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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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Children's Occupations in the Nursery.

b K. L. Hart-Davis.
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 937-945


The nursery should be the happiest room in the house. It should be sunny, gay, full of health and good spirits, so that the elders find it a pleasant place of resort, where bright faces and merry chatter are always ready to greet them. This is indeed the normal atmosphere that children make for themselves. Someone used to say to a mother of a large family, "I like your house, there is always a baby to be had." Childhood is naturally a happy, thoughtless time.

But now and then there comes a change over the nursery atmosphere, caused by a malady which is very prevalent in bad weather, when the children cannot go out. Its symptoms are listlessness and ill-temper, which utterly destroy for a time the gaiety and wholesomeness of the nursery. This malady goes by the name, in childish language, of "nothing-to-do fever." We all know it only too well, and often have to contend with it. An attack brings quite as much blame to the nurse as to the children, for it is not difficult to prevent it, or at least to nip it in the bud as soon as a suspicion of it appears.

When the child becomes listless and says he has "nothing to do" and is "so dull," do not let us always say, "Oh, get along and play," for the child has evidently come to the end of his resources and wants us to help him. The cure for "nothing-to-do fever" is plainly something to do—occupation. If the nurse can give only a suggestion or two, it may be enough, or if she will take the trouble to supply some little bit of material, such as a needle and cotton, or a glass of painting water, or will lift down the heavy box of bricks, very likely the child will get to work and forget those listless feelings. I do not mean that the child should never be left to his own resources to find something to do, but that the nurse should try to go forward to meet and help him when he needs it. Little children cannot be expected to employ themselves always without suggestions. Their memories are short, they cannot think of things to do as we grown-up folks can. Occupations must be congenial and varied and not continued too long. We are sometimes apt to say that children are so flighty; they never stick at anything; a new idea seizes them and for a time they can think of nothing else. Someone shows them how to plait paper, perhaps, or how to paint cocks and hens. For a while they will continue the occupation with zest, and then they tire of it and we blame them and say their efforts are no use, they are so short-lived. But are we right in this—is not this flightiness, kept of course within certain due limits, just a natural and not unworthy characteristic of childhood? Surely life to them is so new, so fresh, so full of surprises, and their senses are so keen that they are always spying out unknown pleasures. It is natural to them to flit like butterflies from one attraction to another, tasting sips of honey from many sources. It should be our aim never to let them lose this freshness—once take it away and it is not easily regained. We may laugh at a child's ambition, baby stretching his hand to catch the moon, and two-year-old Johnny sure he can lift that heavy can. The possibilities of "when I'm a man" are boundless, when one's age does not yet reach a double figure. Let us encourage them in each effort, and not say, "You silly little boy, you can't do that," or "You've enough to do without learning this new thing."

Very often in a nursery there comes what we used to call a "rage." [We might call it an obsession, or a craze.] There may be a rage for skipping games, followed by a rage for guessing stories, or a rage for carpentering. So long as each occupation is taken up in earnest, and something is really accomplished by the child, I do not think that such rages need ever be futile. Of course, sometimes, after an occupation has been tried for a few days, it may be wise to say, "Don't you think it is rather a waste of time to do so much of so-and-so, suppose you did something else?" But it is far better to have the children keen on some employment than to see them dawdle through day after day, merely measuring the hours by meal-times, and "hanging about," as we say, with no object before them. Children differ so much in this. Some always have a hobby on hand and find it to employ their spare time; others need suggestion and encouragement.

There is another way in which we sometimes curb ambition. We make a rule of strict tidiness and say "Don't make a litter, put your things away." This is an excellent rule, but it should be relaxed sometimes, especially if the child thoroughly understands that he must tidy up afterwards. We should suffer a little "mess," so long as something is really accomplished. The children need not be dissuaded from attempting an employment because they fear the trouble of getting the materials it involves. A very little encouragement will win them to make efforts, and a sense of responsibility will make them help nurse to keep things neat. If each child has some little corner of his own, which is not interfered with and which he can improve and ornament according to his fancy, the pride of possession will encourage him to keep it tidy. Two or three children will vie with one another as to whose window-sill has the freshest flowers, or whose shelf of books or toys is the best arranged.

