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Children's Instincts And Plays

( Originally Published 1899 )

Instinct is an inborn disposition to certain activities. It manifests itself in impulses more or less efficiently directed to the attainment of specific ends. The stimulus to action may come from external or internal sources. When the cold "affects the nervous system of the wild goose in a northern latitude, an impulse to action develops and the bird flies to a warmer clime." When a duck goes into the water, the contact awakens the impulse to paddle. " When certain internal stimuli make themselves felt in the caterpillar, it begins at once to weave its shroud." " Prompted by an internal stimulus, the bird starts to build its nest; the human being to mate, to search for a home, and to take up the round of domestic duties toward which his ancestors were likewise impelled. Blind impulses due to nervous tension have from the beginning of history driven men to do certain things." Such an impulse causes a mother to shield her child, a panic-stricken army to flee, a youth to become an artist, an explorer, a scientist, or a philanthropist. These inherent tendencies or instincts predetermine in large measure the history of each life.

The impulse to the satisfaction of the child's first cravings for food suggests at once the idea that all instincts are implanted in the child to satisfy certain general demands of his nature, or, probably better, to impel to the realization of the possibilities of his nature. The impulse to exercise is not purposeless. It develops strength and skill. Both anticipate future needs. The impulse to perception, to know things present to the senses, calls into exercise knowledge-getting activities that later are to grapple with the great problems of the universe. The impulse to imitation serves to stimulate both physical and mental activity, and to make education and progress possible. The impulse to expression devises a multitude of ways and means by which mind may communicate its ideas to other minds and, as a result, it produces all-comprehensive language, the rarest creation of the human intellect.

Out of these impulses and instincts have come science and art and philosophy, with their manifold blessings for the race. But these instincts alone would have left man an isolated, selfish being, finding pleasure only in the gratification of his own personal desires. Wholly absorbed with his own interests, he would have little regard for the interests of others. His fellows would have borne no nearer relation to him than that borne by other objects, animate or inanimate, in the world about him. The instinct that leads him to seek the companionship of his fellows, and that finds satisfaction in their presence, their sympathy, and their cooperation, gives at once a higher meaning to the other instincts mentioned. The end of all this is not simply the happiness and perfection of the individual, but of the race as well. This impulse to fellowship is called the social instinct.

Some of the higher species of animals live in pairs, others in communities, flocks, or herds. Man mates, but lives also in communities. The hermit or the recluse is always regarded as an abnormal man. His mode of life interests but seldom attracts. The loneliness of Robinson Crusoe will ever continue to arouse the sympathies of people of all ages. Even in robust health few men or women like to be long alone. When sickness comes, no better medicine than a sympathetic friend can be found. Homesickness is a universal disease. The social instinct draws people together everywhere. It sets them to serving each other. It finds gratification in the happiness and prosperity of all. It recognizes, common interests, mutual dependence. It bands the people together for mutual protection. It organizes enterprises for the good of the community as a whole; it establishes schools, churches, governments. The same instinct that draws individuals together into communities draws communities together into larger communities and into states. Thus it awakens the love of home, the love of kindred and of native land. Thus it begets the various institutions of civilization.

The utter helplessness of the newborn babe confirms, if confirmation were necessary, the idea that man was intended to be a social being. Next to its physical demands come the demands for the presence of another person. With each first waking moment how imperatively is this demand expressed! With what satisfaction does the child nestle in the warm bosom of its mother and with what manifestations of delight does it soon welcome the coming of the different members of the household! Few observers have failed to note the intense interest with which children meeting for the first time contemplate one another and how short an association may make them necessary to each other's happiness. Millions of children have been shut in or tied up because they persisted in running away to the home of a neighbor in order to find some one of their own age to engage in play. The most interesting thing to a little boy or girl is another little boy or girl, hobbyhorses and dolls not excepted. To the child who has had the pleasure of playing with another child there is nothing else in the way of amusement quite so desirable. In many ways older people satisfy this longing of the child for fellowship, but the sweetest joys of childhood are missed by the child that has no playmates of approximately his own age.

A study of the plays of children shows their great resemblance to the more serious occupations of their elders. Children plan and execute with an interest and an energy that flag only when the weary little body demands rest and sleep. They strive to imitate almost every conceivable thing that their elders do. They build houses, make mud pies, plant corn, go to town, teach school, give parties, play doctor, dress the dolls, wash clothes, build fires, break colts, hold revival services, run lemonade stands, give circus performances, play soldier, hive the bees, make garden, dig coal mines, write letters, banter, quarrel, fight, kill! The earnestness with which they do all this shows its intense reality to them, and shows further that the instincts of childhood do not differ greatly from the instincts of manhood. Play foreshadows the occupations soon to follow. In it the imitative, the inventive, the expressive, the social instincts of the child find their normal satisfaction. Play thus becomes the first great period of apprenticeship in the life of the child. In it that physical and intellectual control is attained which assures easy transition to skill in doing work. Play as well as other activities reacts upon the child and helps to make him what he is.

