Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/December 1898/The Playgrounds of Rural and Suburban Schools

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WHILE the officers and friends of education in large cities are exerting themselves to provide open-air playgrounds for the schools, the villages and smaller towns all over the East are reversing the case. Except in the small district schools, the children's playground has almost ceased to exist.

This is an evil which has crept in with the tendency to centralize the schools. When in any place the schools begin to overflow, a movement to put up a larger building takes place, accompanied by an effort to create a high-school department; not so much the need of the community as the ambitious dream of some principal who would be superintendent, or some sort of central sun to a group of satellites. This dream is too easily realized, because it flatters the people. Then there rises a preposterous structure of stone and brick; a house of many gables, out of keeping with everything, either public or private, in the place; a temple of vanity. Now is rung the knell of the school playground, for the new "high school," although it will house all the children from five to fifteen, must needs be surrounded by a fine lawn, studded with shrubbery, and threaded by bluestone roads. The janitor has to employ an assistant to keep the grounds in order. A shut-in, penitentiarylike place has been evolved by the architect and school committee, gratifying to their pride and a deep wrong to the children. There are many wrongs about it; the one insisted upon here is the abolishing of the recess, that time-honored joy of the American schoolboy and schoolgirl.

The cheerful sounds of play no more re-echo; the little ones march in "lock step" from the doors to the very curb of this immaculate ornate inclosure. If, on this beautiful lawn, any impulsive youngster is caught running, or performing an instinctive hop-scotch or leapfrog, he is sure to be seen by a watching and powerful janitor and reported. Leapfrog and profanity, in the true Draconian spirit, are alike visited with the extreme penalty of a visit to the principal's office. However, in default of a playground, the new schoolhouse provides a gymnasium for physical culture. I speak now of a particular school, the pride of a simple village, and a type of many. This gymnasium is a costly room filled with elaborate apparatus, most of which is suited only to the high-school pupils, and never touched by the majority, who leave school at twelve or thirteen; their physical exercises have been chiefly provided for by a box of dumb-bells and wands. In many schools the "gymnasium" is a cavernous and ugly basement, a place full of shadows cast by the gloomy arches on which the building rests, with walls of brick and floors of asphalt. Little troops of silent, pale children arrive and depart all day for their physical culture, a dreary repetition of silent dumb-bell exercises. There is no speech nor language among them, no sound is heard but the jingle of the piano and the sharp tones of the monitor's counting. I have never heard the children count aloud or accompany the calisthenics by singing except in a private school. What an alternative for a free recess! No penitentiary drill could be more perfunctory, spiritless, dead. It must be said of the public schools that the thing they most seem to dread is the sound of a child's voice. The rude, untrained intonations, the slovenly speech, the slouching attitude remain rude, slovenly, and slouching, for all the school attempts to do for their improvement is infinitely little. Even the blessed relief of shaking the arm and hand to attract the teacher's attention has been reduced in some schools to lifting two fingers.

The pupils generally hate their calisthenics, or, in the new phrase, physical culture exercises. And they would hate just as sincerely regulated games superintended by some impossible master of sports. What they want is spontaneity in play. Public money is wasted in providing these abhorrent alternatives. Poor little Carthusians as young as six and seven years are kept in their rooms, and principally in their seats, above two hours at each session, and often after that to atone for some delinquency, most likely for speaking. In many schools they do not leave the room for any kind of exercise. If they were capable of demanding their rights they would call for both the abolition of the school lawn and calisthenic basement, and the restoration of their playground and recess.

From the cruelty of this repression nature finds a little way out; the children require of the neighbors what they have been deprived of by the school committee. All around the precincts of the temple of learning the trodden borders of the sidewalk, churned to mire in winter and trampled to rock in summer, speak of the victory of the boys. There are towns, perhaps, where they all go straight home, but in our town they gather four times a day in knots of twenties and fifties for some kind of fun. The patient neighbors go on removing coats and dinner pails from the pickets, clearing away papers and missiles from their inclosures, yet I discover that even they would vote to keep the school lawn; it improves the town. Very true. But ingenuity could well contrive some way of uniting the playground and the school park. Spaces of grass to rest the eye and decorate the square could be interspersed with inclosures of asphalt, furnished with a few parallel bars and swings, without sacrifice of appearances. Often the school property is so large that it could include half a dozen such special playgrounds. We have but to begin it to find some feasible plan.

If the palatial school and its park is reaction against the "ragged beggar" of Whittier's lovely poem, sunning in the midst of the blackberry vines of Hardscrabble Hill, it is a reaction that has gone too far to suit a generation which loves to read Hosea Bigelow:

"So the old school'us is a place I choose
Afore all others, ef I want to muse;
I set down where I used to set, an' git
My boyhood back, an' better things with it—
Faith, Hope, an' sunthin', ef it isn't Cherrity,
It's want o' guile, an' thet's ez gret a rarity."

If it may be replied, that is not the generation for whom schoolhouses are now built, it is one which may interpret the wants of its children by just such recollections.

