Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/March 1911/Motor Education for the Child

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OPPORTUNITY is too often regarded, by parents and educators, as the equivalent of training. Many confident assertions are made to the effect that enforced educative measures for the very young child make for harm, and that spontaneity can be depended on to direct and sustain impulse. This would be true, perhaps, if parental wisdom could be relied on to provide thoroughly wholesome environment, normal suggestion and stimulus to varied activities.

Unfortunately, children are compelled to adapt themselves to diversities in environment which, in comparison to that of most domestic animals, is profoundly to their disadvantage. Problems of child-growth should be considered in the light afforded by customs prevailing among breeders of valuable animals. Among animals the young one is welcomed and the mother devotes herself almost wholly to its best interests, at least during the critical period of lactation and dependence. Thus an invaluable start is secured in the right direction, both in nutrition and in habit formation. How deplorably different are the duties of maternity as viewed by the large majority of human mothers only those of us who have spent years in the dispensaries for sick children, or have had other direct experience of the poor, can fully appreciate. The laborer must have his family near him because his home must be near his work. Small consideration is given to the problems of infants and youngsters who follow in the wake of household necessities.

Among breeders of animals the young ones are of paramount importance. They constitute direct assets and the utmost effort is given to develop them into salable products. The human mother must primarily serve as cook and purveyor of creature comforts to the wage-earning father. The animal mother gives her undivided attention to her offspring till it is able to act alone in accordance with its relatively higher capacity for independent functionation. Hence it is obviously important that at the earliest possible stage of human existence the individual shall be supplied with not only the best opportunities available, but intelligent guidance in motor development, in order that it shall maintain its sovereignty over animals, or itself become an efficient animal.

Fortunately, many human mothers are supplied with reliable instincts and solicitudes. The exigencies of city life tend overwhelmingly to vitiate primitive impulses, to subordinate such desires and capacities as make for development of the home; to change the nest, or the hearth-stone, into a mere abiding-place, whence the least as well as the greatest must fare forth to earn money for necessities, or, it may be, for useless luxuries. It is true, the best motor education is supplied in the ideal home, on howsoever humble a basis, as that of the pioneer, the farm laborer, the small farmer. Here there is a constant supply of normal stimuli to action, made convenient and necessary by communal interests. Each one, to the youngest child, is called upon to do such things as lie within its capabilities, thus contributing proportionally to the common welfare. This, in its better aspects, can not be surpassed as an educative groundwork. The poorer city dweller, subsisting on ready-made foods and with no outdoors but the street, finds no scope for the primitive actions of digging, chopping wood, carrying water, hence can not develop symmetrically. Even among the well-to-do things are little better. The street, with its many perils from "devil-wagons," trolley cars, etc., is becoming more and more unfit for a playground. The schoolhouse yards sometimes provide space wherein the scholars can give vent to motor impulses, but at best these are wholly inadequate. Even the very rich city dweller is poor in opportunities in comparison with the country child, who has access to a bit of woodland and a farm-yard.

Look at any lot of city school children and you will find, with only moderate scrutinizing, a pitiable array of asymmetries, local weaknesses, evidences of inadequate development. They are handicapped from the cradle; weighed down with damaging tendencies to stoop, to slouch, to impair the chest, in which the heart and lungs must have space; to tilt downward the pelvis, which is the key to the nutritive organs.

No fuller argument is needed to establish my contention that all children, especially those of the cities, require not only ample opportunities to expand and develop, especially by exercise, as in plays and games, but also specific motor training to correct the perpetual tendency to minor deformities.

The most thorough method of acquiring both mental and physical efficiency is by systematic motor education. We may then outline how this can best be achieved. Always the play impulse should be encouraged. Amusement-games alone, however, often lead to listlessness, spiritlessness, impassivity, aimlessness, at best but negative qualities. Competitive games accomplish much more where there are able leaders to animate and direct action. The most educative factor is to stimulate the motor centers by enforcing precision of movement. A few exact movements conscientiously performed accomplish more for accurate coordination than hours of listless, half-hearted movements. Routine, monotony, repetitions, weary minds and fatigue bodies. Always it is the degree of spontaneity, the heartiness of response, the candor of cooperation, which make for progressive invigoration.

Hence the ideal educational agency, not only of gross motion, but those modifications of motion, reaction-times, accuracy in eye, ear, voice, decisions, etc., is the game of ball and bat, or mimicries of chase and war, and such like spontaneous impulses to do, to fight, to achieve.

Many modifications can be made for the extremely young of either sex, e. g., bean-bags, pillow fights, up to the medicine-ball, basket-ball, base-ball and cricket. All exercises of quickness and precision are exhaustive; hence they can not, or should not be unduly prolonged for the very young.

One of the best means of motor education is seldom employed in this country. This is training in posing, in imitating classical statues. My friend M. Laussat Geylin told me of an interesting competition he witnessed in a provincial French town. The teacher by this charming device trained a class of young peasants to such a point of physical excellence that they took a national prize. The plan is well worthy of wide imitation. Reflect for a moment how perfectly the essential conditions of balance, precision, full excursus, tension, steadiness, stretching, are thus graphically exemplified. Take the Discus Thrower, the Fighting Gladiator, the group of the Laocoon for extreme types of force; the quieter attitudes even require much of vigorous poising. D. A. Sargeant has written a book advocating the forceful simulation of a variety of common acts—rope pulling, javelin throwing, etc.

Vanity, always a powerful stimulus, is thus strongly elicited. The simpler Greek exercises were unsurpassed for inducing symmetry, especially when each side of the body was equally employed, e. g., javelin throwing right and left, so too of the discus.

