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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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At School on Hampstead Heath

by Mrs. Grindrod
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 341-349


Fifty years ago, when that famous pioneer of science, Dr. William Buckland, was Professor of Geology in the University of Oxford, it was his pleasant custom on occasion to announce to his class at the close of a lecture, "Tomorrow, gentlemen, we shall meet at the top of Shotover, at ten o'clock." And to the top of Shotover Hill the class would ride or walk from Oxford the next morning, and there the professor would talk to them in his vivacious, impressive fashion about the formation of the hill on which they stood, its limestones, clays, ironstones, gravels or fossils, on the evidences of denudation or the methods of stratification. And if things got a bit dull he would take especial delight in giving the most fastidious of the equestrian freshmen a practical lesson in geology by leading their horses through the stickfast mud on the slopes so that they might remember the nature of the Kimmeridge clay. And, doubtless, they did remember it, with the help of Common Room jokes thereon.

Dr. Buckland, like every great man of science (and if one may presume to judge from programmes alone, like the truly scientific promoters of the work of this Union) was thoroughly convinced of the supreme importance of the school out of school, of out-door education. Buckland used often to say that such geological terms as stratification, denudation, faults,--to mention only a few of the commonest--could never be understood through lecture-room teaching alone. Shotover Hill was to him a lesson in geology, far superior in force to any which could be learnt from books or lectures, however admirable, and however rich the illustration by diagrams or pictures, or even by actual specimens of rocks and fossils. And all such illustrations in the lecture-room itself, Buckland used with a liberality that was utterly astounding and disconcerting to the academic Oxford of his day.

Yet Buckland was teaching young men, not mere children, and might justly have relied to some extent on their fairly mature intelligence to grasp his verbal explanations of geological phenomena. But with the true teacher's instinct he studied his own mental processes, and asked himself, "Now, could I really, thoroughly understand what a fault looks like, could I have a vivid mental picture of it from books and diagrams if I had never seen the thing itself in the rocks?" And being aware that the intense reality of his knowledge came purely from his early friendship with the rocks themselves at Lyme Regis, and Bristol, and elsewhere, from a long-continued intimacy with the thing and not the name or even the picture of the thing, he made it his business to bring his students to see the thing itself, since in such a case the thing could not be brought to the students.

This, then, is the testimony and the practice of one who was a master of earth-lore. No less significant is the evidence of one whose study lay amongst the great stone-books of art. As Buckland was the pioneer of geological studies in Oxford, so was John Henry Parker (now resting in the quiet of St. Sepulchre's, near Jowett and T. H. Green) the pioneer of the study of Historical Architecture. In one of his books on Gothic Architecture, which have been the source of a new joy in life to throngs of students, Mr. Parker tells us with the brief unmistakable words of a master: "The only real way of thoroughly understanding architectural history is to go about and see the buildings themselves."

If Buckland and Parker thus insist on the necessity of bringing the real thing before the eyes of students of university age so that the thing may teach its own lesson, how much more essential to right understanding is this "real" teaching for children of school age, and how absolutely the only right sort of teaching for the very young whose school days have not yet come. The school days must come for most; books must always be an integral part of the education that is to fit the children for making an intelligent and even joyous use of books in real life. But there are many things to be learnt before the books are opened, things which can be learned with delight in daily walks and in happy chats between the child and a wise, intelligent, sympathetic guardian--preferably, the mother of the child. For, as Kingsley says, while a youth of university age should be able to make a companion of his father, it is the mother who should be, must be, in most cases, the chief companion of the boy in early youth. And many a wise mother is teaching her children day by day on the best spontaneous, natural methods, without philosophizing or even thinking about it at all. After all, the happy face of the child is a better guide to method than any books on pedagogics, helpful as these are in establishing principles. Froebel and his followers have confessedly done nothing but reduce to a system such natural methods as they saw employed by the most successful mothers. Theorists on early education must ever learn from the mothers, and the mothers from the children. Mr. Herbert Spencer arrives at exactly the same conclusions by the gate of philosophy as Froebel by the gate of experiment. In his invaluable book on Education, Spencer says: "There is always a method to be found productive of interest, and it ever turns out that his is the method proved by all other tests to be the right one." And again, "At each age the intellectual action which a child likes is a healthy one for it."