Another evil has grown out of the centralization of the schools. The smaller schoolhouses formerly stood within convenient reach, and by abandoning them we have forced many little children to walk farther than they are able to walk. In the absence of street cars and sidewalks this becomes a great hardship in extreme weather. In one village in New York, out of an enrollment of fourteen hundred, there was one month last year an average attendance of four hundred. The new school building, which had cost seventy-five thousand dollars, was more than two miles from some part of the district, and there were no sidewalks; neither were there paved streets or street lamps. In such circumstances a number of children are unable to get home to the noon meal, usually dinner, and most important. Where do they eat their luncheon? In their seats, watched by teachers, who are compelled unwillingly to take turns at this duty, and who have also to eat a cold, unpalatable lunch in bad air for a week at a time. After lunch there is an hour to be disposed of by the children, but there is no place to play in except the basement or the streets of the neighborhood. The teachers frequently read them a story, that they may stretch their minds a little if not their bodies. It is a painful sight—few more painful to me—to see a crowd of young children having their recreation in one of these basements. Running and loud talking are forbidden; a police of teachers armed with symbols of authority and punishment keep the restless little prisoners within bounds.

Another objection to the central school is the rainy-day halfsession. Though the daily instruction may be managed so that the pupils do not miss anything, it is still a fact that the majority of parents expect the school to take charge of their children, and are often much dissatisfied to have them thrown back upon their own hands on rainy days.

How has it come about that the playground and school recess have been so generally given up? Is it altogether on account of appearances? Teachers plead that the children ought to be preserved from association with objectionable playmates. This may do for the touch-me-not, only child, but in American society it is never a strong plea. That small fraction which seeks to educate its children as a class can do so in a few schools limited to church, plutocracy, Quakerism, or some such narrow basis. But the schools of a free State are, above everything, founded on the essential equality of individuals in the State, and the possibility of every one to rise to a successful and honorable manhood. If there is one conviction above another strengthened by experience, it is that, in their choice of companions and susceptibility to influence, children are governed by their innate qualities, and these qualities are fixed by heredity and home influences long before the school age. In so large a community as a public school there is companionship for all, for it certainly represents the town itself. Let no one be afraid of the democratic instincts of childhood.

I believe the playground is abolished because it interferes with that deadly order and craze for supervision which is sought for as the prime condition both inside and outside the schools. Order of a wholesome sort is not inconsistent with the free recess of a big school. I watched in Los Angeles a great school as it was marshaled out to play and back again at the sound of a drum. After a quarter of an hour of unrestrained sport, several hundreds were gathered in lines at the tap of the drum, facing the cheerful schoolhouse in the mild bright sun, their faces radiating contentment and good will while they straightened up at the mere hint of the teachers on duty. In San Francisco I once found a certain primary school keeping doll's day, when every girl brought her doll to school and exhibited her at recess. The school yard was a barren inclosure within a high board fence, but a joyful place to that young company. To what purpose are teachers urged to study psychology? The children in their seats are emptied of everything that pertains to their souls. Not to study, because the teacher will explain everything, and to behave just well enough to get safe out of school, is the simple code which covers the conduct of average children. To extend this code to ideas of social duty—the highest—is not possible while they do not form a society. Cultivation of friendship is just as much out of the case; awakening of ideals, an impossibility. But thrown together half an hour or more each day, the dead machinery that pulls the bells and adds the marks within the school walls gives way to life; and here a man who sympathizes with childhood has all the opportunity he needs, and probably much more than he can use, in providing for that life where a code of reciprocity and honor must be established. It is not as the magistrate he will successfully rule, but as the sympathetic general in the field, whose very name is a talisman and an inspiration to every man. In the school yard, the bully, who comes to the front in about every tenth child, needs to be repressed; the foul mouth must be cleansed; against these prevailing evils the playground has a protection the street can not possess. The boy's world is a peculiar world, certainly, making laws for itself as rigorous and about as barbarous as those of a gang of pirates; but it is through his esprit du corps he can be uplifted and educated; the individual may be a selfish animal; as one of a body he is capable of heroism and devotion to a noble idea. He can be a friend; the playground is the field for the natural growth of friendships, and youth the generous time of their birth.

I recall another scene in a schoolroom in a Western city long ago. A gentle girl, magnetic, deep-hearted, large-eyed, sat after school at her table in tears. On a seat in front of her platform were piles of slates which she had been correcting, for she instructed all day a succession of arithmetic classes coming to her from the different grades. At the same time she was in charge, for all particular purposes of their order and conduct, of about forty boys in their early teens. Her tears were in consequence of a quarrel at recess between two of her boys. They had settled their quarrel by a fight; not unlikely it was a wholesome fight, for they were not boys of the mean sort, and were friends. It is an affair of long ago, but of a time when, in a large city, a teacher shed her influence upon the school playground, and took account of its moral standards, its friendships and breaches of friendship.

Although white men, if they take due precautions, may live and do certain kinds of work in tropical Africa, it will never be possible, Mr. J. Scott Keltie concludes from the results of past experience and study, to colonize that part of the world with people from the temperate zone. Even in such favorable situations as Blantyre, a lofty region south of Lake Nyassa, children can not be reared beyond a certain age, but must be sent home to England; otherwise they will degenerate physically and morally. A plan has been proposed of bringing Europeans down into the tropical regions by degrees, and acclimatizing them by successive generations to more and more torrid conditions till they are finally settled in the heart of the continent. But the experiment would be a very long one, if tried; and the ultimate result would probably be a race deprived of all those characteristics which have made Europe what it is.