Always the left hand should be trained equally with the right, at least in educational measures. There is too much one-sidedness encouraged in tennis, golf, baseball, etc.

There may be objections to little tots attempting boxing or fencing, but it is entirely feasible and distinctly valuable for even young children to be taught wrestling. By single-stick exercises, symmetrically, I have entirely cured the effects of chorea, descending atrophy from cerebral paralysis, and the disablement of poliomyelitis.

Then again, the power and precision which follows resisting exercises as taught by the Swedes (or better, as elaborated by a wonderful mulatto, Jeremiah Davis, who taught me amplifications of this rather tepid procedure) are really marvelous. Closely allied to this is the jiu jitzu of the Japanese (which I learned from a man who was for eight years chief of police in Nagasaki). The principle of the jiu jitzu is a series of tricks of fence and offence, taught the Samurai, to be employed when by any chance they were deprived of their weapons; and pretty good they are. A friend of mine, a great foot-ball hero in his day, characterized the method as "a series of nasty tricks to do your opponent dirt, which we Anglo-Saxons are taught to regard as unfair." They are not comparable in aggressive power to good boxing. but have their uses, especially as a means of defence for women. Children readily learn them and they serve as excellent training in swift aggressions or defences for a weakling.

In swimming we have a perfect means of training in grace, symmetry and forceful movements. Every child should be taught this most valuable art almost as soon as it can walk. j

Boxing may well be taught to little boys and little girls too; if for no other reason than to implant the power of standing firm on the feet under all kinds of difficulty. Curiously enough there is no means of teaching waltzing and guiding in a crush so good as the foot-work in sparring. Since it trains the whole body, including arms, chest and head (especially producing mobility and accuracy in placing the neck) and above all, since it encourages the great moral qualities of patience, good nature and self-restraint, sparring can be ranked among the most valuable of educational exercises.

Of the utility of dancing too much can scarcely be said in praise. It is safe to endorse the unreserved recommendation of a lady whose opinion in all worldly matters commands my respect, who asserts that no child has been properly trained until taught at least the simpler fancy dances, e. g., the sailor's hornpipe and the Spanish fandango. As to "buck-and-wing" dancing, I can only say that it supplies much of value in many excellent directions, but savors of boisterousness overmuch for my taste. The same may be said even more emphatically of jig or clog dancing. Marching, military drill, with or without arms, both offer many valuable opportunities.

The modifications of these as employed by the Turnverein drills, wand and ring drills, "graces," all are to be highly commended when available.

In estimating the utility of any plan of education we should keep always before us the object to be attained. However useful the acquisition of knowledge, rules, principles, etc., may be, most, if not all our daily conduct is regulated by habits. The habitual processes, both mental and physical, become so strong that they dominate not only the individual throughout life, but also nations and races. Habits formed during one epoch impress the citizen maturing in that epoch. Another epoch and different groups of impressions alter points of view. This is peculiarly noticeable in religion as well as in fashions and industries.

Habits are motor modifications in nerve substance, which gradually become stable and accurate through repetition of actions, whereby they grow more easy of performance. Thus is memory made the product of countless actions which have been performed many times before. Hence we remember most easily sense-impressions most frequently received, or acts most often performed. Thus many nerve-paths are developed in brain-cells or fibers, also shorter and easier routes are acquired, through connecting or association structures. Thus habit constitutes organic memory, which may or may not be accompanied by active consciousness. They may be good or bad habits.

It is obvious that this store of working habits, mental and physical automatisms, must be acquired as early and as correctly as possible, so that the essentials of education shall be abundant, varied and precise; and then we may combine and elaborate them as we grow in age and facility. "When the time comes to specialize in any direction we have need for an equipment in all the simpler automatisms, that we may group them unhesitatingly to form the basis of our later adaptations.

It is in the last degree unfortunate if our early habits, dynamic associations, are not sufficiently varied and exact to confidently assume precision in responses when we need them as conditions for those specializations which later constitute our life-work.

To attain useful facilities in any line of human endeavor the training of the senses should be systematically pursued from the earliest manifestations of attention. Sense perception opens up the way to form concepts of objects, but is of use only when supplemented by motor impulse. Every normal sense impression tends to pass into movement, and is of use only in so far as it does so; in short, conditions for motor development depend upon sensory impulses.

Mental visualizations, interpretations of images, concepts of form, can arise only through motor outflows. Ideas are of potency in proportion as they include the elements of motion, the impulse to do.

Thought is a word much in use, but the act of thinking is by no means a constant process, even with the most intelligent. Much of what is called thought is, in most instances, merely automatic action aroused by some sensory impulse. To think deeply, to exert intellectual force, is rarely needed in the day's work; but every human being has constant need of myriad accurate automatisms, the product of early and varied associations of sense impressions along with muscular acts. The product of these is the idea, the memory image. When rightly formed, full reactions between observations and applications they become unerring guides to conduct. They serve most of life's purposes and are absolutely essential, are become, in the main, dependable. Promptings must, of course, be incessantly modified by intelligent inhibition, the checking of over-action, judicious selection of courses of action.

Whatever the direction that life-work may take, that child is especially fortunate who is compelled to acquire a store of motor reactions long before the reasons for them are understood. This essential equipment is only to be secured during the period of plasticity, while the tissues, brain-cells, nervous mechanisms, etc., are elastic, impressionable. After this period, which slowly subsides, passing gradually into varying degrees of adaptability, the formation of new yet efficient automatisms becomes increasingly difficult.