The Foundation Years
The first six — generally, the pre-school — years of a child’s life are the most important for establishing a direction that will last him a lifetime. Care should be taken to inculcate in him wholesome habits, tastes, and attitudes. It is during these years especially that the adage holds: “As the twig inclineth, so doth the tree grow.”
For this reason also it might be well for the child to be enrolled in some kind of pre-school, to learn along with others, and under a teacher trained in these methods of instruction, of which few parents have any actual experience.
During the first six years, as we have seen, a child can learn best through the medium of his body, and by developing his awareness through the five senses.
Muscular and motor control is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to learn in the beginning. The little child needs to be made progressively aware of his body, of its limitations and its strengths. While developing this awareness, he can learn other things better if he is invited to act them out, instead of having them explained to him merely.
As I pointed out earlier, children naturally enjoy playing games of “Let’s Pretend.” Acting out stories, working out situations by having Jimmy stand here, Mary over there, and you too somewhere, as part of the story, with everyone actually going through the parts, will make a much deeper impression on their minds than simply talking things out with them.
I am not much in favor of carrying this thought to its logical conclusion of walking the child through every lesson, or having him always act it out with his body. One might easily, for instance, in the present context, leap to the idea of teaching numbers or the alphabet by drawing great designs on the floor, and having the child trace out those outlines by walking along them. Never in later life is he likely to have to pace these things out with his feet. Most probably, he will always work with them with his hands and fingers.
A system taught me when I was a child was, I think, more realistic. It made use of the body also, moreover — of the hands, in this case, rather than the feet. We were given letters and numbers printed large on a page, and textured like sand paper. Then we were asked to trace these shapes with our forefingers.
Another excellent way of teaching children by using their bodies is to involve them in simple dramatic presentations, with a minimum of words and a maximum of action. A suggestion: Let them have fun, even if it disturbs the plot!
Dance movement can be an excellent means both of teaching bodily coordination and of developing spiritually “light” mental attitudes.
Any upward movement of the arms, head, or torso can be used to suggest a rising awareness, and any downward movement to suggest heaviness of mind and feeling. Children might be encouraged, while dancing, to concentrate more on their shoulders, arms, and hands, and correspondingly less on their lower limbs.
The major focus of many dances is on the lower part of the body: the hips, legs, and feet. In normal life, these parts receive considerably less attention; their role is generally a supporting one. Normally, when people express their feelings or ideas physically, isn’t it natural for them to use their arms and hands? It seems therefore right, in the consciousness-raising dances to which I refer, to keep the lower limbs more in their naturally supportive role.
I am not suggesting always choreographing children’s dances. Spontaneity should be encouraged as much as possible. Why not, rather, give names to various dance movements that will of themselves suggest the kinds of gestures intended?
One dance, for example, might be called, “Scattering Flowers.”
Another, “Sharing the Sunlight.”
Another, “Making Rainbows.”
Still another, “Waking the World.”
“Trees Dancing” could make a delightful and unusual dance. So also could “Offering,” and “Catching the Rain.”
One dance, in which the legs and feet would receive full and enthusiastic play, might be called, “Stalking an Opportunity.”
An important point to remember, I think, is not to suggest dances that the child might come to ridicule later on in life. For by such ridicule a prejudice might develop around the whole system. “Birds in Flight,” for example, might be a perfectly good dance exercise, provided the birds visualized were large, soaring birds with broad wing spans and calm beauty. If, however, the children were to set themselves flapping and hopping about like little sparrows, they might have a good laugh at the time, but in later years they might remember the scene in all its absurdity, and, embarrassed at the memory, tell their friends, “All I remember is, we used to hop madly about like a bunch of silly birds!” Impressions stored up at a young age often linger on in the memory as caricatures.
One means of using physical movement to impart important lessons along with body coordination is through painting and drawing in color. An excellent practice would be to get a class, in cooperation with the teacher, to paint story scenes together, each child designing a different part of the scene.
Colors are important to most children. Children can also be made aware of the effect of different colors, and of different shades of color, on their feelings. They can be helped to see, for example, how they themselves may choose to use a preponderance of red when they feel angry or resentful, and blue when they feel peaceful and calm.
