Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mother-Play and "How Gertrude Teaches Her Children"

In Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns the authors state that if the research is correct in identifying language use in the earliest days of the child's life as being the primary contributing factor in their performance in schools, "it becomes quite clear that some public policy and legislative initiatives are well intentioned but wrong-minded." In essence, intervention at the preschool level, headstart and kindergarten is not near early enough. Young mothers and fathers must be taught their roles in preparing their children for school success.
In the not-too distant past, courses like home economics, auto repair, and wood and metalworking were offered in most high schools to prepare young people at least for some of the mechanics of adulthood. Quite possibly, high school might be the place to teach courses that conveyed the methods of early cognitive development to tomorrow's parents. The benefits might be broadly felt. Young, single, inner-city mothers who otherwise would be trapped with their children in the multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty certainly would benefit from knowing how to shape their early interactions with their children to help them succeed in school.
Certainly makes me wonder why educators haven't paid more attention to Froebel and Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi wrote the landmark book, "How Gertrude Teaches Her Children," 1801, as a guide to mothers interested in teaching their own children and in it he laid out the principles that guided his own exploration of scientific education. Froebel followed in the same vein with "Mother-Play and Nursery Songs," or Songs for Endearment by Mothers, 1844 and education today would be different if we had continued to listen to their wisdom rather than allowing ourselves to become distracted by the bells and whistles of technology. The following is from Unesco:
In his Songs of Endearment for Mothers, Fröbel comes very close to the everyday living world that he represents in scenes (pictorial illustrations), finger games and nursery rhymes. Experiences of the child’s everyday life are acted out through the perceived physical medium of finger games or in illustrations. The mother plays the finger game and the child is asked to imitate it. This book is a sequel to Pestalozzi’s Book for Mothers, but moves beyond that author’s cognitive and schematic method. Fröbel’s principle is motherly love. The mother shows loving care for her child through play. Initially, the infant is a being at one with himself/herself. As its own forces then begin to develop, i.e. its motor system, senses and intelligence, the child begins to become familiar with its surroundings and is able to differentiate and structure them. The true self gradually becomes structured and differentiated through this experience of the outside world.
The method Froebel describes is not just verbal, but involves the use of the hands to create a foundation for intellectual growth and in doing so goes far beyond what Christensen, Horn and Johnson describe in Disrupting Class.

The following is from my blog post of January 14, 2007:
Too often now, parents are distracted by other things rather than being engaged with their full attention on play. With your child in your lap, its head on your knees and feet on your chest, start by moving your hands into and out of visual range. Weave your fingers together and then pull them apart. Repeat and then vary your motions. Your child will watch and in a short time will engage your hands with hers or his. My daughter Lucy and I could spend what seemed like hours in contemplation of our hands. As she became a couple months older, toys and rattles joined with the hands, and we never tired of the play. We don't have any way to measure the profound impact such simple things can have except to observe the results. I could spend days as I suspect many parents might, proclaiming the wonders of my daughter. I won't. But I will invite you to play with your child in the manner I describe. Hold him or her as shown in the position above.

Friedrich Froebel, inventor of Kindergarten realized the incredible opportunity young mothers were missing in the development of their childrens' capacities for learning. Much of his early work was in developing songs, hand activities and games for mothers to play with their children. We hope that schools will do enough to educate our children, but don't count on it. They can't make up for the opportunities lost in the earliest days. But take your child in your lap and with your hands make a start.
What often seems like idle play fulfills extremely important purposes in human development.


  1. Anonymous9:28 AM

    You're absolutely right. I know so many well-intentioned parents who spend thousands on DVDs and computerized toys to "help" their children develop language skills. And recently, the NYT published an article that reminded parents to talk to their infants. It's a sad day when parents have to be reminded to talk to their young children, and when 3-yr olds go around the classroom repeating "oops, try again!" in a fake computer voice...

  2. Parents are so focused on making money, as it has become the marker of all success, and so it seems that money and the power to bestow it or spend it has become the expression of "love" within families. When children really have needs that are much simpler and more profound. Being held is a gift, but holding is also a gift. And being slowed down enough to really be in the moment of holding or being held is a treasure that has become scarce.

  3. Anonymous1:55 AM

    Yes, it makes me sad to see the kids (many as young as 3) at our school who are there for 10 hours every day, and get picked up by parents driving brand-new BMWs. Heartbreaking and profoundly disturbing...

  4. They think by giving them enough stuff that they are doing their best. If they only knew...