An American Experiment
A small school conducted upon very much the same lines as that of Yasnaia Poliana is in active
operation in a suburb of Brooklyn, New York, and I have visited it and inspected it for the
purposes of this chapter. It was founded two or three years ago by Mrs. F------, a trained
Kindergartner, in complete ignorance of Tolstoy's earlier experiment, but she soon heard of it, and
the account of it rejoiced her soul and gave her new courage.
After eight years in Kindergarten work, she had begun to feel that the Kindergarten system, in
striving to get away from the fossilizing influence of the older systems, was becoming fossilized
itself. She had studied the child carefully, and come to the conclusion that it has good instincts of
its own, and that the discipline of schools dulls these instincts without providing anything in their
place. It gradually dawned upon her that the best thing to do was to let the child have its own
way, simply to help it to develop along its own lines, and to confine instruction to the answering
of the cravings of the child.
As she let these ideas prevail in her management of her Kindergarten, she noticed that the children
gained in self-reliance and initiative, and she was pleased to learn that those who left her to take
their places in the regular schools did better than other children, so much so that it attracted
attention -- and this, too, although she had "taught" them practically nothing, whilst the other
children had been crammed in the usual way. She determined finally to abandon the Kindergarten
and establish an absolutely free school of her own, which was not to be a school at all, but a place
for children to grow and gain experience of life.
We all know, as a matter of fact, that children have good impulses which drop off as they grow
older. Every child likes to get out of bed at sun-rise. When does the lie-abed habit begin, and
where does it come from? Children love to be useful and enjoy helping at any kind of service,
from sweeping the floor to harnessing a horse. How does it happen that during their education
they learn to prefer to have others work for them? Small boys and girls are absolutely democratic,
and you cannot explain caste-distinctions to them. Where is it that they learn them?
Mrs. F. wished to preserve what was good in these childish proclivities and give them a fair
chance to develop, and she concluded that the interference of big folks had a good deal to do with
the spoiling of them. So she founded the "Playhouse," as the school is called, where from eight
o'clock in the morning to four in the afternoon, and seven days in the week, the children come and
do as they please, while Mr. and Mrs. F. and those of the neighbours who happen to drop in give
such advice as is asked and exercise such supervision as is absolutely necessary.
Such was the school that I had heard of. For a time it was stationed at New Rochelle, and a friend
of mine who knew of it there, informed me it was the noisiest place in the world. The transfer to
Brooklyn had worked no change in this respect, and it was hardly necessary for me to ask which
house it was, for the sounds of romping were evident enough in the street. As I turned in at the
gate three or four boys rushed down the steps with spades and brooms to clear away the snow.
They answered my questions, and saluted me, some of them politely, and some of them less so,
and I opened the door and found myself in the Playhouse, and a playhouse it most certainly was.
It was a large cheerful room, occupying most of the first storey, well stocked with small wooden
chairs, fortunately of stout construction, which stood here, there, or anywhere, and not a few lay
on the floor with their legs in the air. In some of these chairs boys and girls were sitting, varying
from five to thirteen years of age, writing, drawing, talking, shouting. Mrs. F. and two friends
were sitting in the midst of this Bedlam, and they came forward smiling and apparently well used
to the environment and contented with it. I found Mr. F. in an alcove working at a carpenter's
bench, one or two children watching him and playing at doing a little work on their own account.
Mr. F. is a professional man, but he goes in to New York to practise his profession only in the
afternoon. He gives his half-day, and Mrs. F. her whole day, to the cause of education without
compensation of any kind.
Mrs. F. does all the housework herself, and as she cooks, washes, and sews, the children cluster
about her, and she seems to thrive and grow happier under the ordeal. There are about fifteen
children in all, and they come from all classes of society, the one objection to the situation of the
school being that it is in a fashionable neighbourhood and not easy of access to the poor. It is
purely a neighbourhood affair, as Mrs. F. thinks all schools should be, and consequently only two
or three children of wage-earners are included in the Playhouse. This is perhaps not so much of a
drawback, her experience showing that the wage-earning class is the least open to new ideas in
education, and that usually they insist on the old curriculum if they can get it.
