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Early Childhood Life From Four To Six

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

There are no abrupt transitions from infancy to early childhood but so gradual a change that only a watchful eye detects the physical development from the plumpness of baby days to the more slender and muscular appearance of the child of four or five, from the very individual to the more social character of play, from the decidedly elementary quality of mental activity to a mental grasp and an ability to think which render possible some direct instruction. The field of observation widens, new interests are added so that the passing panorama of these years reveals not only a recognition far more in detail of home activity and relation but an extension of the range of discovery to the community. The child has his first experiences with the school and the church as he attends the kindergarten and the Beginners' Department in the Sunday-school. His parents are no longer solely responsible for his education. They share that responsibility with his teachers, and fortunate the child whose father and mother take seriously the cooperation of the school, the church and the home. Unless these three institutions keep in touch, there will be many gaps and patches and not a few rents in the fabric of the child's understanding.

A mother once remarked in a parent-teaching meeting that she wished every mother might have been a teacher. Whereupon a superintendent said that he wished every teacher might have been a mother. Such a combination can be secured only as mothers and teachers learn of each other with the child as the center of interest. Parents should be welcomed in the school and teachers should visit in the homes. There should be classes and conferences where mutual problems are thrashed out without jealousy or sensitiveness but with respect and good-will. It is very difficult for some parents to admit the teacher into the charmed circle of the fireside, to share with her the precious affection of the child who has heretofore had "no other gods before them." Every friendship that is worthy, however, enriches the lives of the children and by so doing adds to the home treasure. Many fathers and mothers have been immensely the gainers through their children's friends who have become truest friends to them as well. Great is the cementing power of love for the child ; there is no finer point of contact. Teachers have sometimes resented the interference of the parent in the domain where they are accustomed to hold undisputed sway. Such a teacher visited one Sunday a Beginners' Department which convenes during the church hour. At the close of church, without invitation, the parents flocked into the room, gathered with lively interest about the handwork tables where the children were still busy, talked to the children and to the teachers. The visitor remarked to the superintendent that surely the parents did not appreciate her work when they would come in and interrupt so freely. "On the contrary," the superintendent said, "the interruptions mark their interest. I plan to have the close of the session so informal that they can talk to the children and to the teachers. It is a joy to the children to have them come in and it is our opportunity to tell them a little about what we are trying to do for their children."

Not only does the life of the child widen during this period to include other adults than the members of the family but children in larger numbers are included. Whereas the child to three years of age likes to be with other children and to play for the most part alongside of them, the child of four or five learns to play with them.

Several young children of two or three and a boy of five were seated in an out-of-door sandpile. The boy of five invited each child in turn to help him with his project but they all preferred their solitary pursuits. Finally with a wail of disappointment he cried out, "Won't any-body here play with me ?" The significant mark in the play at this period is its make-believe character. It is the period when dramatic imitation flourishes and when "to build a boat upon the stairs all made of the back-bedroom chairs" or "to bring the comb and play upon it, marching, here we come" are the most natural of activities. The air that is breathed is charged with a strange aroma and the things that are seen are sometimes not there at all. What is seen with the eyes of sense and what is seen with the eyes of imagination become fearfully and wonderfully combined in story and representation. With so brief a sketch of the outstanding points of this period, we will consider a more detailed study of the several characteristics.


The child during this period grows rapidly. He increases 45% in weight from four to seven,—the body below the hips gaining twice as much as the body above. There is also an increasing lung capacity. The body is exceedingly active and the senses are keenly alert. Ter-man says in speaking of this fact: "Much that is rigid bone in the adult is soft cartilage in the child, and the whole skeletal system is plastic to a degree rarely appreciated." There is, therefore, great danger of malformations such as curvature of the spine, knock knees and bow legs. The body is sensitive to changes of heat and cold and peculiarly susceptible to certain contagions such as whooping cough, measles, diphtheria and scarlet fever. The death toll from these diseases runs higher during this period than for any other except infancy. The digestive organs are easily upset. The percentage suffering from malnutrition is 16% to 6% from the kindergarten to the fourth grade, and the effects are a weakened constitution, a decrease in resistance to disease and very often a mental retardation. Symptoms of malnutrition are an unhealthy color, bodily thinness, undersize and lassitude. Not only do the children of the poor suffer but those of the rich also, for no matter how plentiful the diet, if not rightly selected the child may be undernourished and sooner or later the effects of which we have spoken will follow.