Now a child likes play above all things, and it is a great mistake to suppose that play is idle and useless, outside its health-giving possibilities. In play a child teaches himself many things, in happy ignorance that he is pursuing a system of self-education, and he learns his lessons of number, form, color and substance from his toys and his surroundings with the greatest delight. This self-education, spontaneous, free and happy, is the model to be followed by the child's guardian, and to ensure that the self-education of the child shall be of the most expansive and stimulating kind, a suitable environment, or rather an ever-changing series of environments, each one suited to a particular purpose, must be provided. The child is put into the chosen environment, all ignorant of the fact that there has been any choice exercised, and the natural stimulant, curiosity, effects the rest. Thus, the question of environment becomes a question of supreme importance in early education, indeed we may safely say that since heredity works by uncontrollable laws, environment is everything in child-training.

It is conceded on all sides that the most satisfactory environment for a young child is that in which all faculties are brought into play, and where, especially, the powers of observation are most fully exercised on the richest variety of sense-impressions. On educational grounds, then, as well as on hygienic, the early days of childhood should be passed in contact with pure nature, in the country or by the sea-side, never, if it is at all possible to avoid it, in the heart of great towns. For Nature, in her changes unchangeable, in her wealth of variety in form and color and substance, will arrest the attention an provoke the curiosity of the dullest, and she will, moreover, teach all her lessons with the indispensable incisiveness of delight. A child who is brought up in the country or at the sea-side--best of all is the blending of the two--is rarely so grossly ignorant, so painfully narrow in outlook as a town-bred child who seldom sees the country. The very interesting educational experiments made recently by M. Passy,** proved that the first attempts at drawing made by peasant children, though clumsier in execution, were far more accurate in detail than the drawings of his own "experienced nursery artists". And he considers that the difference is wholly due to the constant exercise of the faculties of observation which a rural life demands from the children -- and demands to their delight. Think what an intelligent child may learn who goes out from Oxford some bright April afternoon in the company with an alert, sympathetic guardian to gather fritillaries in the water-meadows, and who sings as he gathers, to a tune of his own composing, Arnold's joyous lines: --

"I know what white, what purple fritillaries The grassy harvest of the river-fields, Above by Ensham, down by Sandford, yields, And what sedged brooks are Thames's tributaries."

He learns many things that day, not merely without an effort, but with overflowing joy; he learns something of the river's curious wanderings, how and where the quaint snake's head lilies grow; he hears that they are English cousins that "gallant flower, the Crown Imperiall" which George Herbert loved, and which grows in many a college garden; he learns by happy observation the peculiarities of each part of the flower; his guide can tell him by what curious error it came to be called a fritillary,--the boy can see for himself why it is called a snake's head; and he has sung Arnold's lines from "Thyrsis" until the charm of the lilt of them has become a part of himself and will remain a part of himself as long as identity endures. And if in the years to come he returns in April with the fritillaries to the meadows by Iffley Lock and watches the children gathering the lilies under the shadows of Iffley's grey old tower, again will float into his memory those lines he loved in childhood: --

"I know what white, what purple fritillaries The grassy harvest of the river-fields, Above by Ensham, down by Sandford, yields, And what sedged brooks are Thames's tributaries."

And he will have flashes of that "perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature", which is indeed, as Emerson says, "an immortal youth."

