The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

Our Children's Play: Their Toys and Books

by Mrs. C. Hatchell.
Volume 17, no. 5, 1906, pg. 366

"Play" says Jean Paul, "is the first poetry of the child, because 'play' is its first statement of its first deeds." We also say, paradoxical as it sounds, that the first work of the child is Play.

We see in Nature all around us that every human being is attracted towards the kind of action necessary for his special development. Now, in the same way, the child feels himself unconsciously impelled to use those members and senses that will be most useful to him hereafter. How many mothers have watched the first play of the little baby of a few months old, lying on his back, kicking his little legs, and throwing his arms in the air, combining play and exercise, and seeming the living embodiment of the poet's words that it is "a joy to be alive"; and we know how, as the months go on into years, this is but the earliest stage of that play which is the agency that gives him health; for "play" is an absolute necessity to his physical life, which depends greatly on the exercise he takes, and which is the more beneficial the more there is added to it the stimulus of "pleasurable motive."

Do we mothers sufficiently realise the importance of our children's play, in the unconscious training and developing of certain moral qualities and powers, far more than they can be by any mere words of ours on the subject; what potent factors their games can be in teaching lessons of self-control, self-reliance, unselfishness, patience, courage and energy?

Froebel says, "The first mental development of the child goes on in its play, and this play needs consequently to be as much systematised as the instruction given at a later stage."

We see this idea worked out in his Mütter und Köse Lieder, and still further in his Gifts and Occupations as the child gets older. Of course this refers to "systematised play," and has great value as an educational factor; but there is another side, which is perhaps of more interest to the parents, especially to those who observe, and that is the spontaneous play, which reflects the mind of the child, and how it is affected by its environment, besides giving us glimpses of the dawning powers of its inner consciousness.

A great deal of this is merely imitative, but not entirely so, save perhaps in a few cases of not very bright or imaginative children. Sully says this "play-instinct" is most vigorous when the child is alone or so self-absorbed it does not notice the presence of anyone else in the room; and I can bear this out in my own experience, for on several occasions when I have unwittingly interrupted my little daughter's play of this description, by letting my amused feelings get the better of me, and thus making her conscious of my presence; I notice she does not pick up the thread again till I have gone away, or pretend to be absorbed in a book, and then the imaginary conversations begin again, revealing many curious workings and reproductions of the childish mind. She has been attending a kindergarten for an hour or so a day, and I get an exact reproduction of not only what her teachers say, but how it is said, as she personates them, and talks to her imaginary pupils, which are represented by cushions, chairs, books, etc., whatever happens to come to hand, and invests them with the characteristics and doings of the children she has met at school. I also get faithful reproductions of my own manner; of expressions I have used and quite forgotten, and wondered where she heard them, till I have suddenly become conscious of using them myself. I am sure there are many mothers who have a similar experience; I only quote my own as being what comes under my personal observation, not with the idea of there being anything remarkable about it. But this leads us to the thought, that, if the children reflect so much of their environment in this spontaneous play, and it takes such hold of their minds, that they are able to reproduce it in this way, and live it over again, let us see that these "thought-pictures," and all that makes their childish environment, is such that will give them high ideals, and stimulate to all that is noblest and best.


In these days, toys play an important part in the lives of our children and they are certainly valuable "in promoting plays as they appeal to the child's heart, and aid his imagination," but it is also said that the continually increasing wealth and perfection of toys also serve to produce dullness in children, or else destructiveness as the only form of activity left to them in relation to these too-perfect toys. In contrast to these perfect toys is the wealth of love and of imagination bestowed on the most meager and unpromising objects, idealised by the child into a doll, a horse or dog, etc., and especially is this the case with the curious objects made to do duty as a doll; and far more real love is lavished on these than on the pink and white fashionable perfections bought from a shop. The less individuality a doll has, the better able is the child to idealise it, and it affords far more scope to its imaginative faculties, as being able to represent many various characters.

In choosing toys for the children, how important it is to bear certain points in mind; one special thing to consider is, to give when possible something out of which the child can make other things, or can do something more with.

I read some time ago that children's toys may be divided into two classes: the finite, and the suggestive.

I often think of this when looking at a shop window full of toys, and also in choosing toys for my children, so I pass on the idea to other parents. It may also be a useful idea to uncles, aunts and godparents when birthdays and the Christmas season are approaching.

Now, to give an example of the first, e.g., the finite or non-suggestive toys. One Christmas a dredger was being sold largely, which the child could only turn and re-turn and watch innumerable small buckets fill themselves with sand and patiently pour it out again. There was nothing for the child to do but to turn the handle, until he began to pull it to pieces to see "how the wheels go wound." I am sure many can re-call toys of a similar type, and usually these are the most expensive kind. There are too many of these purely mechanical toys now, as for instance, animals that you wind and they go round and round in one direction, till the spring breaks. Nothing is left for the child to do, or for its imagination or ingenuity to supply.