The endurance of this child is slight : he fatigues easily. To quote from Terman again: "The child's reserve of energy is small; his fatigability is high; he is quickly brought to exhaustion. This is true for brain as well as muscles. Short periods of activity should, therefore, alternate with short periods of rest." This is the period for the development of the so-called fundamental muscles, the large muscles of the trunk, arms and legs. The child is gaining in speed and accuracy of coordinations, and should have every opportunity in play to exercise these muscles. He has more nervous connections and associations than the infant but comparatively few in contrast to the older child or the adult. It is correspondingly hard for him to sit still, to inhibit movement. O'Shea calls our attention to the fact that "When lively children are commanded to sit still, automatic movements of the head, face, hands, legs, mouth and shoulders may often be noticed after several minutes of effort." The result of such enforced quiet is to make the child nervous, irritable and not infrequently disobedient.


What was said concerning many of the instincts in the period of infancy holds true for the period of early child-hood. This child is extremely interested in his food, and of course he is furnished with a greater variety of food.

His taste is keen and is much delighted in. He usually thinks first of what he has had to eat, as did the small boy who upon being asked what he did at a party replied, "I had fingers (lady fingers) and ice-cream." He is very active and tends to respond immediately to every stimulus by some form of movement. He loves rhythm and repetition and is capable of responding with more precision than the infant. He can keep time with his whole body, his legs, arms, hands and feet, and he delights to show his skill in using any new physical coordination to music. He is very curious, and eagerly desires to see, to hear, to touch, to taste, to smell. A group of children of this age are darting here, there and everywhere in search of new sensations. Curiosity, however, does not confine itself to sense contacts but bursts forth in the form of questions. Some time between three and four almost every child becomes an insatiable seeker of in-formation through language. George Perin, in a charming little story entitled "Why, Fadder, Why," has chronicled some of the questions that a loquacious little son asked on one auto ride:

Fadder, what makes de auto go? Why does a wagon have horses? Do de horses make de wagon go? How does de bird fly? Who made de birds' wings? Does de cloud fly like de bird? Does de cloud have wings too? Fadder, if de cloud has dot no wings, den how does it fly? Why do de birds build their nests in de trees? What makes de wain fall down? How does de wain get up in de clouds? What makes de flowers grow? Who puts de color in de flowers?

This inquisitive four-year-old finally ended with, "Fad-der, what makes us be living ?"

Reflex and spontaneous imitation still continues, while, as Kirkpatrick suggests, at about three years of age contrary suggestion may appear and from time to time controls the child's action. Instead of following a copy, the child asserts his own originality and does the opposite thing. If ignored, as a rule he soon yields to positive suggestion. The child's imitation of acts grows more full and he follows more complex acts; he also tends to recall acts and words heard a day earlier and to repeat them spontaneously and accurately. At this time dramatic imitation appears. The child instead of repeating liter-ally puts his images together in new ways and enters the realm of the make-believe. So vivid is his imagination that he may weep over the sorrows of his dolly or cry with terror at the make-believe lion or tiger. There is nothing that he has ever seen, heard or been told that may not appear in unexpected attire and in new relations in his imaginary plays. As he represents horse or engine, soldier or milkman, bird or bunny, he is giving his interpretation of the world he lives in. He is entering into the understanding of and the feeling for the life so interpreted.

Manipulation of every kind of material is eagerly sought, mud, sand, paper, clay, all furnish material for the busy hands. After manipulation or out of purpose-less handling of material gradually construction appears. The first results are usually accidental but when noted by the child himself or seized upon by the adult they often furnish the incentive for later purposeful effort. Houses are built from blocks, flowers are depicted with crayon, dresses for dolly are fashioned from cloth. The results are crude but they are beautiful to the child as the artistic creations of Burnham, Corot or Worth.

The child is more individualistic in some respects than the infant. He has lost the unconscious sharing of his baby days, and he very insistently by word, gesture, and action demands what he wants and as a rule is inclined to fight for it, if it does not come quickly at his request.

