Ernest Beckwith Kent.

The constructive interests of children online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryErnest Beckwith KentThe constructive interests of children → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook















=^^ r—



•"iped below


Constructive Interests







TCcacbcrs Colleae, Columbia Xllnirersits









List of articles, boys .

Changing interests

The vitality classification

Gift motives

The more stable interests

List of articles by classes

Statistics of girls' work

Statistics of materials





Introduction 44

Method of tabulation 49 .

Environment 51

Extent of mechanical environment 53

Fathers' occupations 57

Special interests and abilities 57

Ability in school work 58

Relative preference for studies 60

Constructive work during boyhood 62

Opinions regarding the value of manual training .... 70

Educational applications 73

Summary 75


The school's obligation is no doubt to society first, and
only afterward to the child; so that the curriculum in its broader
outlines must be determined with a view to what society will
require rather than to what will please the child. But in devel-
oping the details, interests need to be carefully reckoned with.
This is especially important with all of the more expressional
subjects, whether manual training, design or English composi-
tion. Society is certainly demanding acquaintance with indus-
trial life, and any mere tool practice, no matter how formal,
which will give the pupil some notions about industrial life and
his fitness for it, is probably worth having in the school. But
practice in inventing is worth infinitely more — in inventing new
uses for old tools and machines, new economics of material, new
applications of old principles. A child's inventiveness is never
either trained or tested except while he is deep in some absorb-
ing problem. The following study was a quest for additional
data upon the question of what problems are the most likely to
prove absorbing to children in the latter half of the elementary
school period. It is the writer's hope that some of the sugges-
tions which it developed may be found applicable and helpful in





A large number of studies upon children have given data
which bear upon the subject in hand. The instincts and reac-
tions of infancy and early childhood have been studied intensely
by Baldwin, Perez and many others. Studies by Bryan, Burk,
and Hancock have traced the general course of motor develop-
ment and have shown the degrees of motor control normal to the
different stages of childhood. Children's plays and games, as
their most spontaneous form of expression, make the best single
index to the general trend of interests during any given period
and extended reference to certain studies of these will be neces-
sary as we proceed. Most directly valuable of all is Dewey's
account of the constructive interests which grow out of three
successive mental attitudes or modes of attention.^

James makes constructiveness a special instinct which he

says is as genuine and irresistible in man as in bee or beaver.

"Whatever things are plastic to his hands, those things he must remodel
into shapes of his own, and the result of the remodelling, however useless it
may be, gives him more pleasure than the original thing. The mania of
young children for breaking and pulling apart whatever is given them is
more often the expression of a rudimentary constructive impulse than of a
destructive one."-

However important this constructive instinct may be, it
clearly does not in any sense explain or constitute the motive of
the bulk of that construction which forms so large a part of the

'^Elementary School Record^ Vols. 1-9

Direct attention, focused wholly upon the outgoing activity itself;
Voluntary attention, directed to the accomplishment of certain prac-
tical ends;
Reflective attention, concerned with ends which persist in the form
of intellectual problems.
"^Principles of Psychology^ Vol. 2, p. 426.


world's work. While constructive instincts may determine in
a measure which men ai>e |p work in constructive lines, the
actual motive for doing the work is an ulterior one; it is the
utility of the things made and their power in satisfying human
needs that causes their production. In other words, most con-
struction is carried on as work and it is only within the limits
of construction-play that we can class the constructive instinct
as an important motive. But these instinctive activities to
which James refers are constantly observed in small children
and we need to trace through the years of childhood the gene-
ral development of constructive motive from this instinctive
one to a motive which, having little to do with processes and
materials as such, rests in the distant purpose to be subserved
by the product.

Between these two extremes we may distinguish two inter-
mediate stages. Following the instinctive activities with
materials comes a time when certain fornjs of construction are
attempted by the child not — or at least not wholly — because of
the "besoin de creer"^ but from mere impulse to imitate the
activities of adults. This results in his reproduction of con-
structive activities among others— possibly more of these than
of most others, but if so not necessarily because of reinforcement
by "constructive instinct. " For while this may count some-
what, the presence of certain tangible and dramatic elements in
the constructivities of his elders would sufficiently explain the
partiality which he shows for them at certain times.

Gradually, however, this imitation construction ceases to
satisfy and the construction comes to be carried on for definite
ends, though not ordinarily of course for the utility ends of the
adult, but the various play ends of childhood. The worker's
point of view here is that of the adult so far as separation of
means and end is concerned, for with both there is a definite
need to be satisfied irrespective of any pleasure involved in the
constructive process as such. On the other hand, it is generally
very close to the earlier stages of imitation activity in that the
ends themselves are often of an imitative sort. That is, while
the construction is merely a means of obtaining play apparatus,

^Which Ribot says corresponds in the mental sphere to the "'besoin de
la generation" in the physiological. Psychologie des sentiments, p. 323.


the play itself gets its main meaning and interest from the fact
that it in turn is an imitation of some phase of adult life, the
imitation element being simply pushed a little further away.
We have then these four stages in the development of con-
structive motive :

1. The instinctive.

2. The imitational.

3. The play-utility.

4. The adult-utility.

We may now study these more in detail to determine as
clearly as possible (i) just what forms of activity belong to each
stage, (2) how definitely and how exclusively different purposes
and their forms of expression belong to children of a certain age,
and (3) what materials are best adapted to the realization of
these purposes, the abilities of the children being considered.
Any data gained regarding these points will be of direct assist-
ance in determining what lines of constructive work best fit the
different stages of elementary education.