Now for some examples of the suggestive toys.

I bought, for the small sum of 10½d. (you can get better and more expensive ones) a toy crane, which the child had to carefully wind and unwind in order to make it work properly, and he provided endless interest and amusement for himself by fastening various small light articles to the hook at the end and raising them from the ground to the top of the table; great anxiety being experienced as to whether the brick or whatever it was, would come safely to the top. Of course, as often as not it failed to do so; but there was the opportunity for a lesson in patience and perseverance, with the added stimulus of the uncertainty as to whether the load would reach its goal. With a purely mechanical and much more expensive toy of this description, it would all be done by clock-work arrangement, and leave nothing for the child to do but wind it up!

This simple toy gave a practical lesson in leverage, and on the return voyage to India, and on this last voyage home, gave the child a practical and intelligent interest in watching the crane at work on board ship, and the first toy I was asked to buy, when in a toy shop, was another crane. The same child has just had an inexpensive cart and horse, and I noticed the other day an empty cotton reel fastened on to the back wheel, it being taken up a miniature hill formed of cardboard and books, etc. We are living in a hilly place, and he has noticed the drags fastened on to the back wheels of the carts to prevent them slipping back, and to rest the horses, and he copied the idea in his own fashion. How much better and how much more interest was got out of this, than if it had been a more elaborate toy with the drag already supplied, and nothing left to the child's own ingenuity or imagination.

Froebel, the great student of child-nature, saw the pleasure children got from playing with sand and clay, and that it was not merely the pleasure children feel in making a mess, as is so often said, but due to the fact that these materials afforded the child just the means it wanted for giving tangible and concrete statement to its thoughts. This want is felt by little children far more than we think, and too little attended to in the home and in the schoolroom. When it is possible, it is a great source of health and amusement to have a sand heap in a corner of the garden where the children can dig as they please, and in some parts of London this idea has been carried out in the holiday schools for the poorer children, with the greatest success. I had such a sand heap in a shady part of the garden when in Bombay, and many hours of health and amusement were got there.

With regard to the clay modelling, this is quite easy now that one can get the tubes or boxes of plasticine, and it does not make any mess, is easily got, and easily put away. I find it especially welcome to keep for a wet day; and if the child has had lessons in modelling at a kindergarten, he enjoys it all the more.

A sand tray also provides amusement and can be used for teaching geography, and the letters of the alphabet for the very young ones.

An old tray or shallow tin is filled with sand (which is best moistened a little first or when in use) and if he has a box of sticks for stick-laying, he can make pictures by laying the sticks on the sand, or with some of those wooden boxes containing the well-known farm-yards, trees, houses, etc., he can copy various gardens or walks he has seen, or design parks and farm-yards himself on the sand tray with their help. If at the seaside, small shells can be used for ornamentation, or for forming the alphabet, etc., instead of the sticks; and many other variations will suggest themselves.

An empty doll's house (a home-made one from an old box or packing case is even better than the bought one) can afford occupation and amusement to both girls and boys, by the furniture being made by them from the boxes of pea work, cork work, cardboard models to be sewn together, etc., one can get at the large toy shops or kindergarten depots nowadays, and various additions can be made with their weekly pocket money. There is plenty of scope for needlework also, in the making of curtains, bed linen, etc., and far more pleasure will be got out of this than being given the house completely furnished to begin with; and for the children to see the work growing under their own hands.

In teaching needlework, instead of the long seams, and uninteresting dusters and handkerchiefs to hem, how much more pleasure is taken in it if the needlework is taught in the form of making a complete set of clothes for a nice, large doll; and this also gives scope for lessons in cutting out if the child be old enough. And the interest can be still further kept up if there be a trunk with lock and key, and the doll's wardrobe constantly added to. I see many of these trunks in the toy shops, but they are already filled with clothes and millinery for Dolly. No, get an empty trunk, and let it be filled by Dolly's mistress.

Dolls can also be dressed for the sick children in the hospitals, or sent to the missionary societies to be sent abroad for prize day at the mission schools. How very much the little girls in the Indian schools value an English doll, and what untold delight it is to them, poor little things, many of whom become real mothers at an age when little English girls are still only playing with their dolls, or just thinking of giving them away as part of the "childish things" they have done with.