A group of children of this age when a picture is presented jostle their best friends to one side while each individual declares his determination to stand directly in front of the picture. This child takes the biggest piece of cake, the most attractive bit of paper, the newest toy by the divine right of kings to which he unconsciously declares himself heir. The chief joy of child-hood is in receiving, and there is an immediate appropriation of every gift, that is naive and irresistible. At the same time the child of this age is greatly attracted to other children. He can play with a group of eight or ten children at four years of age, and by five that group may be increased to fifteen or twenty. As a wee child of two or three he played alongside of other children. Now he plays with them. He is capable of cooperating to a limited extent. The social games during these years, however, climax quickly. At four every child wants to play all the parts, while at five there is an ability to take parts provided the characters are few. There is also a criticism of fair play which may be further emphasized by the mother or teacher. Love of approval widens to include the approval of teacher as well as parent, and with some children the approval or disapproval of other children is very potent in encouraging or discouraging certain responses. Jennie had slapped the little girl next to her because the little girl had by chance taken Jennie's chair. "Children," said the teacher, "what do you think about Jennie ? Was it the right thing for her to slap Mary?" "No, it wasn't nice," said Billie, and every one nodded agreement. Jennie hung her head and stammered, "I won't do it again," and she kept her word, although the teacher had previously reproved her more than once.

One of the most beautiful of the instinctive responses of the child is that of nurture. During these years he shows care for dolls, younger children, plants, animals and particularly such animals as may be pets. Every little girl wants a dolly, and where the real doll is not forth-coming there is usually a substitution. The writer once saw a child in a mission district of one of our cities patting, hugging and talking to a cardboard box which she cradled in her arms. When asked if that was her doll she replied in the affirmative and even gave its name. It is not uncommon to see children of five mothering younger brothers and sisters. "He always wants to sit by me," said one boy of five proudly as he pointed out his little brother to the Sunday-school teacher. While the nurture instinct is a more pronounced manifestation with girls, boys also have it even with reference to dolls. I remember Bobby, who spurned Sarah's new dolly with his foot when at kindergarten he had a chance to hold it, but after the teacher gently remarked that dollies needed fathers as well as mothers, Bobby appropriated the doll carriage and wheeled the new doll with an expression of bliss upon his countenance. This care of the child is lavishly bestowed upon whatever is weaker or more helpless than himself and marks the beginning of service. However, the child often needs to understand what kind of attention he should pay his pets or he may be cruel to them without intending to be so. He needs to know that the pet can be seriously injured by squeezing, pounding or deprivation of food or water. He has a short memory span, and often forgets to care for his pets at the proper hour; therefore he cannot be left without some one who is more responsible to jog his memory.

The child during these years talks a very great deal and, as has already been suggested, he asks innumerable questions. He is growing more discriminating in the use of words, and often coins a new word where his vocabulary lacks, as did the child whose teacher's voice was hoarse. "You have a horseradish voice this morning," he said. He adds words to his repertoire every day and uses such a word many times, as a rule enjoying his acquisition. He wants to converse with others about his experiences and enjoys giving bits of information. The child who has an impediment in his speech or the one who lisps or stutters needs help before he grows older and becomes conscious of the defect. This child is very outspoken. "Your dress is pretty but your hat's a mess," said one child of five to his teacher without any thought of impudence.

To the expression of affection of the baby, the child of four or five adds the expression of words. "I love you," followed by the impetuous embrace, is not an uncommon utterance with this child. Like the baby he loves those who make him happy by conferring benefits upon him, but his circle of friends is a wider one. It includes father, mother and the other members of the family; often some of the neighbors, his playmates and the teacher. It is during these years that many little children embrace God in the circle of dear ones and be-stow a warmth of affection upon Him. "I wish," said a child of five, with no thought of irreverence, "that I could go up to heaven. Then I would climb in bed with God and hug him very hard because I love Him so."