It was a great pity I had not arrived an hour earlier, as the children had just finished a performance
of Wagner's "Nieblungenlied," concluding with the "Walkuere," and I saw various bits of painted
cardboard scenery and of costumes lying about; and a long piece of twine was hanging across the
room upon which a wonderful parti-coloured bird, also of cardboard, was suspended, which could
be made to fly from one side to the other with a considerable degree of realism. As I was not
brought up in this way, and had never seen these operas, and was hence woefully ignorant of the
parts played by the bird, the ferocious dragon whose head lay at my feet, and the various
characters, I did my best to conceal my shortcomings as they showed me all their paraphernalia of
crowns and drapery and laces.
It seems that one or two of the children had seen the operas and had organized this amateur
company entirely of their own notion and without help, a fact which confirms Tolstoy's theory of
the interest of children in early myths. Mrs. F. had only contributed a little music on the piano, but
even there the eldest girl (she is just thirteen) had been able to reproduce the various "motifs"
herself, and she has learned to read sheet music quite cleverly without a single lesson, merely from
observing others play, asking questions, and trying to do it herself.
This young lady has a marked preference for Wagner, and looks down upon all other composers.
Another child likes Beethoven best, and particularly the "Pathétique" sonata. The younger
children are less particular, and have a preference for marches of any kind. Many of them are fond
of drawing, and I saw a quantity of their productions, some of which they had framed with their
own hands, occasionally cutting the frame out of a single block of wood. The children take the
greatest pride in each other's work, boasting of it almost as if it were their own -- another childish
trait which soon disappears under the ordinary course of education.
They are left in drawing, as in everything else, very much to their own devices. One boy had
drawn a picture of a grove of trees and wished to make a road through it. To do this he ran two
parallel lines across the paper from top to bottom and brought the picture to Mrs. F. "I don't see
what the matter is with it," he said. "It ought to look like a road, but it looks like a pole. What
ought I to do?" "It took men a great many years to find out," said Mrs. F., "and perhaps it will
take you a long time too." Several days later he brought her another picture with a road in proper
perspective. He had worked it out for himself.
"But how do you teach them the necessary reading, writing, and arithmetic?" I asked Mrs. F.
"Why, they can't help learning them," she answered. "They are in the air." And, sure enough, the
children ask to be taught. There are things which they wish to know -- knowledge which they
crave to have -- and the wisest policy is to wait until they crave it, for then it goes to the right
place. It is all a matter of appetite. What a child eats with an appetite nourishes it, but that which
you force down its throat makes it ill and gives it indigestion.
I know it is so in my own case. Many of my good friends insist upon sending me excellent books
when I am not in the mood for reading, and as I have a troublesome conscience and dislike to say
I have read a book when I have not, I am forced to wade through them against my will, and never
by any chance do I gain benefit from them; but let my interest be roused in some particular line of
thought, and let me find a book that has preceded me along it, and I devour it and make it a part
of myself, and it might perhaps be the very same book which wearied me a year or two before,
because then it arrived at an inopportune moment. Give the child or the man what he has an
appetite for. If his appetite is out of order, try to cure it, but do not stuff him against his will.
A child naturally has a healthy appetite for knowledge. All we need to do is to give it a chance.
And the result is that these Playhouse children love to write, and are continually doing it for fun,
while the school children who come in occasionally as guests hate it, and look upon it as a
punishment. These outsiders are soon bored too, and ask piteously what to do, while the regular
Playhousers are never at a loss for occupation, and storm the house before it is open for business
in the morning.
The children are fond of having stories read to them. Sometimes they ask for them many days in
succession, and then again they will not call for them for several days. They pick up reading in
connection with these stories, trying to find their favourite stories for themselves in the book,
following the reading, and gradually learning to recognize now this word and now that.