"But", you will say, while sadly agreeing that all this is true, "our children can't live in the country, we have to live in London and make the best of it." The fact that so many regret the necessity and recognize that it is an especially unfortunate necessity for the children, is one of the healthiest of signs. And it is to be hoped that with the increase of traveling facilities many who are now compelled to reside in London will be able to go further and further out. Meanwhile, all thoughtful parents try to live as near open spaces as the exigencies of business and of schools for elder children allow, so that the little ones--and their elders too--may spend as much of their time as possible in close touch with that sweet nature which withers and dies in the breath of cities. No park or other open space near London can compare in natural advantages and breezy healthfulness with the broad stretch of Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill and the almost continuous Hill of Highgate, with its charming little Waterlow Park. The heath proper is of nature's own making, eve as parts of Kensington Gardens are relics of natural woodland, and to keep the heath and the woodland from being trimmed down into a park is one of the chief civic duties of Londoners of today--perhaps, when the far-reaching effects are realized, the chief duty. On the heath children can still revel in a glorious expanse of hill and vale, upland and plain, with natural brooks and lakes, with golden gorse and flowering thorns and wandering bramble trailing over the sandy hillocks, and with real woods within sight which have never known desecration since the days when the great Middlesex Forest spread in unbroken green over the northern heights of London, stretching even to distant Epping on the east and the hill of Harrow on the west.

Let us in imagination take a little child to this beautiful inspiring place and let us watch how he can teach himself, under our guidance, a few of the lessons of nature. We must patiently follow the lead of nature and try in our prosaic fashion to see with the child's eyes the fairyland that he sees; let us make the measure of his delight in a thing the measure of our quiet insistence on the lessons it teachers; knowing no rule, no authority, no limitation but the sanction of the child's happiness in learning. And we shall find that the child can see at first only the large things, striking things, that with color and life in them, things contrasting strongly with their surroundings, or things which have curious points of resemblance with previously-known things. These alone command his interest in the early years, and if our teaching is to keep in line with his powers we must always be on the watch against going too deeply into detail. When a certain vacant look comes into the child's eyes that is nature's signal for us to stop. And we must be content to restrain our desire to pour out streams of information into his mind and only to tell him what he wants to know, to answer his questions, or greater still, show him how he may make the things themselves answer his questions. There are worlds of things on Hampstead Heath that the child is wildly eager to know about, and that he will learn without the least tutorial friction. Roaming day by day over the Heath he will in a few years' time, with the help of the infinite variety of cross-associations and many repetitions of impressions, learn the broad facts of geology and botany, and something of history and literature, while lessons of Conduct, Beauty and Manners -- Arnold's triumvirate of Culture--will be unconsciously interwoven with all others. And this never in set lessons, nor even in separate subjects, but with an intermingling of all subjects as they naturally arise in walks and talks. On Parliament Hill the boy may learn in happy play, in delicious make-believe, all that is meant by such terms as hill, valley, watershed; lake, river, tributary, and so on. The more difficult terms themselves need not be learnt until long after the child has realized the distinctive character of the thing behind the word. Thus, a young child need know nothing of the geological generalization expressed by the term "denudation", until he has observed many times with his own watchful eyes how the little brooks running down the side of Parliament Hill carry down to the lakes below sand and soil from the hill slopes. And the day will come, perhaps years after his first observation of the trickling streams, when the intelligent child will say: "Oh, then the hill must be smaller than it used to be." And having patiently waited for that light to dawn we can assure him that the is right, that Parliament Hill and all the soft hills in the world are constantly being made smaller by this wearing down with water. And we may promise to show him at other times and in other places that even hard rocks, rocks of granite like the old, old rocks at Malvern, are worn down in the same way, although very, very slowly.