It is true, as has been beautifully said, that "The Eternal Child as he moves through this universe shouts at everything he sees in the presence of the mystery of life. So-called common things are not common for him, all is permeated with mystery. As, with wondering eyes, he turns the pages of nature's illuminated teXt-book of field and forest, sea and sky, God stands ever more fully revealed, for the Beyond draws nearer to us when we wonder." Many illustrations of the wonder of the child of this age might be given. I remember a little boy of five who plucked a dandelion and stood looking in surprise as the milky juice from the stem oozed out on his hand. On being told what the moisture was he said in a tone akin to reverence, "Isn't that wonderful ?" When once a child of this age has come to connect God with the creation, one can expect such a response as Dorothy gave one beautiful morning when the dew was on the grass, the sun still low in the east and every surrounding the embodiment of beauty. Dorothy had been very quiet and thoughtful for some minutes when she remarked, "I can just see God working in the pretty grass, can you ?"

As soon as the child of this age has enough knowledge of God to feel that he knows and loves him, he very spontaneously worships. He thanks God for those things that he cares for, his new shoes, the custard that he ate for dinner, Peterkins the bunny, and mother and daddy. He asks God to take care of him when he crosses the street, when he is asleep in the dark, when he meets Moore's big dog. Elizabeth, aged five, had suffered terrors from dreams. "Please, God," she said every night, "don't let me have any good dreams or any bad dreams." As these illustrations suggest, the child draws no lines between the secular and the religious. All life is holy to him.


Sense-perception is very important during this period. The child is seeking to gain clear impressions of the world about him through the use of his senses, and his growing ability in speech helps him to clarify his impressions. He observes more detail, and therefore is more accurate than the infant, while lacking the definiteness of the primary child. Interest is still fleeting but holds for increasingly longer periods of time. The child of five often returns to the same play several days in succession until his play purpose is accomplished. That which is true of interest is true of attention; it holds for comparatively short periods of time. A story which takes more than five minutes in the telling often loses the attention of a group at this age. The memory span is short. As a rule the child forgets to-day what he did yesterday or even a few hours before. He remembers upon the basis of spatial and temporal relationship ; his memory contributions lack logical sequence. When a child at this age I was taken west on a tour; the three experiences of that trip which I distinctly remember were the making of a doll out of my coat with which I played on the train, the throwing of a handkerchief into old Faithful Geyser in the Yellowstone Park, and the loss of my sister's cap in the Pacific Ocean. The mental grasp is greater than that of the younger child, but it is easily overreached, as shown by the small number of behests that the child can perform at one time. If such a command as that given in the Binet-Simon Intelligence Test, "Bring me the box, put the key on the chair, close the door" be tried with children of this age many fail because of limited mental grasp.

The child is beginning to reason, as his remarks and questions show. Because he thinks in concrete rather than abstract terms, and because his basis for judgments is so narrow, he makes many amusing mistakes and some very interesting comments. John stood by the window watching the rain. "Mother," he inquired, "has God made anybody to-day ?" When his mother replied in the affirmative he continued, "Well, I don't see how he could, for there isn't any dust." A church in the neighborhood burned to the ground one night. When little Philip arrived at kindergarten the next day his face was clouded. Suddenly he burst out laughing. "Gee," said he, "but that was a funny joke God played on himself last night, burning down his own house."

Although the child is beginning to think for himself he is very suggestible and credulous during these years. If Mary says that she sees a robin, immediately Sue and Harry insist that they too see the robin. No matter how irrelevant the topic mentioned in a kindergarten group, several children may immediately follow the suggestion of the first. In a Sunday-school class the teacher and children were talking about God's care at night when Roy remembered a mouse that had once been found in his bed. Like hounds on the scent of a rabbit every child took the trail of the mouse, and the teacher was left with God's care as an unsolved problem. The credulity of this child offers a beginning for faith of the right kind as it does a foundation for superstition. Bobby at four had a very beautiful faith in God's protection. One evening his sister who is six years older was much frightened in a thunder storm. Bobby put his arm around her and said, "Don't cry, sister. God will take care of you."

Betty had been told at Sunday-school that God had made all beautiful and living things. This seemed to impress the little girl much, and it was more than she could comprehend. When she went home she asked her mother, "Did God make the trees, and the flowers, and the sun, and all the animals and even us ?" Although Betty's many questions were answered she seemed to be amazed at the wonderful power of God. She sat holding her kitten and gazing about her as though she had never before seen all that there was. After a few minutes of silence she said to her kitten, "See, kitty, the pretty flowers, and the trees and the sun. God made them all and He even made you and me. Isn't He a big God?"

