Timeless Education: Literature for the Pre-Primary Years
Literature and storytelling, in the early years, play such an integral part in setting a child up with the will to read. Below you will find an early American take on literature in the home, for children from birth through 6* years of age.
From Chapter Two of
Field, Waltor Taylor. Fingerposts to Children's Reading. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & CO., 1911. Print.
IT is in the home that the child forms the most permanent elements of his character.Here his familiarity with books should begin, and here he should get his literary inspirations.
The baby's first book will naturally be a picture book, for pictures appeal to him early, and with great force. His interest in them is mingled with a sort of wonder as to just what they are, for the picture of an object is always more or less confused in his mind with the object itself. The dog on the floor wags his tail and barks ; the dog in the book does not ; otherwise they are the same, — so he pats the dog in the book, and lays his cheek against it, and is quite content in its companionship. If we understood children better, we should realize this vitality which pictures have for them, and should be more careful to give them the best.
As color appeals to the child before he has much notion of form, his first picture book should be colored, and as his ideas of form develop slowly, his first pictures should be in outline, and unencumbered with detail. The French illustrator, Boutet de Monvel, has given us the ideal pictures for young children. The best and most characteristic produced in this country are probably those of Jessie Willcox Smith.
Most'published picture books are spoiled by the doggerel which accompanies the pictures, and which, as the child gets older, he insists on having read to him. Generally, too, the pictures are made violently grotesque, under the impression that young children demand something unusual. Artists sometimes forget that to a baby a normal elephant is quite as unusual an object as an elephant in a hat and a pair of trousers.
One of the picture books will of course be a copy of " Mother Goose," and the parent will repeat to the little one the old jingles that have for centuries soothed the infant world to sleep and dried its tears. Following these will come the classic nursery tales, Cinderella, Little Bed Biding Hood, The Three Bears, Tom Thumb, and others of that happy fellowship, — not read out of a book, but told in the parent's own words.
Almost as soon as the child can talk, and for many years thereafter, will come that oft- repeated cry, " Tell me a story," — to which, unfortunately many of us reply that we are too busy, and suggest to the small suppliants that they go away and play and don't bother mamma or papa, as the case may be; for mamma has a lovely new novel to read, and papa is absorbed in the evening paper, and cannot attend to such trifles — or perhaps cannot think of a story, as his literature is confined for the most part to the stock market and politics.
It is worth while to make some sacrifices of time and effort in order to tell your children good stories. Unless one is a genius he can not launch into a story off-hand, not knowing where he is coming out, and produce anything worth listening to, — to say nothing of the probability that he will get himself hopelessly entangled in his plot, and will be called to time by a direct question that will put him to shame and show him to be a bungler. Or, unless one was unusually virtuous in his youth, he cannot confine his range of subjects to what he did when he was a little boy, or little girl, without either falsifying history or giving the children hints that will be more entertaining than edifying. Plato regarded the stories repeated to children as of such importance that he would have none told except such as had been approved by censors.
We have all known parents whose stories to their little ones would never pass that test. If the parent lacks material let him read again the old Greek myths, renew his acquaintance with ancient and modern history, lose himself once more in the " Arabian Nights," or the legends of King Arthur, ponder what he has read, and clothe the incidents with simple words that will carry easily to the minds and hearts of the young listeners. No one can read a story to a little child and get the attention that he gains by telling it.
Perhaps you think this story-telling business should be done by the child's teacher. It may be that she is doing it, sympathetically and with appreciation of what the stories mean. If she is a good teacher she certainly is, but with all her telling of these famous tales, she cannot exhaust them, — and then, maybe she is not telling them at all. Talk with your child about it. Find out what he is learning in school or kindergarten, and supplement the teacher's work. You cannot afford to let her entirely supplant you in the intellectual training of your child. She needs your help as you need hers.
The question is sometimes asked whether it is wise to tell children stories of giants and ogres. One cannot think with composure of banishing all giants from the nursery. Jack's giant and Aladdin's genie and a few other old-time favorites have become so thoroughly established in the popular regard, and have sent delightful thrills of terror through so many generations of children, that it would be a thankless if not a hopeless task to attempt to drive them out. But if giants are demanded, — especially if they be man-eating giants, — it is well not to introduce them too early, or to allow the child to become too intimate with them, for, at best, they are not good company. Little people are not all alike. The sturdy boy who is afraid of nothing exults in his fancied ability to dispose of all these fabulous folk. But the nervous, sensitive child — it is little short of cruelty to keep him awake nights peopling the walls and the shadows of the window curtains with dreadful shapes which his imagination has gathered from the evening story. Some parents argue that the child must grow accustomed to such things. Let him wait, then, until he is old enough or strong enough to listen without fear.
There is another danger beside that of frightening him. An appetite is being created which may later become a source of serious trouble. The boy or girl who is brought up on a diet of ogre stories will continue to demand extravagant and blood-curdling fiction, and if the family library does not contain any thing sanguinary enough, he will find it at the news-stand. He may have a giant or two occasionally, as he would have a piece of plum cake, but his digestion should not be ruined by a surfeit of them.
The story period of a child's life merges imperceptibly into the reading period. If the parent is a good story-teller he will find the story period of surprising extent, for no child ever quite outgrows the fondness for a good story told by word of mouth. The story book is only the story carefully thought out and transferred to type ; and as soon as the child will listen with interest to the reading of books the stories of the great story-tellers should be read in their own language.
*Unlike public America education today, formal education in the past did not begin until the child had reached the age of six. This was referred to a primary year 1.