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The Kindergarten as a Character Builder

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


Dear friends and co-workers, I bid you a hearty God-speed! This is the era of woman. It has been found not in keeping with the Divine plan to attempt to carry on this world with half its forces. As some one aptly puts it, the flag of humanity has been at half-mast. The vessel has been drifting about, with half its crew down in the hold with the hatches nailed upon them. The laborer has been at his work with one arm bound up very tenderly, but firmly, in a sling. This is not God’s plan. Male and female created He them for the work of life. The way to make a noble race is to make nobler women. The way to make nobler women is to expand their sympathies, enlarge their energies, and elevate their aims. Nothing can do more to conserve such an end than a great convocation like this, and so I bid you again a hearty God-speed, as I betake myself to my theme, thanking you with all my soul for the privilege of presenting a plea in behalf of the little child. I have said, this is the era of women. I might say, also, this is the epoch of childhood. I am to speak on “The Kindergarten as a Character Builder.”

I believe, dear friends, there is a vast range of unmapped country within us, awaiting discovery; a vast domain of unexplored territory, as yet unpreempted and uncultivated, toward which the eye of Frederick Froebel, that great educational Columbus, was directed with a steady and divining gaze. He saw with true spiritual insight what eternal continents of truth, what priceless stores of hidden way possibilities there are in the human mind. He saw the rich loam of faculty, needing only the clearing away of underbrush and briers, the letting in of soft sunlight and of gentle showers, to beckon forth the sleeping germs. Frederick Froebel saw it all in prophetic clarity of vision, and having consecrated himself to the Heaven-inspired work while he lived, with a perfect faith in its ultimate triumph, he bade a brave farewell to the few true friends who stood by him in his work, knowing that what is excellent, as God lives, is permanent. And so it has proved; for to-day the great educational principles which he discovered and laid down are going forth in every direction, conquering and to conquer. The kindergarten is his enduring monument.

The kindergarten concerns itself more with the development of faculty than with the mere imparting of knowledge. It recognizes the fact that all true education is learning transformed to faculty. It does not ask so much, “What does the child know?” as, “Has the child learned how to learn?” It looks less to mere acquirements than to the capacity to acquire. It is teaching the little child to teach himself. It is controlling the little child that he may learn the art of self-control. The senses are sharpened, the hands are trained, and the body is made lithe and active. The gifts and occupations represent every kind of technical activity. The children must work for what they get. They learn through doing. They thus develop patience, perseverance, skill and will power. They are encouraged by every fresh achievement. What they know they must know thoroughly and accurately. Every element of knowledge is transformed into an element of creation. The mind assimilates what it receives, just as a healthy organism assimilates its food, and is nourished thereby. In his occupations in the kindergarten the child is required to handle, reconstruct, combine and create. “Let the very playthings of your children have a bearing upon the life and work of the coming man,” said Aristotle. It is early training that makes the master. This universal instinct of play in the child means something. It should be turned to good account. It should be made constructive in its income instead of destructive. This restless activity of the child is the foundation of the indefatigable enterprise of the man. This habit of work must be formed early in life, if we would have it a pleasure. Activity is the law of healthful childhood. Turn it to good account! The perceptive faculties in a well-endowed child are far in excess of the reflective faculties. He sees everything. He wants to know about everything. He will find out if he can. Sensible mothers understand this fact, and keep their household goods well out of the way of the young “heir apparent.” Just as old Dolly Winthrop said, in “Silas Marner”: “If you can’t bring your mind to frighten the child off touching things, you must do what you can to keep ’em out of the way. That’s what I do wi’ the pups as the lads are allays a-rearing. They will worry and gnaw — worry and gnaw they will, if it was one’s Sunday cap as hung anywhere so as they could drag it. They know no difference, God help ’em; it’s the pushing o’ the teeth as sets ’em on, that’s what it is.” That’s exactly what it is with the restless child. It’s the pushing of the teeth–the intellectual molars and bicuspids, so to speak. They are getting ready to masticate their mental food.