During these years imagery is growing in variety and richness on the basis of sense perception, and the child continues to play with his images and relate them as he sees fit. His little experience with life, his lack of knowledge concerning natural or man-made laws and his lack of accuracy in observation combine to make the product of his imagination very unreliable, confused and inaccurate. At first he does not distinguish between the real and the unreal but gradually as his experience grows and his reasoning power develops he knows when he tells a make-believe story. My small cousin of four told me one day when we had been berrying this story, "Once there wuz a blackburry vine as big as our barn and it had hurries on it as big as a bucket and we picked a whole burrel full."

"Maxie," said I, "is that a true story ?" He thought a few minutes, and then he said, "It's just a maked-up story like them you tell me." The emotions of this child are very intense while they last. He loves "hard," hates violently and fears until he trembles and all color leaves his face. The grief of a little child differs from that of the grown-up in its source and the length of time that it lasts, but it is not a light matter to cause a child to suffer even for a few moments. The sun ceases to shine and the abject gloom of the world is difficult to parallel later. Eugene was playing on the porch when his mother received a caller who brought her a bouquet of poppies. The mother was pleased with the gift, and while she was expressing her appreciation, Eugene looked up from his play and listened. In a few moments he ran down the steps into the garden. Almost immediately he came bounding back with a large yellow rose. His face glowed as he laid it in his mother's lap, saying, "Here, Mother." But the mother exclaimed in an injured tone, "Oh, Eugene, you have picked my rose. Don't you remember I told you never to touch it? That was very naughty." Eugene's face lost its light. He said nothing but threw himself upon the grass. This child acts very impulsively without thinking as a rule and with little power of self-control. A group of children are listening to a story, an automobile honks, immediately the entire group leave the teacher and run to the window.


The spontaneous interests touch upon some of the characteristics which have already been mentioned but afford a different classification and some new material. The child at this age is interested in objects and materials that invite investigation, in bright and glittering things as flowers, beads, jewelry, ribbon, fruits; in things that make noises, bells, whistles, drums ; in things that move especially with rapidity as trains, autos, kites, balloons and some mechanical toys, while anything like a street car, having color, noise and movement, is well-nigh irresistible. The child is interested in everything that is edible, but as a rule he likes only those things that have mild or pleasant taste. He delights in sweet odors, the scent on mother's handkerchief, the perfume of the car-nation or rose. Little children will hover like a swarm of butterflies about a vase of flowers. They are keenly interested in such materials as clay, sand, mud, which they can pat, poke and mold into many shapes ; in materials that can be used for construction, as blocks, paper and cloth ; and in those that will make a mark, as crayon, chalk, paint and charcoal. Simple toys that can be used for play purposes, dolls and their accessories, trains, boats, balls, afford never-ending pleasure. Soft and silky textures possess a strong attraction : this child is happy when he has his hands on pussy's fur or can smooth his teacher's silk dress. Of all his interests none is more compelling than his desire to play with fire and water. The joy of the child is evidenced by his radiant face as he runs under the spray of water from the hose in the summer and wades in the brook, or as he pokes the bonfire with a stick and watches the blaze flame up. He is interested too in pictures, especially if they are bright in color and suggest activities of animals, children or people familiar to him, telling a story on his plane.

Plants and flowers get their share of attention, especially the more showy varieties. He notices insects with peculiar noise or with color like the bee, butterfly and grasshopper. Birds and fish chiefly because of their movement and color are eagerly pursued, while the song of the bird is an added source of delight. Animals and the domestic animals in particular, like the rabbit, the kitten and the dog, are his companions, and he endows them and in fact every living creature with sensibilities like his own. Little Hugh stood looking in the chicken pen, where there were four fowls. "There's the papa," he said, pointing to the rooster. "There's the mama, there's Hugh and there's the maid," he added as he reviewed the three pullets.

His interest in the world of nature is rivaled by his interest in people and their doings. He is fascinated and puzzled by the queer performances of babies; he is drawn to children of his own age as by a magnet ; the movements of daddy and mother are of supreme importance, while the activities and uniforms of the carpenter, the milkman, the postman, the fireman, the policeman, and a score of other community servants are eagerly noted.

