by the inexperienced nerve cells, to say nothing of new words and fresh ideas which they are constantly gathering.

Besides this, there is the second point, the absence of stability in the nerve cells; figuratively speaking, they explode more readily; and, lastly, there is the want of experience to soothe extravagant fears and of reason to convince.

How are we to avoid the evil consequences of this over-sensitiveness? Let us take instances. A child is afraid of the dark. This fear is a natural one; it occurs in children who have never been frightened by tales, or by other children dressing up as ghosts. It is very common; I should say the majority of children of our class have it. My advice is to begin early, before the child is a year old, to accustom it to being without a light at bedtime. Accustom the child to the look of his room during twilight, and encourage him to venture into other dark rooms. Yet he will require watching even then, for one who has had no fears hitherto may have a bad dream, or read some horrible story, and then for a time become fearful. Some children dream every night, and some have dreadful dreams, and these I do not know how you can well leave in the dark. If a child is afraid of the dark, and you cannot cure him of it, let him have a light by all means; many children suffer miseries night after night as soon as they are left alone in the dark, with no benefit to themselves, but the reverse.

I have been asked about "night terrors." The term is applied properly to such a condition as this. A child between, say, four and eight years of age, goes to bed apparently well, and after being asleep for an hour or two wakes up in a state of positive frenzy. Its terror entirely masters even the natural instincts. For a moment or two, sometimes for longer, it recognizes no one, not even its mother, and remains sitting straight up in bed, screaming till the perspiration runs down. Presently it is pacified, and after an interval of sobbing drops off to sleep.

This, it is true, is due to the extra nervousness of children, but it is not only nervous, it depends largely on their general health, and more especially on the digestion. It is not a common thing, and may occur only once in the child's life. But sometimes a child gets into the way of having these troublesome fits, and then I think you may be sure there is something decidedly amiss with the digestion; probably there is a great deal of thick mucus being poured out into the digestive tract, it may be following whooping-cough or other disorder, and this mucus, by its presence, prevents the digestive juices coming into contact with the food, and by forming lumps causes irritation which gives rise to the nightmare. The attacks may be considered to be an exaggerated form of nightmare.

Here you have an example of the main characteristics of the child's nervous mechanism in which it differs from what is commonly seen in adults. Firs, there is the over-sensitiveness of the peripheral nerves, in this case of the intestine; second, the complete misinterpretation and overflowing of the verve-message sent to the brain from the alimentary canal, whereby the whole brain is thrown into an uproar; and collaterally with this, the want of self-control and the abeyance of reason for the time being.

Well, the treatment is, if a child has a series of such attacks, to attend to his general health and digestion; for it is specially during such chronic diseases as indigestion that this over-sensitiveness is most apparent.

Again, what shall we say for those cases where there is an unusual abhorrence of some animal, a common enough case? A lady wished me to suggest a course of action with regard to one of her children who evinced a quite uncontrollable fear of the domestic pig. Should she reason with it, or force the acquaintance in spite of disgust and repulsion? Neither alone, I think. In the first place, I believe if we had not all learnt by mature experience that the pig is a harmless creature we should regard it with hesitation. You know many horses either dislike or are afraid of pigs. So that the use of force would be to my mind inadvisable, if not cruel. This is a matter of instinct, not of reason, and the feeling can be better overcome by persuasion and encouragement than by any show of force.

It is impossible to give more than a few instances of nervous troubles in children, but bear in mind the principles of training in this respect, the object you should have before your mind, and so think out the line of action suitable in any particular case. You should then, firstly, never willfully frighten a child; and, more than this, never allow it, if possible, to be in a position of fear without it being able to feel that there is help and protection at hand. You might lead it into such a position on purpose if you like, but with the declared intention of showing the child that there is no occasion for nervousness and dread.

Secondly, your aim should be to constantly and persistently help the child to build up for himself an experience on which he can rely, for, little as we know it, the confidence of grown-up people is the result of oft-repeated experiences and education: I mean, not book education, but the true education in its broader sense, the building up of mind and character.

Now let us pass on to a much simpler subject, that of clothing.

Let me implore those who have young children to give them plenty of clothes. Plenty of clothes and to be out every day, and in the summer all day, is the way to bring up a child strong and healthy. I do not mean that every child, however miserably delicate, should be sent out in a drenching rain or in a driving snowstorm; but what I do say is, that warm clothing and any amount of fresh air are the two things that are paramount for the health of a child and for "hardening" a child. This "hardening," be careful how you do it; aim at accomplishing it by strengthening the child's constitution more than by simply exposing it to weather.