Mrs. F. laughs at the ordinary method: "I see a cat. Do you see a cat?" People do not talk that
way. Why, then, should they learn to read in that way? I inquired what she would do in case a
child showed too great fondness for books, and neglected outdoor exercise in consequence. She
said that she had not yet met such an abnormal boy or girl, and that only unnatural conditions
could produce them.
As for arithmetic, that too the children learned in everyday life. One little girl of her own accord
kept a record of the number of times she could "jump rope" without missing. Another, eight years
old, announces that she is to receive elevenpence from her mother, that she would pay fivepence
that she owed out of it, and with the sixpence left buy marbles at ten for a ha'penny, to wit, 120 in
all. She does this "arithmetic" in her head as rapidly as she can talk, and it is much more real to
her than any number of "examples." Besides such actual experiences the children often ask to be
shown how to "do sums," and I saw several of these attempts upon paper, quite orthodox in
They absorb contemporary history in the same way, and were all much interested in the
Russo-Japanese war, frequently taking sides and fighting it out for themselves. There is little
chance of their learning ancient history in this way, but Mrs. F. asserts boldly that teaching such
things in school is never worth while, for every one forgets them; and although at first this
statement seemed absurd to me, the more I think of it, the truer it appears. With the exception of
some Greek and Latin and a little mathematics, I can hardly recall a thing which I learned at
school. Practically all that I know of history and geography and literature was learned elsewhere,
and I am inclined to think that this is a common experience. If this is so, the Playhouse children do
not lose much. "They get their geography from where they go," says Mrs. F. (and she had never
heard of the Russian comedy which speaks to the same effect), "and they get their history in the
doings of their daily lives, their kittens and their dogs."
Mr. and Mrs. F. are not "non-resistants." They do not believe in letting the children ride
rough-shod over them, and if the invasion of their own rights were pronounced enough they
would interfere in any way that they deemed necessary. But they interpret their own rights
meagrely, and have apparently no objection to the invasion of their ear-drums by noise of all
kinds. They frequently remind the children, however, that musical voices are pleasanter than
strident ones, that boots should be wiped on the mat, and that it is best to put things back in their
In dealing with the children they always try to bear in mind that they are dealing with
inexperienced individuals, and they are patient with them in consequence, and if possible
endeavour to put them in the way of learning from experience. And they declare most positively
that they have discovered that the weakest method of influencing a child is to use force. The
experience which a child gets from the use of force is precisely the wrong one. He gets the idea
that justice is an arbitrary and despotic matter, and that to domineer and dominate is the true way
of living, in which in time he must take his part. It produces a world of slaves and masters, but it
cannot produce freemen or men fit for freedom. Prisons do not change character or desire, says
Mr. F. They either fail altogether to diminish the amount of crime, or they only do so by
enfeebling the prisoner and making a weakling of him -- a coward with a broken will.
They have had little thieves to deal with at the Playhouse, and they cured them by developing their
self-respect. In the same way -- not without temporary discouragements and set-backs, but with
ultimate success -- they have persuaded liars to prefer telling the truth. And these results have
made the teachers lose faith in the doctrine of heredity, and they believe that a proper environment
can make a good member of society of any one. I asked them if they did not think that all boys
pass through a barbarian stage, but they answered that if this was so it was usually before the
children came into their hands, for they found them uniformly open to reason, and only
unreasonable and difficult to get on with so long as the effect of former régimes of "discipline"
clung to them.
The world is full of unavoidable discipline, why add artificially to it? There is the discipline of
difficulty in doing what you wish to do, of carving stubborn wood, of drawing elusive figures, of
composing reluctant sentences -- the discipline of coming to a common understanding with your
fellows as to what you will do and will not do -- the discipline of nature, of submitting to illness
and rainy weather. The only valuable discipline to add to these is self-discipline, and that is
discouraged by the introduction of the master ex machinâ. And are we quite sure that forcing
children to do irksome things makes them better able to cope with future hardships?