Bodily vigor, mental activity and moral integrity are indispensable to a perfected life. The kindergarten is the best agency for setting in motion the physical, mental and moral machinery of a little child, that it may do its own work in its own way. It is the rain and dew and sun to wake the sleeping germ and bring it into self-activity and growth. The heart as well as the head comes in for its share of training. The kindergarten regards right action to be quite as important as rare scholarship. It works for both, knowing that ignorance and lack of character in the masses will never breed wisdom, so long as ignorance and lack of character in the individual breed folly. What we need to do is to bring more happiness into childhood. and then we shall bring more of virtue, for “virtue kindles at the touch of joy.” The kindergarten is the “Paradise of Childhood.” Froebel insisted that education and happiness should be wedded, that there should be as much pleasure in satisfying intellectual hunger as physical hunger. And should not this be so? Is it not more or less the fault of methods that it is not so?
Just here I wish to say that the moral and religious influences of the kindergarten can scarcely be overestimated. The kindergarten does not attribute every mistake of a child to total depravity. To be perpetually telling a little child, even a very naughty child, that there is no good thing in him, that he is vile and corrupt, is one of the very best ways of making a rascal out of him if he has any spirit in him, and of making a little hypocrite of him, if he is mean-spirited and weak. And this holds equally true of all children, whether they come from the palatial homes of the rich or the wretched homes of the poor. There is more ignorance than depravity when a little child goes wrong. He must stumble and fall many times before he learns to walk uprightly, either physically or spiritually. He must learn to climb the stairs of moral difficulty as he learned to climb the household stairs. As we patiently wait for the body to unfold and do its best, wisely guiding it all the while, so should we patiently wait for the soul’s unfolding. All education is a growth, not a creation. And to all growth belongs the element of time. We are none of us born with the “trade of conduct” learned. The primal ideal of all government should be to teach a child to govern himself at the earliest possible period. And to learn how to govern himself a child must be indulged in self-government. The true teacher will be aiming all the time at the child’s enfranchisement — not in making him an unwilling slave.

Above all, the true kindergarten aims at the cultivation of the heart and soul in the right direction, and leads them to the Creator of all life and to personal union with Him. The law of duty is recognized by the little ones as the law of love. It is the aim of the kindergarten to lead the little ones to their Heavenly Friend. They are taught to love Him. They are taught to love one another, to help one another, to be kind to one another, to care for one another. No one can love God who does not love his fellows. The child in the kindergarten is not only told to be good, but he is actually helped to be good.

The very foundations on which true character rests are laid in the kindergarten. Habits of virtue, truth, purity and usefulness are here inculcated; and what is character but crystallized habit?

As to the moral effect of the kindergarten, a little three-year-old can best tell the story. A bright little blonde lassie of three years, belonging to one of our kindergartens, was holding tightly the hand of her lady guardian, as they wandered among the marvels of the Mechanics’ Institute Fair. It was high carnival with the little kindergarteners. This nervous little midget was wild with delight at the wonderful things to be seen on every hand. Just then she was delving into the mysteries of the chicken incubator. Suddenly one of the regularly deputized policemen, who do duty during the fair, passed by. He did not escape the vigilance of “little blue eyes.”

“See, there’s a perlice!” she ejaculated, with resonant, ringing tone, pointing her little finger deprecatingly as she spoke. “There he goes,” she added, with increased fervor. “Why, he needn’t be a watchin’ of us, ‘cos we don’t nip nothin’ now, sence we went to the kindergarten!”

The poor little dear — she had no idea that a “perlice” could have any other possible vocation than to be watching her and the other little Barbary Coasters, who had been wont aforetime to “nip” fruit and vegetables on the sly, as a sort of filial duty imposed by thriftless, shiftless parentage.

And now, dear friends, although I have overstepped the limits allotted me, I cannot close without a brief reference to this beneficent kindergarten work in San Francisco.