Again; as the boy plays about on the sandy hollows in the heath, above the Vale of Health, building his forts and castles, he will be reminded of the same games played on the sea-shore with the beautiful yellow sands. And one day will come the question, "Is this sea-sand? It's very like it." And then he can hear that most wonderful of fairy talks which Kingsley tells so admirably to his little boy in "Madam How and Lady Why"--the story of England's sinking down far below the sea and resting there for ages, and of its gradual rise, and of the leaving high and dry, as the land rose and the water receded, this cap of sea-sand on top of Hampstead. And he will readily understand, remembering the sandy stream-beds, that the cap of sand was once much higher than it is now, and he may even learn that all the country round about was covered with the same sand ages ago, but that it has all been carried away into the Thames, and so to the sea, except the little caps at Hampstead and Highgate and Harrow. And one day, as he follows one of the streams from the Viaduct Pond up to its source in the marshy grass of the hollow in the ill-side, he will want to know why the bed of the brook is such a rusty color, just the color of an old iron hoop, left out in the rain all winter. Rusty it is, and with iron-rust too, we can assure him. And then he can hear another of Nature's fairy stories: how each of the tiny grains of yellow sand is really a small piece of clear quartz, worn away ages ago from some great hard rock by some mighty river. And here he may look astonished if he has seen crystals of quartz in Jermyn Street Museum, for those were clear as glass, not yellow like this sand. But we go on to tell him how each little quartz grain in this yellow sand has a film of iron-rust all round it, an the more iron there is around the quartz grain the yellower it looks, and he knows that the Hampstead sands are of many shades of yellow: and if he could go to the Shotover Hill, where the little Buckland children learnt geology with their father and mother, he would see sands of far deeper yellow than any at Hampstead. Indeed, the Shotover iron-sands have so much yellow in them that they look quite brown, and the yellow ochre from these sands (the boy remembers that he has some yellow ochre in his paint-box) is a very valuable product, said to be the very best of its kind.

After this talk about the iron in the Bagshot Sands on Hampstead, we can take the boy to the little spring in Well Walk, and let him taste the water, and when he pulls a wry face, and says it is like nasty medicine, we can assure him that it is a very good medicine for certain people, and if he were a pale anemic boy, with not enough iron in his blood (we can spare him mention of the red corpuscles yet awhile), nothing could be better for him than to run up this hill every day and drink some of this spring water. And as we rest under the beautiful limes in Well Walk we can conjure up to the boy's imagination a picture of the crowds of fashionable people who, in Richardson's day, used to come to drink the iron-waters at Hampstead, just as they go still to Buxton or Tunbridge; and how they made the outing as gay as possible, and danced the night through in the Assembly Rooms, which stood where Gainsborough Gardens are now.

"But," the boy will say, "why does the water come out just here and nowhere else?" "Well," we say, "you can see it here, but it does come out in plenty of other places all round the hill a little way down from the top, not in such full streams as used to flow down to swell the Fleet River a century ago, for now the water companies collect it in underground pipes to the house round about." And now as to why these streams came out of the hillside some distance down from the top. A little observation will prove to the boy that the sand is not found far down the hill-side, that it is only a cap on the highest peaks and ridges. "And what is under the sand?" asks the boy one day; and we ask him in turn, "What did you see being dug out of the hole for the foundation of that new house at the foot of the hill?" "Oh, nasty wet lumps of slaty-blue clay, which turned brown afterwards, and which you told me made good red bricks." Yes, clay it was, the clay that nearly all London is built on; the clay that was all covered with sand like the Hampstead sand-cap, and when the rain has washed all the sand away from Hampstead Hill there will be nothing but clay to be seen; but that won't be in our time. And here the boy may make a little experiment with a sand-cap on a clay base, and pour water very gently on the sand with a little watering-can to imitate rain, and he will see that the water goes through the soft sand, but can't go through the stiff clay, and so comes out at the sides where the sand meets the clay. And he will then begin to understand that if the water companies hadn't interfered with natural conditions he would see springs bursting out at many points round the hill where sand and clay meet, and these streams would run down the hill-side like little rivers into the lakes. And some day he may follow the line of junction of sand and clay, and make a map for himself, coloring the sand and clay with crayons corresponding with the colors used in the model of London in Jermyn Street Museum.

In some such talks as these the Heath may teach its own formation to the eager questioning child, and the guide will try to answer every pertinent question simply and lucidly, having by constant self-culture prepared for probable difficulties, and having led up to desired topics by taking the child to the suggestive spots--making the environment for the child's intelligence to work in.

(to be continued.)

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*Paper read before a meeting of the Hyde Park and Bayswater Branch of the Parents' National Education Union, May 7th, 1897.

**Referred to in Mr. Rooper's School and Home Life, p. 132.