We said just now that occupation was the best cure for "nothing-to-do fever," but let us consider a little as to what occupations are good. To begin with, I should say that any occupation which is felt by the child to be of real use is valued and enjoyed by him. For example, if, instead of sewing on the loose button, the nurse shews the child how to do it, it will be much appreciated. It is, no doubt, less trouble to get the thread and do it oneself, but the child's happy smile and pride in "sewing it all my lone" is surely enough reward for a little patience on our part; and we may go on to build up valuable habits from such simple things. We should try and pick out all the little things in the child's life that he can do for himself easily or with a little help from us—such as the dusting of the toy cupboard, watering the nursery flowers, folding clothes, shaking out the beds. I remember well our intense pride in being allowed to lay the table for dinner or tea on Sunday, while nurse was at church. How we endeavoured to forget nothing and used our invention to make little ornaments for the table—autumn leaves spread round the dishes, little salt-cellars folded in coloured paper, tiny button-holes laid, one for each person, and so on.

Then, again, pets are a very healthy source of occupation—a bird is but little trouble, and the children can gather green food for it in their walks and put fresh seed for it each morning and be shewn how to shake out its sand through a little sieve over a sheet of newspaper. A dormouse is also very amusing, and so is a box of caterpillars or ordinary land snails; they only want fresh leaves and are very interesting to watch. Frogs' eggs kept in a bowl of fresh pond water, will hatch out and the tadpoles may be watched for weeks, and then when their tails disappear, may be carried safely back to their pond.

In the winter, it is sometimes difficult to fill the long dark evenings—perhaps I can suggest a few simple things. In the hour after tea-time, when the light fades, before the lamps are lit we can generally spare half an hour from the business of the nursery and may make it a delightful time for the children. Gather the children round the fire and start a guessing game, "I have thought of something and it begins with B., is it hard—round—animal—vegetable, etc." This will last a long time; or again, "Russian scandal" is great fun—one child whispers a story to another and so on round the circle and it is told out at the end to see how closely it has been remembered. Much fun may be got from riddles, dumb crambo [a rhyming game] and simple charades. Best of all are stories. If nurse can sit down to her needlework and give the children something to employ their fingers—beads to thread, or animals to cut in paper, spills to fold for the nursery mantelpiece, or some little bit of needlework—if she can meanwhile tell ever so simple a tale, it will be by far the most popular amusement she can afford. There are few pleasures so great as telling stories to children. So let us be on the look-out for tales—stories of animals, adventures, fairy tales, are all good. But best of all they like "something true, all about yourself nurse, when you were a little girl." If you can also get the children to tell stories in return, you will do well; most children prefer to listen. An old nurse of my mother's had a wonderful memory for poetry and used to delight her charges with the "Pied Piper of Hamelin" and "John Gilpin" and several bits of Wordsworth. We cannot all learn poems by heart, but most of us can keep our eyes open for simple little verses or songs to read or repeat. Most nurseries have some books of children's poems, and if nurse will look them through and choose out some to read, the children will soon value them and find many favourites. Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses; Henry Leslie's Songs for Little Folks; W. Blake's Songs of Innocence; Nursery Rhymes set to Music; all these are good.

There are many occupations which children can do quite alone. Cutting out pictures is a favourite one. A good plan is to take a large sheet of paper and settle upon a subject for a picture—say a farm-yard, or a railway platform, then give the child a box full of scraps and cuttings from papers and magazines. Let him cut out all the figures, trees and objects which can be possibly included in the subject. For the farmyard he may get cocks and hens, cows, sheep, pigs, railings, wheelbarrows, ladders, buckets, milkmaids, etc., all these arranged according to the child's fancy and pasted firmly on to the big sheet of paper. It does not matter if they overlap one another on the sheet. The barn may be pasted down first and then the animals running about in front of it may be put on after it is quite dry. The figures can then be painted, and the whole picture varnished and fastened on the nursery wall or given away to some poor family of children.

