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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 Medical Aspects of Education *

by Dr. Percy Lewis
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 667-673


*Read at the Folkestone Branch of the Parents' National Educational Union.

From a medical point of view, the first condition of successful education is that the individual should be in good health, for the best-educated brain is of little use if the professor has not sufficient vital energy to work it. Given good material to start with, the development of a healthy brain depends on the due observance of ordinary physiological (i.e. health) laws, on the maintenance of healthy surroundings, and on the growth of the different systems of the body in their normal proportion to each other.

These points not only necessitate a correct knowledge of sanitary and physiological laws, but also the power of applying them. As it is impossible to discuss them all in the short time at our disposal, I have, therefore, chosen a few of those which are most commonly neglected.

That the brain must be supplied from the digestive organs with proper nourishment, and that the food must be properly digested, are facts which everyone knows, but what is not generally known, or at least not realised, is the importance of a proper proportion of water in the diet.

Now, much care is taken over diet and patent foods, but the proportion of water a child gets daily is unfortunately left to chance. When one realises that 80 per cent. of our bodies consists of water, one is prepared to hear of the important part water takes in the animal economy. Besides being of use by reason of its bulk, it is the great means of communication between the different parts of the body. For it is in solution that the digestive ferments act, in solution that the nutriment is carried to the brain and other parts of the body, and it is mostly in solution that the waste products of the body are got rid of. Consequently, if the supply of water to an individual be deficient, digestion and nutrition cannot go on so well as they ought, and the brain will receive less food, and that in too concentrated a form. But that is by no means the worst, for the brain and rest of the body will become choked by their own waste products. It is, in fact, like a fire with too much ash in it, or a town in hot weather when there has been no rain for some time. In the former case the fire cannot burn brightly, and in the latter the inhabitants of the town cannot feel well. Moreover, they are in a dangerous position should an epidemic occur. As it is with the fire and town, so it is with the individual. If sufficient water be not taken he cannot feel well, and of course cannot be in such a good position to resist disease. It is a common thing to prevent children drinking as much water as they would. This, indeed, is a great mistake, and is but a relic of the time when pure water was a difficult thing to obtain, and when there was a great fear of diphtheria or typhoid fever from water drinking. Now that pure water can be had in abundance, there should be allowed to help themselves when so inclined. If they are never interfered with in this respect, they will grow up naturally fond of water, and they may safely be trusted to take as much as they require. If, on the other hand, they are controlled in this matter, they will become used to doing without it, and will suffer in consequence. They must not, of course, be allowed to drink large draughts of cold water when heated by exertion.

The clogging of the system by waste products is a very common condition met with, not only among adults but also among children. In adults, it gives rise to gout, rheumatism, biliousness, and other forms of ill-health. In children it causes debility, eczema, indigestion, peevishness, and very many infantile complaints. A child suffering thus cannot possibly develop its brain to the best advantage. Now the relief of this common condition is very simple. Adults often go about it in a very complicated manner. Instead of drinking the proper amount of water day by day, they go at stated intervals to various German Spas, and drink waters which, from having certain salts in solution, remove their accumulated waste products more quickly than plain water. With children, it will be best to allow them the natural amount of water day by day.

Besides a good brain and a good digestive system, Nature intended that a child (and an adult, too) should have well-developed muscles. Not only are they of use mechanically and for purposes of locomotion, but the muscles also form one of the ways in which waste products are burnt up and food converted into heat and motion. It is by muscular action that many children are enabled to deal with the large amount of food which they habitually take in excess of their natural requirements. This excess of food, instead of accumulating in their tissues and clogging them, is converted into work done, and is thus got rid of. The beneficial effects which most persons feel from a suitably prescribed course of exercises, is partly due to this method of getting rid of waste products. Properly-conducted exercises affect the brain in another way. They increase the rapidity and force of the circulation, and this increases the rapidity of the removal of waste products from the brain, enabling it to grow and work better. And not only the brain, but all the other organs are equally benefited in the same way.

The muscles have been called the furnaces of the body, and have been estimated to contribute about four-fifths of the heat necessary to maintain life. If the muscles are not developed, the body heat is below normal, the brain is supplied with blood which is too cold, and is thereby depressed. Children with badly-developed muscles have feeble circulations, cold hands and feet, and feeble brains. The effect of a course of suitable exercises, calculated to develop their muscles, always has a tonic effect on their brains. Moreover, muscular exercises increase the movements of respiration and the size of the chest; the brain thereby gets a better supply of oxygen. I hope I have now said enough to show that "muscular education ought to proceed with mental training, and be maintained throughout."