The F.s do not even teach politeness, but they claim that the rudest boys wear smooth at the
edges in the kindly friction of the Playhouse. I saw ample proofs of affection at any rate, between
teacher and taught (though these terms are misnomers), if a somewhat promiscuous kissing before
recess can be admitted as evidence. Some of the children were discussing the question the other
day as to why Mrs. F. bestowed so much time upon them. "Auntie doesn't get paid," said an
eight-year-old boy (and I think it was one of those who formerly showed thieving and lying
proclivities), "Auntie doesn't get paid. She gets love."
To sum up, the Playhouse is a place where the child can express itself and have its neighbourhood
experience, "where he is free to act, but also free to get the full reaction, reflection, and
consequence of his act." The first aim is the cultivation of initiative, of self-expression, both of
which are destroyed by the ordinary school system. And, strange to say, along the line of free
self-expression lies the supreme virtue of concentration. Our usual idea of the best way to develop
concentration of mind is to drag the child away violently from his own line of thought and insist
upon his following another and probably a distasteful one, and then we wonder at his
unwillingness and inability to persist in the new path.
Clearly the best way to induce him to fix his mind is to let it rest where it prefers to rest. And
there, where it happens to be, let it find out the next thing for itself, exercising that faculty of
originality which makes the free and independent man. To find out a thing for yourself is far better
than to be taught it. Have we solved the problem of living, the riddle of the universe, so well (asks
Mr. F.), that we can insist upon forcing our solution in all its details upon our children? Why not
encourage them to answer questions for themselves? We need full-grown men and women, and
full growth comes from experience, and not from the cramming of information.
And self-expression calls for the right of others to self-expression, which means justice and
equality. The child must learn this from experience too, and it is a delicate matter to attempt to
supply the deficiencies of nature in her methods of teaching it. The slipper and ruler, the
schoolroom prison, the extra task, are clumsy instruments of justice at best. A properly developed
child will submit voluntarily to natural justice. One of the Playhouse boys broke a plaster cast,
carelessly knocking it over with a stick. At the time everything was done to soothe his grief, but a
few days later Mrs. F. explained to him that the cast cost money, that some one would have to
bear the loss, and that it was most reasonable that it should fall upon him; and at latest accounts
he was cheerfully saving his pennies for the purpose of making good the damage.
One curious thing the F.s have ascertained, and that is that among the most one-sided and
prejudiced of children are those of radicals and "free-thinkers" and anarchists. There is a
dogmatism of the undogmatic which is more offensive than the old-fashioned narrowness of sects,
because it professes liberality, though it is really quite as narrow. The "free-thinker" forces his
own brand of thought upon his offspring as relentlessly as the most orthodox of Methodists. The
Playhouse system aims to leave the child actually free, but the "free-thinker" too often insists upon
handing down to posterity intact his own particular scheme of philosophy. Men are much alike,
partly perhaps because they have all been educated in the same way. When playhouses become
more common they may begin to differ.
The F.s believe that neither man nor woman is fitted to educate alone. "They must conjoin the
qualities possessed by each, so that the child's whole nature may be understood and responded to.
So every playhouse should have in it the man and woman united in mutual love and interest in the
child." But this is the case at home. Why not leave the child there? Because, they answer, the child
itself expresses the need to go out from the house; it craves a larger society, and any observer can
discover the fact for himself.
What are we to think of the Playhouse? I found the principal of a large public school ready to
condemn it on hearsay. Children of a certain class, he said, are not amenable to kindness. They
yield to force, and nothing but force. And he may be right when a single individual is called upon
to handle several hundreds of miscellaneous boys. You can break a single horse by kindness,
while, if you had to break a dozen in the same time, you would be forced to obtain more rapid
results in a cruder way. The Playhouse is only adapted to a small neighbourhood school -- to an
enlarged family -- and it requires in its managers infinite patience and enthusiasm and love for
children. Such teachers are rare, and neighbourhoods in which they could gather a few youngsters
about them are infrequent. Still, I would like to see the experiment break out in spots here and
there, and I believe it will make a real contribution to the solution of the educational problem -- of
which, of course, there never can be a final solution; for it will change its aspects from year to
year as men know more and think deeper and love harder.