At the time of year when the chestnuts are falling, we may help the children to gather them up and make all sorts of pretty things for the doll's house with a few pins and some fine coloured wool—chairs, tables, sofas, stools. Do not let us think this a useless employment. No doubt, after a few weeks the chestnuts will crack and the pins begin to drop out. But consider what the child has gained. Watch those careful though trembling little fingers struggling with the pins, listen to the eager discussion as to whether pink and green, or brown and yellow wools would "go together" best, see how painstaking the children are, help them to get the little chair legs level, to fasten off the wool neatly; it will indeed be far other than a useless task. Even a simple little employment such as this is will train them to be artists, to love pretty colours and dainty shapes, and to appreciate the results of care and finish.

Lavender bags can also be made with great success, if mother will supply a yard or two of quite cheap muslin and a few little odds and ends of 1d. ribbon. The children will soon seize the idea and devise lavender bags of all shapes and sizes. Another game they can make for themselves is a dollies' dinner service. Save all the old visiting cards, cut them up into little circles and ovals for plates and dishes. Let the children paint them with rings of colour or flowery borders; they may copy the nursery dinner service if they like. You will find their eyes will be wide open to notice the china wherever they go, and they will pick up ideas for their designs from shop windows and all sorts of different quarters. Next get some very stiff dough—put on the nursery overalls and cover the table with newspaper or set a little table in the garden. Tell the children to model tiny joints of meat—little rolls and loaves of bread and puddings, which can afterwards be fixed on the cardboard plates and painted in the right colours.

If the children are in the habit of making little things like this for themselves, you will find that they require very little to keep them happy. It is the child without ideas who is so troublesome and who goes whining to nurse that there is nothing to do, and who wants ceaseless attention and upsets all the others in the nursery.

How much more charming a child's presents are if he has made them himself. Encourage them to save their pennies and buy such things as coloured wools and silks, paints, brushes, pins, paper, seeds for their gardens, tools, and so on. They will value these things much more than sweets and "grub," and will, in my experience, choose them in preference themselves.

I saw lately an interesting account of the childhood and upbringing of General Baden Powell, and will quote some passages from it:—"From early infancy the children had been taught to do for themselves. Master B. P. dressed and undressed himself before he was three years old. The boys had their own gardens, and from five years of age each child kept a most careful book of his expenditure by double entry. Their pennies went chiefly in books and presents, and omnibuses for long excursions out of London. There was no prohibition as to sweets, but never a penny of these earnest little double entry book-keepers found its way to the tuck shop. However, a joke among the brothers was the following constant entry in the book of one of them, "orange 0 pounds 0 shillings 1 pence." The account goes on to describe the children's mother, who was "the kind of mother that rears brave men and true, for she relied solely on her children's sense of honour for the maintenance of her influence on their characters. She was content to trust a never-wavering interest in their sports, occupations and hobbies. The boys were unconscious of any controlling influence on their lives, and how could they have anything but a huge respect for a mother whose knowledge of the signs of nature enabled her to tell them things which they did not know."

