“Confinement of Children in School,” by Dr. James Jackson, of Boston (from The Mother’s Assistant, July 1845; pp. 7-8)
What is a suitable length of time to confine children under six or eight years of age in school, during the day; and what is the suitable length for one session, without a recess?
I reply that I think four hours in the short days, and five hours in the long days, may safely be devoted to school, even at this early age, especially in those over five years. I do not say, confined in school, but devoted to school. Perhaps in the country, where children go some distance from home, and do not go all the year, six hours are not too much even for your children, in days not shorter than ten hours; that is, ten hours of sunshine.
But I do not think it wise to confine children in school, so many hours in a day as I have mentioned. On the other hand, I regard it as essential that they should not remain in school more than one hour at a time, on an average; that, during that hour, they should not be confined in one position, but, if possible, be engaged in short lessons, and short recitations, so as to have a diversity of employments; or in other ways have some variety; and that an hour’s confinement should be followed by a recess of fifteen minutes. In very young children (three to five), the period of confinement should be shorter, and the recess longer. I take it to be easy to occupy young children usefully in school, without books and without perfect quiet, a part of the time, and that this is done at the present day to some extent. It is to this notion I refer, when I speak of other variety than is afforded by book study and recitation.
These opinions are derived from the settled principles of physiology, in part, but not wholly. This science (the science of man, if we mean human physiology,) gives no such definite rules. In general, it teaches that young children, much like young colts, calves, and lambs, are disposed to short, active gambols, and then to lie down, or otherwise to take short rests, and that this exercise is most suitable to them. I never see a child marched, in a moderate regular step, through a long walk, without regretting it. It is much easier to them to run ahead, and then stop awhile. Young children cannot maintain a purpose a long time, nor an effort a long time, without fatigue. In their training or education, they should be alternated in these respects; for it is not the part of training to let every shoot grow wild; but it must be done gradually, for this reason,
if no other, that we cannot proceed in any other way to attain our purposes. We may stop all growth, or we may produce deformity, but we cannot make a good growth in any other way.
In children, restraint in one position, except lying down, soon produces fatigue; not because they want to be at play, but because they are obliged to keep in constant action those muscles by which the head and trunk are supported. This, at least, is one reason, an important one, and perhaps the principal one. I feel assured, that the lateral flexure of the spine in young girls, so much noticed the last thirty or forty years, is to be attributed much more to the effort to sit upright too long, than to tight lacing, &c. You will not suspect me of being an advocate of this vile practice; but I cannot charge to it an evil which has commonly occurred before that practice is begun. Unhappily, the evil is hereditary in a vast many families.
Children should not, then, be confined long to one position; when sitting or standing, they should not be required to maintain constantly an erect position of the body; for their muscles require more frequent alternations, (each one by itself,) than those of adults. So much physiology teaches. But physiology does not point out just how many minutes a particular muscle may be kept contracted. In other words, there are not any general rules, precise in this respect, which are deduced from observation or experience. Nor can it well be otherwise. We differ so much in temperament, and each one differs so much at different times, according to the state of his health, and from various accidental causes, that such precise estimates cannot be made. An average might be obtained from long-continued and accurate observations of large numbers of children; but this would require much labor and time, unless done in a loose way. This last, the loose way, is exactly what is done by those who observe the experiments constantly going on in our houses and schools. It is from estimates made in this way, that we make up our opinions. These are more to be relied on than any rules which can be derived from scientific physiology, though this may furnish an explanation of the mode in which evils are produced by too long confinement. I should therefore submit my opinion to that of an experienced teacher, who had been instructed in the general principles applicable to the subject, and who had observed carefully the effects of confinement, for different lengths of time, to school exercises. Only, in such a case, I should require that teacher to tell me exactly how his pupils were employed, from one ten minutes to another.