Fifteen years ago there was not a single free kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains. There are now over sixty in San Francisco alone, including those in orphanages and day homes. Branching out from San Francisco as a center, they have extended in every direction, from the extreme northern part of Washington Territory to Lower California and New Mexico, and they have planted themselves in Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and in almost every large city in California. The work in San Francisco has been phenomenal. No city in the Union has made more rapid strides in this work among the little children than San Francisco. This is owing very largely to the fact that persons of large wealth have been induced to study the work for themselves, and have become convinced of its permanent and essential value to the state. Foremost among those who have given largely to the support of these kindergarten is Mrs. Leland Stanford, who has, from first to last, given $174,000 to the support of these beneficent schools for the neglected children of San Francisco. Over eight hundred children have been under training in the Stanford kindergartens the past year. Mrs. Senator Hearst, and others of generous mind, also support these schools.  Over $450,000 have been given me to carry on the kindergartens of the Golden Gate Association.

The kindergarten gets hold of the little child just as early in life as possible — the earlier the better. It believes, with Lord Broughham, that a child can and does learn more before the age of six years than it does or can learn after that age during his whole life, however long it may be. For this is the root-life of the human plant, and the root-life must forever determine what the stem and blossoms shall be. In short, the world is beginning to recognize the fact that a general education, that has not in it some provision for a special education and training in some particular industry, is practically a failure. Technical and industrial education for the people is no theory. It is a question of civilization. It is a national question, and touches the very existence of the state. The kindergarten lies at the foundation of this sort of education. All honor, then, to those who foster these blessed schools for the little children!

Governor Stanford struck the key-note when he said, that he believed the surest foundation on which any educational structure could rest was the rock of thorough kindergarten training, begun at the earliest possible age. At the age when moral and industrious habits are most easily formed, the taste improved, and the finer feelings which give fiber to the will are cultivated. On the bed-rock of such training the true university may rest — a university such as the Stanford University is outlined to be–a university embracing the science of human life, in its varied industries, arts, science, literature, government, political economy, ethics, moral unfoldment, hygiene — and in short all that goes to make up a perfected human life; a university where the school and the workshop clasp hands, where body and mind are educated together, where the mechanical and classical student will strike hands together, where the artist and the artisan will eat at one common board. Democracy means equitable opportunity. Liberty of growth and equality at the start is the law of all true democratic life.

And the primal aim of all education, from the kindergarten straight through to the university, should be the unfolding of all that is in the human being–the equipping of the young for maintaining themselves in honest independence. Some one has said there are three ways of earning a living: by working, by begging, or by stealing; and those who come to years of responsibility, and do not work, are doing one of the other two things, dress it out in whatever pretty guise you please. I believe it was Florence Nightingale who said: “If to three R’s–Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic — there be not added something that will give the mind a practical turn, we shall soon have a fourth R, which will stand for rascality.” The true mission of education is the developing of vigorous, capable, and cultivated human beings, and launching them on their life career, well armed and equipped with facts and principles as a propelling power on the track of an instructed industry. We have all too many sad travesties of highly educated folks, whom Old Dame Poyser describes as being “too high learnt to have much common sense.” Hence, we must go back to the method of Providence in educating the race, and begin with labor and experience, which are sure to lead up to science and art.

Throw open the kindergarten and the schools for industrial and art training to every child, and with the heart pure, the head clear, the hand skillful and ready, we shall hear no more of the vexed question: “What shall we do with our boys and girls?” Our fair land shall take its place in the very front ranks of nations distinguished for their industrial achievements.

There must be more of genuine human sympathy between the top and the bottom of society. The prosperous and the happy must clasp hands and heart with the toilers and the strugglers. The living, loving self is wanted. The heart must be the missionary. The life must be the sermon. All mankind must be brothers. The children must be taught these great principles and aided in putting them in practice. They must be made to feel and to know that it is what they put into life and not what they get out of it that measures their worth to the world. “Then shall our sons be as plants grown up in their youth, our daughters as corner-stones polished after the similitude of a palace.” They shall be the fathers and mothers of a great race; and long after you and I shall have finished our earthly work, the breath of God still breathing upon the great sentient human soul, shall lift them higher and higher in their purposes and work, as they press forward in their beauty and their strength “clear as the sun, fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners.”