I knew a sad failure by the latter plan. The five children, born of exceptionally healthy parents, were brought up when quite young without flannel and with bare legs, with the object of hardening them; and as they came to maturity, two of them died of heart disease and Bright's disease, and the other three are delicate. Flannel and wool are your only wear for children, and pray leave off those innumerable various thin fine linen garments in which an infant is decked. I see bits of fine cambric almost like tissue-paper put on, as if there was any sense in such clothing. Understand that the under-clothes are for warmth, and for nothing else, and the dress (or over-garment) is for warmth and appearance. Bare legs in anything but warm weather are in iniquity, to my mind. I know why they are kept so; it is because "they look so pretty." Foolish nurses, and yet more foolish mothers, because more responsible, are always vieing with each other to make the children look more "fetching" than their neighbours', instead of throwing such fancies to the winds with the consolation that health is the parent of beauty. That passage is constantly coming into my mind in matters concerning health of body as well as of spiritual health: "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread, and you labour for that which satisfieth not?"

How often do we hear this sort of thing: "The children have not been out for a week, poor things, the weather is so bad." Now note, the parents whose children do not go out for days together, keep them indoors because they consider them less able to bear exposure than grown-up people. And yet they actually clothe them as if they could bear twice as much cold as their elders. They are practically bare from the middle of the thigh downwards. They wear thin cotton socks and little house shoes when they are out, that let the water in the first puddle they happen to step into. The absurdity of complaining how easily children take cold, and at the same time exposing them to frost and east wind, as if they had the hide of a bear, is apparent. There are, I know, two points in the child's favour compared with adults--first, that they are better covered with fat than at any rate men are (and fat is a good non-conductor of heat); and, secondly, they can keep themselves warm by running about without fatigue or looking ridiculous.

And this point of exercise out of doors brings me to another with regard to clothing, which I should like to mention. Let me repeat, flannel and wool are the only proper materials, because they are not only warm but elastic; and this absence of all tightness, giving perfect freedom of movement, I essential to full muscular development as well as to muscular enjoyment and vigour.

Lastly, may I remind you to discriminate between the uses of different suits of clothes. Let the children be dressed well and prettily for a party; but my sympathies are strongly enlisted, on the other hand, for children having a rough suit that will not spoil by a good romp or a tumble out of doors. It saddens me dreadfully to see children full of life and energy and bursting to turn a summersault, kept at a gentle walk, dreary and wearisome, for fear they should tumble and spoil their clothes.

Again, with regard to girls' exercise. There is no reason at all why girls should be in any way restricted in games up to the age of ten or twelve (the age varies a little, but in most cases one would say twelve at least). There is no physiological reason against their romping and racing as much as boys of their own age: in fact, some girls are the leaders in the games. They should use dumb-bells and play shuttlecock and battledore in wet weather, and learn to throw and catch, play rounders, hockey (there is a good hockey team, I believe, in one of the ladies colleges at Cambridge), row, ride, swim, and play tennis, at all ages quietly, and vigorously at every age, except perhaps for one or two years in adolescence. There is no reason why they should not play cricket--no physiological reason, I mean--though I am afraid their skirts will always prevent anything like high-class play. I know the controversy will always be maintained between those who think games and athletics are carried too far nowadays, but I have not met an one yet who thinks the physical training of children of our class up to the age of eight or so is overdone. I think myself it is rather underdone. And, speaking generally, I am on the side of those who do not think physical training is thought too much of in this country. In France they are waking up to the benefits of our national ideas on athletics, and Germany is also borrowing from us.

Let me also say a word of correction on the prevailing confusion which obtains with regard to the respective benefits of games and gymnastics. By gymnastics I mean the Swedish system, and such as are commonly practiced in England. These, lifting weights, hanging and swinging from bars, dumb- bell exercises, and the like, I must remind you only exercise the muscular system, and many of them are designed to develop one muscle at a time. The German gymnastics are better; they exercise all the muscular system, and to a certain extent the brain cells which direct the complex muscular movements; but all gymnastics lack what is really one of the most important parts of physical training, that is (not bulk and power of individual muscles, but) the raining of the brain cells to direct all the movements with rapidity and vigour, coupled with the finest adjustment of strength. After all, it is skill in the use of one's arms and legs, not brute force, that is the essential.

Besides, games, athletic sports, rowing, riding, &c., are all outdoor affairs, all bear directly on the various natural and necessary uses of the body, and all have the additional stimulus of emulation and companionship.

(To be continued.)