A child's brain differs from an adult's in some important particulars. The whole nervous system is more irritable and excitable. The organs of sense are more acute; sight, hearing, and touch are sharper, and consequently the nervous system is more easily acted upon by causes which would not affect an adult. One has only to mention the cutting of a tooth, or acute indigestion, as examples. These often give rise to effects in children far surpassing those we see in adults. Convulsions and insensibility, lasting for hours, are not infrequent results of these conditions. If such tremendous consequences can follow from such slight causes, one can readily understand how such agencies as surroundings, companionship, unkindness, and unfairness, are capable of permanently injuring the developing brain. Impressions received in childhood may have their influence over the whole of adult life. A friend has recently told me that he remembers being taken, when a child, to bathe in the sea with an aunt, who, directly he was in the water, considered she was doing her duty in giving him a good ducking. The fright which she gave him has lasted ever since, and though he has since become a good swimmer, he has never been altogether able to conquer the dread of the sea or of deep water, which overcame him at that moment. Children's brains vary in two ways: they are either too irritable and excitable, or they are not irritable and excitable enough. Their functional activity is, therefore, either above normal or subnormal. No one could, of course, define a normal child, for no two children are ever alike. That class whose brains are above normal includes the so-called "neurotic" child, while the subnormal class embraces the "lethargic." The neurotic child, whose appearance is probably familiar to most people, has for the most part small features, a long head, constantly changing expression, quick movements, restlessness, and small limbs and body. The child sleeps badly, often calls out at night, and dreams, or walks in his sleep. He eats little, and cries easily; though he is soon down he is quickly up again. Any cause constantly acting, which upsets the equilibrium, tends to make that upset permanent, so that a neurotic easily becomes insane from worry or overwork. It is evident from the small body, that the nutrition is bad, and, consequently, there is very small resisting power to disease.

The "lethargic" child, on the other hand, has mostly large features, broad head, stolid expression, slow movements, large fat limbs, and big body. He is always ready to sleep, his temperature, though not easily affected, has a tendency to become subnormal. He is a big eater, good-tempered, but dull and placid, and is, when depressed, very difficult to cheer. He becomes accustomed to constantly acting irritating causes, which he learns to ignore. He is not easily made insane, but he may tend to grow hypochondriacal.

Both types have this in common, that up to adult life they may be greatly improved by treatment, but in childhood proper treatment may, at any rate, hide, if not entirely remove, the original effect. Setting aside for the moment inherited tendencies, both the neurotic and lethargic have a common cause, viz., that they are victims of the want of observance of ordinary health laws, and that the growth of the different systems of the body is not in the proportion to each other that Nature intended. One is all brain and the other a digestive system, neither have their muscular system developed. Both, therefore, require muscular exercise and fresh air for their treatment. Here, however, the similarity ends, and even the kind of exercise which is required is different in each case.

We have seen some of the ways in which muscular exercise affects the health, and so its use in both cases is intelligible. To understand how the exercises must be different in each case, one needs only to mention that there could be very little risk for a small-bodied neurotic swinging from a trapeze, but the weight of a heavy-bodied lethargic child might seriously overstrain important joints or internal organs.

Here it may be as well to mention, since it is a matter of great importance, that the development of the muscles by means of exercises does not necessarily imply "violent" exercises. Many parents associate the idea of gymnastics with violent exertion. So common is this error that I have for a long time been in search of a word which will imply something milder, at present without success. As a proof of the non-necessity for violent exertion, Sandow, who is the strongest man this century has seen, developed his muscles entirely by the use of 3lb. and 5lb. dumbbells. A visit to the medical gymnasium, which we most fortunately possess in Folkestone, dispels at once the illusion when it exists locally.

The modern gymnasium offers facilities for building up the body, which are not excelled by any other system of exercise. The introduction of the new developing appliances has opened up the possibility of the gymnasium to many to whom it was before of doubtful value. The pupil is no longer compelled to compete with others in the performance of feats that are distasteful to him. He can now compete with himself, that is, with his own physical condition from week to week and from month to month. The weights can be adjusted to those best suited to his requirements, If he is weak in the chest or back he can spend his time and energy in strengthening those parts, without fear of strain or injury. By passing from one apparatus to another, and by keeping always within his capacity, he adds slowly and surely to his general strength and powers of endurance.

It has been found by experience that there are certain principles which have to be borne in mind in attaining muscular development. They are as follows:--

(1.) That a thorough examination should be made of the patient, and the less developed parts noted. These alone should be first exercised, so that they may be brought up to their proper ratio to other parts. Then all should be developed together, examinations taking place at certain intervals.

(2.) That both sexes should commence at ten years old, but less regular exercises and easier movements, such as games of musical chairs, dancing, etc., may be commenced at a much earlier age.

(3.) That there should be plenty of variety in the exercises, and no set of movements should be continued more than five or eight minutes. The muscles are thus kept healthily occupied by the diversity of work, and a large number of muscles, involving symmetry, are gently exercised. In class work every exercise possible should be performed to music.

(4.) That as they get older and stronger, harder work may be indulged in, such as rings, parallel bars, horizontal bars, climbing ropes, poles, etc.

(5.) That there should be a short rest between each exercise.

(6.) That the exercises should be arranged so as not to be a burden, but rather to excite the interest of the child.

(7.) That the exercise should cease before symptoms of weariness are induced.

(8.) That exercises should take place in a well-ventilated room or out of doors.

All these principles have a good medical or physiological reason, and, indeed, the same principles in almost the same words, apply, whether it is the muscles or the brain which we require to develop. Thus, as regards the brain, all lessons should take place in a well-ventilated room or out of doors. All lessons should cease before symptoms of weariness set in. The lessons should be arranged so as not to be a burden, but rather to excite the interest of the child. There should be a short rest between each lesson, even if it is of no longer duration than going from one class-room to another. There should be plenty of variety in the lessons, and none should be continued so long as to become monotonous. The mind will thus be kept healthily occupied by diversity of work, and many parts of the brain involving symmetrical development will be greatly exercised. Regular school work should commence at ten, though irregular work should be commenced before. Before entering school, the child should be medically certified as fit, and a note made of any special mental peculiarity.

Note well how the principles of brain and muscle development agree almost word for word. If they ought to be observed in such comparatively coarse structures as muscles, how much more so with such a delicate structure as the brain.

(To be continued.)