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The Arts In The Life Of The Child

( Originally Published 1916 )



SOME time during the last century, parents with solicitude for the higher life of their children, and with the means to give the children fuller opportunities, discovered that training in the " arts " would add both to the enjoyment of life and to the esteem of their fellows. But in providing the instruction in music or painting, they had to resort to musicians and painters. And these specialists in art taught the children from the point of view of training specialized performers which most of the children were never going to become. The result was in most cases a rather superficial " accomplishment "—which has indeed its social value, but which meant very little either as performance or as enrichment of life.

Several things have happened to make us change our attitude in these matters. With all the bad performing, extending to ever larger circles of our population, there came a more critical recognition of the real quality of our vulgarized playing and painting. There came also, quite incidentally as it were, a growing appreciation of the arts—the mechanical reproduction of good music and of good pictures being very largely responsible for this, in making accessible to almost every person the opportunity to hear and see the best as well as the tawdry. Moreover, our thinking about the development of the mental and emotional life, as problems in education and training, has brought us to a realization of the more valuable part of the child's contact with art forms.

We are thus in a position to look upon the arts in the life of the child in terms of enlarging the child's life, and not in terms of performing for the approval or admiration of others. And we are in a position to think of the training from the lay point of view, rather than from the professional side. If then, we still place before the child the clay or the paint brush, the piano ,or the violin, it is not so much in the hope of making a name for the family. Rather is it in the expectation that the child may thus be enabled to find himself, that he may acquire further means of expression, that he may add to his enjoyment of life through acquaintance with the emotional resources of the various arts. For most children, that is to say, the study of music and drawing should be not primarily for the purpose of cultivating technical proficiency, but for the purpose of cultivating deeper appreciations through an under-standing of form, design, etc. This is quite the same as our teaching of literature to children; some of them may become creative artists—and this often in spite of the schooling—but for most children we hope merely to increase and to refine the appreciation of good literature.

Both for the purpose of refining the appreciation, and for the purpose of discovering the child's capacities, we should provide as many points of contact with art expression as we can possibly command. If you provide piano lessons for your child, even though you do so just because everybody is doing it, it is well. If you provide dancing lessons, or singing, or painting, it is well. If you provide two or three or four opportunities, it is still better. But how can we afford all these things for every child—and how can the child possibly get the time for all these various " lessons " ? If we attempted to add these special lessons to the full day, we should be attempting the impossible; nor would this be desirable if we could manage it. The aim should be rather to incorporate the arts into the life of the child, as we already do in part. The hand-work of the early school years—clay modeling and beadwork, for example—and the music the young child hears, are, together with his other' activities and experiences, of the very substance of his life.

It is largely because our modern conditions of life give most of us only the finished products of the various arts, that so many children grow up in total ignorance of the activities and the opportunities of art expression. And it is for this reason that the contact must be increasingly supplied by the schools. We use textiles and pottery, we hear music and see pictures, we develop taste in architecture and in house furnishing and in motor-cars, but we know very little about how these things come to be what they are, or as they are—and that means that we either accept without discrimination, or that we receive our standards ready made, But the result of this situation is that we have all about us altogether more ugliness than is good for us.

When we undertake to cultivate the arts for our children, outside of the school, the most important consideration in the selection of instructors is commonly considered to be the artistic achievement or the standing in his craft. But more important for our purpose is the teacher's character, his attitude toward children. We may indeed find a talented artist who, is also a satisfactory teacher; but the combination is extremely rare. The accomplished artist is likely to see in the pupil a potential performer or creator, and to have little patience when the symptoms of talent are slow to manifest themselves. When talent is discovered it will be time enough to train for specialization.

Whether we provide special instruction for children or not, we can at least, put forth an effort to make the surroundings in the home contribute as much as possible to the cultivation of taste. This requires an effort, but is worth what it costs. Unless we have well developed tastes and standards ourselves, we are very easily imposed upon by the " fashions " and by the tendency to imitate, often unconsciously, those for whom we have some regard. If we devote some thought to the children's dress and to the way our rooms are furnished, we shall be carrying on an education in art. This does not mean that we must buy only the expensive or the fashionable. It means taking the trouble to find out what is best. It is possible to get cheap reproductions of the best pictures, just as we can get cheap editions of the world's best books. In the mat-ter of pictures, it is well to have before the child only a few at a time, and to change them at intervals. For this purpose, frames with removable backs may be used, or a screen made of burlap stretched on a wooden frame. Let us remember that the younger children are likely to see very little in a black and white picture until after colored pictures have made them familiar with seeing the world in a flat surface.

We must do what we can to expand the child's horizon by visits to the museums, by providing opportunities to see and to hear the best that the human spirit has brought forth. But we must not overlook the fact that the most continuous and the most impressive molders of his tastes lie in the immediate surroundings—his clothes and his furniture, his books and his conversation, and his opportunities to express himself through his own activities.

When we set out with the idea of elevating the taste of our surroundings, we must be on our guard against assuming that the task may some day be completed. We shall need to adjust the child's surroundings to his level of appreciation, and to advance it constantly as this develops. Moreover, there is no best in an absolute sense. We must consider not only the child's development, but his individuality and peculiarities.



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