As the children get older, I believe very much in training them to have a "hobby," and one can often notice by their play what subject is likely to attract them, and form a "hobby" in after life. It is said (by Fitch, I think), that "life needs a circumference as well as a centre"; and I think much rests with the mother, in helping to form this "circumference" in after life. It may be natural history, botany, conchology, stamp or crest collecting, it does not so much matter what it is, as long as it is something that shall form a pursuit and pleasure outside their daily work. I think this is especially to be thought of with regard to our boys.

We have many outside helps to this nowadays, especially as regards natural history and botany, with Miss Mason's Nature Note Books, the children's natural history clubs, lectures, etc., and as the children get older and put away the toys, let us see their leisure hours are not aimless and unoccupied.

Of course there are the regular school games, with their valuable training, but these games do not appeal equally to all, and if a boy (or girl) show a decided taste for some pursuit that may in time become a "hobby," especially if it be one that takes him out-of-doors, do let it be encouraged as much as possible. Never let your boys and girls pass an aimless half, or whole, holiday, and if they do not join in any regular game, see that they get the requisite amount of air and exercise in some other way, and have something to show as the result.

As regards their play; let the children have a joyous, natural, and happy childhood, for Sidney Smith says, "If you make children happy now, you will make them happy twenty years hence by the memory of it." [Sir Sidney Smith (1771-1845); English Anglican churchman, essayist and wit.]


Now, a few words as to our children's books. To begin with the very young ones, I think those of the style of Beatrix Potter have very much to recommend them. The pictures are not overloaded with detail, and are full of characteristic humour and individuality (especially Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny). The short readings are so exactly descriptive of the picture, and the print is excellent. There being so little on each page, only just what is necessary to illustrate the picture, it is a great encouragement to children just beginning to read to pick it out for themselves with a little help for some of the long words. There are also many of the volumes in the Tales that are told to the Children Series, exceedingly good for children from six to nine.

When the children can read sufficiently to understand and enjoy what they read, then begins the mother's opportunity to form the child's taste for the appreciation of good literature hereafter, for it is during this "formative period" that the books read influence the character and lay the foundation of what we term "culture" in after life.

In choosing books, let us be careful not to give merely "pretty books," but those that have a distinct literary flavour, and that the children will read and re-read many times. It is not the quantity they read that does the good, but the, quality, and what they are able to absorb. I cannot do better than quote from Miss Mason on this subject:

"Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not a true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort. This is no hardship. Activity, whether of body or mind, is joyous to a child."

Let the child have his own book-shelf, and choose what he wants to read from that. The word "browse" always seems to me peculiarly applicable in this case. It is interesting to note what books become the favourites and are most often taken out. Whatever book is given, let the print and the binding be distinctly good.

I must say I am sorry to see the increasing number of children's libraries now. I know some will say it gives them the chance of reading many books they might not otherwise get, but I think any advantages are counterbalanced by the dangers, and it quite counteracts the "browsing" idea mentioned above, among a few well-chosen favourites, and helps to form a taste for desultory and unprofitable reading, which paves the way for the constant novel reading later on. I came across a paragraph in a paper the other day, headed "The Modern Child's Taste in Literature," and which said that an opportunity for studying the taste of the rising generation, as regards literature, was afforded by the children's branch just started at Mudie's Library. Two children who had visited the library since they were seven and eight (evidently this was even before there was a children's branch), when they "clamoured for Fairy Tales"; and are now about thirteen and fourteen, ask for "murder, gory fierce murder, by land or sea and heaps of it." Here is the taste for the "sensational novel" already developed! It also went on to say that lists sent in by the children reveal an endless demand for adventure books, chosen apparently from their titles, such as, Facing Death, Won by the Sword, Blown to Bits, etc., etc. One small child asked for the latest book by Max Nordeau. This kind of taste once started, will not be one to appreciate Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Kingsley, etc., later on. These children are not like Philip in the Heir of Redclyffe [by Charlotte Yonge], of whom it was said, "He was brought up on the old standard books, instead of his time being frittered away by a host of idle, modern ones."

I do not say we need absolutely exclude all fairy tales and books of adventure, but let them be judiciously chosen by the mother, and only allowed occasionally. I think also, a very good rule to make with regard to the reading of what we may call mere story books is, that they should never be read before a certain time of the day, say, never during the morning hours. I think this is a very good rule, even for children of a larger growth, that time for reading in the morning should be given to solid reading, and lighter literature kept for later in the day. How often have I seen people, on board ship for instance, start novel reading at 7 or 8 a.m., and read nothing else the whole day; and then begin another of the same kind directly when one is finished! Now when one can get such books as Macaulay's Essays, in the Temple Classics, so portable, and such good print, besides many others of the same class, there is no excuse for not providing oneself with something solid, besides the usual class of book in the Ship's Library. However, revenons à nos moutons ("return to our sheep"?) or, I should say, à nos enfants ("our children").