How, then, can any one overlook the importance of the child's plays? How can any parent or teacher fail to take an abiding interest in every-thing that the child attempts to do? The character of his play needs the same attention as that given to the character of his food. Some plays call the imitative activities into exercise more prominently than others, some the inventive, some the apperceptive. Some plays quicken the judgment, others the memory; some call out the reasoning powers, others the imaginative; some develop muscular strength, others skill. Some children engage in the same play all day long, others require frequent change; some prefer quiet plays, others the noisy and boisterous; some insist on playing indoors, others seek the free open air; some incline to plays that symbolize industrial occupations, others to those that symbolize nature or adventure; some choose games or plays in which there is a contest of mind, others those in which the contest is one of physical strength or skill. A recent inquiry among a large number of boys of eight years of age and upward shows that the popular games among them are black man, crack the whip, duck on the rock, boxing, baseball, foot-ball, etc. The reason almost invariably given was that " it is such fun to beat somebody!" In some cases the brutal nature crept out a little too clearly, for such expressions as the following were not uncommon: " It is such sport to see a fellow tumble over and hurt himself! " " Sometimes you can knock a fellow and black his eye." " It is so funny to see the boys and girls fly off the whip and then go limping away!" " Because you can break an arm or leg sometimes." " If you watch, you can knock the breath out of him." Test the children on all these points. Discover whether the boys and girls like to play together and the reasons for it. What do all these different preferences indicate? What effect have certain classes of plays had upon the school work of the children?

The range of a child's plays should be so wide and so carefully selected as to be developing every side of his nature. The kindergarten is most happily organized for this purpose; a study of its principles and methods will throw much light upon the problem. The kindergarten, however, is a school, even though its whole aim is to direct the play instinct of the child, and therefore fails in retaining fully the most essential elements in all true play spontaneity and freedom. The range is also necessarily very limited. It presupposes a wide range of home plays, and makes them contribute to its own games and plays. In fact, it strives to correlate them all in such a way as to make them mutually helpful. The investigation suggested in the last paragraph will show that in nearly every community there are many children who not only have a very limited range of plays, but who are also ignorant of the fact that there are any other plays than those with which they are acquainted. They are narrowed and dwarfed and starved from lack of wholesome, stimulating, thought-provoking plays. When they enter school or start to learn some trade the effect of it all is evident enough.

What the children play is no more momentous than how they play. Useful plays may be devised in abundance, and yet unsatisfactory results follow. The liberal hand is not always the wise hand. To attain the highest good, plays should succeed each other in the order best adapted to the child's capacities and needs. A child may entertain himself day after day for a year with the same play, but there can be little growth in it for him after a few successive repetitions. Of course, the child's pleasure must be consulted in the selections, else his plays will be of little profit to him. It usually requires very little tact to control his choice, though there is always danger of a mother following her own notions and convenience rather than the needs of the child. It is always safer to find out the child's instincts and be governed by them. The philosophy of a play is a very prfound thing on the mother's side and a very exacting thing on the child's side. In nothing else may superficial child study so easily reveal itself as in the management of play.

Children should be taught how to play with the same care that they are taught later in life how to work. If properly led and instructed, they learn a thousand things in their plays that be-come a valuable and a permanent part of their mental and physical being. Many girls become good seamstresses in cutting and fitting dolls' dresses. Many boys learn how to use simple tools in playing carpenter. A little friend of mine learned more about silkworms by caring for a few eggs given her and watching the hatching and the metamorphoses through the spinning of the cocoons and the flight of the moths than nine tenths of the high-school students get out of books on entomology. Another became a fair artist in playing with his pencils and his water-color paints. Another learned many interesting facts about great writers in playing " authors," and in after years at school succeeded in passing an examination in which that knowledge served her well. Are not many of Whitcomb Riley's poems surcharged with images garnered in childhood's plays and wanderings? The vividness with which Shakespeare describes "the dainty, dew-impearled flowers, the shadowy forests and the wide-skirted meads, the weaving spiders and the honey-bags of the bumblebees, the banks where the wild thyme blows and the nodding violet grows," tells plainly enough how he romped and played on many a knoll up and down the beautiful valley of the quiet Avon. It also discloses how richly these ramblings endowed him for the great work of his mature life.

The effect of play upon the social life of the child and upon his character depends much upon its management. If two children play together happily, one must deny himself all the time for the pleasure of the other, or they must make mutual concessions. Few small children are known to play together for any great length of time with-out quarreling. One of them may yield to the other for awhile, but selfishness overreaches itself at last and rebellion results. The issue must be settled by an appeal to arms or by concessions from the aggressor. A few lessons usually suffice to convince children that the latter is the better way. Members of the household, particularly the parents, may aid the process greatly by discreet observation, wise repression, and sympathetic counsel. The child is naturally a despot. He knows that he is to rule, and often thinks that he is to rule others rather than himself. His plays furnish the opportunity for the simple lessons in democracy which he needs in order to anticipate the more responsible duties of neighbor and citizen.

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