The purer the color, the “lighter” and more expanded, usually, its influence on the mind. A teacher might get children to look into the prism of lights in a crystal; even to imagine themselves moving about in a magical world of rainbow hues. At this point, the teacher might invent a story, perhaps of a child entering such a world and having wonderful adventures with beings and places of radiant light.
A game the children might also play could be called, “Cheering Up the Colors.” For this game, the children could be invited to take dull, unhappy hues and make them pure, bright, and happy.
Music and sound are important to a child’s development. But what kind of music, and what kinds of sound?
Much popular modern music has been demonstrated repeatedly to have a harmful effect on the nervous system. The heavy beat of rock music is so deleterious that even plants, during experiment, have sent out tendrils in an opposite direction from the loudspeakers that were blaring it forth, as though desperate to escape their planter boxes! On the other hand, when classical music was played continuously, the plants reversed their direction and actually sent out tendrils to embrace the loudspeakers!
One can’t expect to change a whole culture (if culture is, in this case, the mot juste), but one can at least speak one’s mind to anyone who is willing to listen.
The beat of much popular modern music is, in fact, contractive and heavy. It is ego-affirming, not ego-expansive. It takes the mind downward. There are few sights stranger or more incongruous, or less attractive, than a little child stamping its feet and writhing about to the violent music of a rock band. Naturally, children find an appeal in this kind of music, for it affirms their egos. The ego is already their natural center. But is this affirmation wholesome for their development toward maturity? If the thesis of this book is correct, then the answer must be, Surely not.
Much of popular modern music works directly contrary to any serious attempt to help children in their development towards maturity.
Music plays a vitally important role in life, and should therefore play such a role also in education. By rhythm and melody, the mind can be inspired with devotion, or fired to risk life in battle; softened to sentiments of kindness and love; tickled to laughter; soothed to relaxation; or kindled to anger and violence. One popular song years ago, called “Gloomy Sunday,” was eventually banned from the airwaves because too many people, after listening to it repeatedly, committed suicide.
It has even been found that lessons learned against a background of baroque music, with its approximately sixty beats to the minute, register more deeply in the mind.
A delightful song in the movie “The Sound of Music” has the von Trappe children singing a melody while naming the notes, thus: “Sol do la fa mi do re, sol do la ti do re do.” I’ve never heard of children actually being taught to sing this way in school, but it seems an excellent idea. For by thus naming the notes, they should, I imagine, quickly learn them well enough to recognize them in any sequence.
Instead of the usual sequence, however—“Do re mi fa sol la ti (or si) do”—children might enjoy it more if they named familiar things, and didn’t merely utter meaningless sounds. “Sol,” moreover — the fifth note of the scale as it is normally sung — is a slightly clumsy syllable when followed by certain of the other notes: “sol re,” for example, or “sol mi.”
What about other sounds for the major scale: “Day, lark, rose, tree, moon, night, sea, day”? I propose these partly because they flow well together in any sequence, and partly because they are poetic and can bring the notes more to life. In-between notes (the sharps in the C scale) might be named as they are here in parenthesis: “Day (break), lark (song), rose, tree (leaf), moon (ray), night (cloud), sea, day.” These incidentals would, of course, help only those children who were already somewhat grounded in music.
Thus, the above melody would be sung: “Moon day night tree rose day lark, Moon day night sea day lark day.”
Games of imagination might be played with individual notes, or with groups of notes.
Nature will provide the teacher with endless opportunities for expanding children’s awareness. A game with great possibilities might be called, “Tuning In to Nature.” For this game, take the children out of doors, and — as an example — stand them around a tree, then ask them to suggest what they might learn from the tree. They may answer, Strength, Firmness of purpose, and so on. Ask them, then, to tune in to the tree and try to draw these qualities from it.
A fascinating book on this subject is Joseph Cornell’s Sharing Nature with Children.(1)
An excellent practice, too, would be for the children to tune in to one another: to strive to feel qualities in their schoolmates that could be helpful to themselves. They could even be encouraged to bless one another. In these ways, their natural childish tendency to scoff at their peers could be transformed into a tendency to be charitable.
They might also be invited to make garlands of wild flowers and garland one another, as well as the teacher and, perhaps, the children and teachers in other classrooms.
Thus, in all ways the children may be educated to respond to life with the best that is in them, and each one to develop to his own highest potential.
Chapter 17: The Feeling Years