This question of reading and choice of books is what comes distinctly under the head of "Home Culture," and can be carried on by the parents even when the intellectual training has to a great extent passed out of their hands into that of the teacher.

I think it is a good plan, at the beginning of every holiday, to give the child a new book, suitable to his age, which will be an addition to his library, well and attractively bound, and of good print, say, one of Sir Walter Scott's, and later on give another in the same edition, and so gradually collect them thus. I do not believe in giving a whole set at once. These can also be added to on birthdays, or at Christmas time, in addition to any other presents.

With regard to Sir Walter Scott, I remember one of his books was usually set as a holiday task at a school at which my brothers attended. We will not discuss the question as to whether this was desirable or not, but the point I want to bring forward is this: they were always given in a cheap, sixpenny edition, paper cover, close print with double columns. Now, I do not blame either the school or the booksellers for this: the supply was made to meet the demand; but almost all the boys seemed to have it only in this cheap edition. Since that time we have all grown up, and I have met many of those boys who said what a dislike for the book was created by this method; how they always associated "Scott" with this cheap school edition. I think if the parents had realised all it involved, they would have helped the school authorities, who were trying to create the taste for good literature in the boys, by seeing that they made acquaintance with "Sir Walter" in a style more worthy of him, and they would not have grudged the extra money for what might become to the boy a life-long friend, besides which, the boys would have seen how their own parents appreciated the book, and it would have given the "holiday task" an additional lustre and importance.

Even parents who have to leave their children in England to be educated, while they themselves are abroad, can keep in touch with them, by sending such books as will cultivate their taste for good reading, to reach them at the beginning of each holidays. When it is possible (though often they are not within reach of book shops), let them send the book itself, and not merely the money for the child to buy it. It will have an added value, coming by post, and there is more personal contact and association when it comes direct in this way.

I do not wish to give any list of the "Best Hundred Books," or anything of that sort, but I think amongst many others not put down here, all children before they are, say, sixteen should have read the following:

Robinson Crusoe, Kingsley's Heroes, Water-Babies, Westward Ho!, Hereward the Wake, Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, Tanglewood Tales, Anderson's Fairy Tales, Stories of Greece by Morris, and some of Professor Church's historical and classical books, Charlotte Yonge's novels, and many of Sir Walter Scott's.

Then there are so many good books on natural history, and we can try and stimulate a love of nature in children through their reading as well as by observation. I should like to strongly recommend two books that I have got for my own children and which are suitable to boys from five to eight:

Little Folks' Picture Natural History by Edward Step and also A Natural History of Birds, Fishes, and Insects by Theodore Wood. My little boy of seven is much interested in this latter, but it is also suitable for those up to fourteen or fifteen, and they will appreciate it all the more from being familiar with it now.

A few words as regards Sunday reading.

I would suggest special books only to be given out on Sundays, and not kept in the same shelf with the other books read during the week, if possible, so as to have special associations for that day. In fact, I often do not allow the "Sunday" book to be gone on with during the week, when it is wanted, but say, "Wait until next Sunday," with the idea of keeping a special interest and association for that day. I know this is open to discussion.

For this special Sunday reading, I have found Robert Bird's Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth, and Paul of Tarsus very helpful. I hope also to get his Joseph the Dreamer later on. I would also suggest Stories from the Old Testament and Stories from the Life of Christ in the Tales that are Told to the Children Series, for the very young ones; and in addition How Dante climbed the Mountain (Miss Selfe), Canton's Child's Book of Saints, Munro's allegory The Shadow of the Cross, and there are many others for which I have not space. I only give these as suggestions. I think Miss Soulsby has some very practical and helpful words on this point of Sunday reading which we may apply to our children as well as to ourselves.

She says, "Practically, if we do not read good books on Sunday, we do not read them at all. It is not so much that a novel is wrong on Sunday, as that better things leave no time for it . . . It is not a negative rule, which should keep us right, but the 'expulsive power of a new affection' at which we should aim."

We want the children to have bright and happy associations with their Sunday, but at the same time we want to make the distinction between that and the other six days of the week, and I do think we ought to train our children to make some distinction in what they read on that day, in order that when they grow older they may carry out that principle, and give some time then to reading distinctly religious books, which will help them in their daily life, and which, probably, they might not otherwise read.

Let us remember, that in our children's "play" as well as in their "books," are many opportunities afforded to us of training habits which will form an important part in their lives hereafter, and let us not miss our opportunities for want of what Pestalozzi calls "a thinking love" on our part.

Thanks to Stephanie H. for proofreading this article and locating links.