Sundays are sometimes rather difficult days in the nursery. We do not most of us keep Sunday in quite the same strict fashion as our fathers did, but we want the children to love and value the day and mark it out each week from the rest and count it as a specially happy one. A good rule is to keep certain books and certain occupations specially for Sunday. These will be looked forward to each week, and the child will form good habits of planning out for itself some Sunday occupation. Should we not be very careful that the children grow to value Sundays in a sincere way? Let us not shut out from Sunday, with an iron hand, things which would really increase its sanctity if rightly used. I remember once coming home from school much interested in a lesson on glaciers, or ice rivers, on which I had been told to write an essay. There were lovely books in which I could read up the subject, and there were pictures and photographs in the shelves at home. That was Saturday evening, and the following Monday early I knew I must return to Reading to school. Here was the question, might I enjoy Sunday afternoon with the glacier books, or was it to be strictly forbidden? I knew in my own mind what I wished for, but had to go to my mother for leave. To my delight, this was most freely given, and I am sure I was all the richer, not only mentally, but spiritually, for the hours I spent studying those beautiful ice rivers. Throughout our childhood we had a clear view in our minds as to what would be really "un-Sunday," as we expressed it, but Sundays were never dull, but marked out as red-letter days to be looked forward to throughout the school week.

Children must often be left more or less alone on Sundays, and it is good for them to learn that nurse must go to church, or must have time for a walk, and that they must employ themselves meanwhile. May I read to you an account which will give you a picture of a Sunday play in the nursery of a large family? It comes from the diary kept by the mother:—"A picture of nursery days—The Noah's ark was fetched up from downstairs after breakfast, and a large space cleared on the nursery floor. First there was the usual procession in pairs, and next a twisting double hedge-row of bricks, and for the last few Sundays, a new idea has sprung up, which is far more richly imaginative. A large square is enclosed and called the Garden of Eden. There is a grand portico with gates and ornamental top. There is no ark, but little houses at the corners for the stabling of all the animals—one for cows, one for hens, one for pigeons. A clock tower on one side, and steps for Noah to go up and wind the clock. All the many multitude of animals, small and great, are arranged in groups or in pairs, and all of them have to be fed. This is the ingenious part. Each creature has his food in the vessel best suited to him. The giraffes reach up to the top of a high pot, the elephants dip in their trunks—some have chopped leaves, brought in the day before, some have straw half-an-inch long, some crumbs, some berries or nuts. One child came up to explain why her tea-set was taken out of the cupboard—'I'm not having it to play with, only to put the animals' food in.' The endless variety worked out in an hour's time is really quite amusing. A china bear, about two inches high was sitting in front of a tin shining dish cover, which was his looking glass, 'because he is licking hisself, and making his hair tidy.' Little dogs peep out of kennels, cows are milked by Noah's sons' wives, each with a stool and pail. Monkeys are provided with something to jump from. Pigeons fly down on little round cotes. All of it is their own invention, and the interest and education lies in the gradual development and the improvement Sunday by Sunday. The animals are carefully put away, and very few legs are broken."

Every good nurse makes a definite plan in her own mind as to the way in which the child's day should be spent. She sets apart for the little ones some hours for sleep, some for exercise, and some to be filled with quiet occupation, when the child may rest his small legs and employ his brain and fingers. It is not good to have the children "on their legs" all day, they should learn to sit still at the table steadily for at least twenty minutes, and play with toys, or read, or paint, or what-not, without jumping up. Then when they leave the nursery and begin to go to school, the duty of sitting still will not be such a bitter task, fraught with so much trouble to the teacher.

But one word of warning. While we value employment, and love to see the children busy, and congratulate ourselves upon what they can accomplish, and how usefully their day is planned out; still, let us be careful and leave them plenty of room for leisure. There should never be a feeling of stress, a cry of "Oh, but I never have any time!" In looking back, don't you think the happiest of your childhood's days were those when time seemed to glide along without our knowing it? The days seemed so long and yet not ever too long.

A life filled to the brim with pressing duties may be useful and necessary discipline for us when we are grown older, but children surely should not feel the burden of such stress.

Sometimes we say they dream and waste their time, but, after all, what do we know of all that is going on in their minds? Definite hours of occupation are indeed most valuable for them, and they will soon learn to appreciate them, but there should be plenty of room in the day for perfect freedom of leisure time, all the child's own. He will fill it for himself in his own way, and it will probably be as fruitful to him as any employment that we can devise.


Proofread by Stephanie H.