Nor is his interest confined to the activities of other people. He is a walking question box while he investigates and observes, manipulates and makes, performs a hundred movements with rhythm and without it, sings and tells stories, and is an amateur artist and dramatist. In order to keep him busy, happy and good, it is necessary to know these interests so well that his environment indoors and out will contain them in abundance and in sufficient variety to stimulate an endless quest. Education consists in utilizing these interests in the acquisition of needed knowledge, ideals and skills, for they are the touchstone to true success in reaching the child mind and heart.


1. Why should children's questions be answered as intelligently and as intelligibly as possible?

2. Make a collection of children's questions and see what they indicate concerning the child's general interests.

3. Of what type of adult does a little child ask the most questions and why?

4. Did you ever have an invisible (imaginary) comrade or do you know any adult who has had such an experience in childhood? Try from an adult standpoint to realize the significance of imagination of this sort. Is such an experience valuable or harmful?

5. In Zona Gale's When I Was a Little Girl one child asks another, "Do you think it just as wicked to put sugar on the stove to make a nice smell as it is to tell a lie? I get shut up in my room whichever I do." How may punishment be made to fit the misdemeanor so that the child sees its justice?

6. A young mother wrote, "My little daughter was the most unselfish baby I ever knew, always sharing everything, and now, at three and a half years, she is growing so selfish that I am very much troubled" How would you answer this mother?

7. "Mother, I do so want a dickey (canary) like Aunt Helen's. I am sure that I could make him happy," said six-year-old Elizabeth. Discuss the value to Elizabeth of a pet.

8. A kindergartner told a group of little city children of an experience in the country, when she saw a little pig following a woman as a dog might. "Oh," responded Tommy, "that's nothing much. A pig at a butcher shop jumped down from the hook and followed me all the way home." Was Tommy's statement to be received as an intentional lie? Did the lad deserve punishment?

9. Margaret, at the age of three and a half, asked, "What is the truth?" when reproved for not telling the truth. How may one explain the meaning of "truth" to a young child?

10. The poets who have loved children have written much of this delightful period of childhood when imagination is at its happiest expression. Study the child poems of Stevenson, Field, and Tagore, and the prose of Kenneth Grahame and Roy Rolfe Gilson, and analyze as an aid in understanding children.


BAKER, The Beginners' Book in Religion, Chapters I, II, III. BANCROFT, The Posture of School Children.

BOLTON, Principles of Education, 156-158; 397-430; 464-519; 646-663.

CABOT, Seven Ages of Childhood, 53-89.

FISHER, Mothers and Children, 51-61 (children's questions) ; 3-168 (simple suggestions with numerous anecdotes).

FORBUSH, Guide Book, 34-41; 75-76; 133-144; 200-209; 219. FREEMAN, How Children Learn, 78-94.

GROSS, Play of Man, 280-333.

HALL, Aspects of Child Life and Education, 142-204.

HARRISON, Study of Child Nature, Chapters III and IV. HARTSHORNE, Childhood and Character, Chapter III.

KING, The Psychology of Child Development, 153-221.

KIRKPATRICK, Fundamentals of Child Study, 166-171; 182-183; 204-212; 284-294.

Individual in the Making, 111-163 (particularly good for characteristics of this period). LEE, Play in Education, 107-165.

MAJOR, First Steps in Mental Growth, 72-145; 226-238. MUMFORD, The Dawn of Character, 149-177.

NORSWORTHY & WHITLEY, Psychology of Childhood, 280-290; 149-157; 159-167.

OPPENHEIM, Care of Child in Health, 180-250. O'SHEA, Dynamic Factors, 99-109.

PALMER, Play Life in the First Eight Years, 5-84. READ, Mother Craft Manual, 210-222.

SULLY, Studies of Childhood, 25-64; 191-298. TERMAN, Measurement of Intelligence, 151-187.

The Intelligence of School Children, 30-41. THOENDIKE, Educational Psychology, Volume 1, 50-68; 76-80;

98-107; 140-144.

WADDLE, Introduction to Child Psychology, 209-225; 153-184. WASHBURN, Study of Child Life, 35-46; 79; 110.

NOTE.—Bulletin, 1919, No. 39, Training Little Children, may be secured by sending 15 cents to the Superintendent of Documents, Bureau of Education, Washington, D. C. Ask also for a list of pamphlets concerning children under three years of age.

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