(i) It may be questioned whether the purely instinctive
handling of materials should be called constructive in the ordi-
nary sense of the word. James in the passage quoted suggests
a fundamentally constructive motive for even the so-called
destructive acts of early childhood. Groos takes exactly the
opposite view, looking at these as responses to the fighting in-
stinct.^ Perhaps it would be safer to call most of these efforts
mere random responses to the general impulse to activity react-
ing in the easiest way upon the most convenient material. This
we may call the manipulative instinct as distinguished from
either the constructive or destructive. In the following pages
we shall use the word manipulation for activity of this sort,
while the word construction will mean work (ordinarily synthetic
in nature) carried on with reference to some end other and
more remote than that of the mere sensations involved in the
process itself. Along with this wholly sensational pleasure of
pure manipulation there is probably the beginning of an in-
tellectual pleasure, and from this side the activity might be
called experimentation as well as manipulation— the child wants

'^Play of Man, pp. 97-8.


to see what will happen. But this shows no such strength as
the other. Groos mentions another element, "pleasure in being
a cause," which he thinks appears very early and which is re-
sponsible for the way in which "moist sand is heaped up or dug
away, snow tunnelled through or rolled into a great ball, sticks
of wood piled, water collected in a pond, etc. "^

As to the period of this manipulation interest : Groos sug-
gests no dates whatever in connection with the list of activities
just quoted. With Miss Shinn's niece the "era of handling
things" began in the sixth month.'- How "synthetic" or at
least how "analytic" the acts of that period might be would
probably depend a good deal on the materials at hand. Perez
says that they appear in all children from the age of eight or ten
months.'' Probably only isolated cases will be found in which
the activity is due wholly to this manipulation impulse, for the
imitation factor begins to count very early. But the former
persists for several years as an important factor in the
child's relation to concrete materials and indeed many adults
are affected by it in a degree, as is shown by their tendency to
handle, modify aimlessly and play with any new material which
may be presented to them. With the adult, however, this
tendency is a mere survival and cannot be strong enough to in-
fluence perceptibly his work, though perhaps it does his
recreation. At what age it loses its influence on a child's more
serious voluntary activities it would be difficult to say.

(2) The "mud pie" is perhaps the most typical representa-
tive of the transition to the imitation stage, or rather of the infu-
sion of the imitation motive into the one preceding. Here is clear-
ly a double pleasure in manipulation and imitation. Heretofore he
has been contented to "heap and dig away" his sand, but now

'^Play of Man, p. 99.

'^Biography of a Baby^ pp. 141-161.

3A child of nine months, seated on the floor in the middle of a room,
seemed like a creating and despotic deity in the midst of his playthings,
and anything else that was given to him or that he could get hold of oy
crawling along, — trumpets, drums, balls, paper, books, cakes, fruit, — were
piled up together, ranged side by side, separated, put back higglety-pigglety,
pushed away, fetched back again, hugged, kissed, gnawed, etc., etc., and all
with bursts of joy which showed his imperative need of exercising his
physical powers, of satisfying an ever new curiosity and of imitating. The
First Three Years of Childhood, pp. 276-7.


he adds to the pleasure of modifying a plastic material, that of
reproducing a household occupation. The pie is clearly not an
end in itself.^ It is demolished as soon as completed or at least
set aside to make room for another and another.- Building with
blocks is perhaps the line of work that depends most exclusively
upon the imitation motive — manipulation pleasure would seem
sm;ill compared with that obtained from plastic materials, and
the product is still nothing. This work retains the interest for
a long period, probably because of its imitativ^e adaptiveness —
because of the variety of things and activities which may be
reproduced by means of blocks.

Common observation and the general tendencies of kinder-
garten practice combine in pointing to the kindergarten period
of childhood as the one in which this motive has the longest and
most direct connection with handwork. No one seems to have
ventured any sharper definition of this stage. The gifts and
occupations, so large a part of the kindergarten program, seem
to be motived almost entirely by the combination of this manipu-
lation and imitation interest. With the gifts there is no perma-
nent product, and while occupation work does issue in a perma-
nent product, this does not seem to be a large center of interest
— except perhaps near the end of the course, when their
occasional utilization in play forms the connection with the next
kind of activity.^

(3) The play-end stage comes when these very crude imi-
tations of adult activities cease to satisfy the child.
To be sure, many if not most of the plays of the
whole preadolescent period are directly imitative in

^The object has no conscious existence at the time save in the activity.
The ball to the child is his game, the 2:ame is his ball.
Dewey, Interest in Relation to Will, p. 16.

■^See Dewey, Elementary School Record, p. 49. Also p. 50 for sugges
tion as to how the realization of ends should at first be developed.

^Compare Dewey : "The work of children of ages six and seven in-
cludes activities which combine an immediate appeal to the child as an out-
let of his energy with leading up in an orderly way to a result ahead. It
thus forms habits of working for ends and controlling present occupation
so as, by a sequence of steps, to accomplish something beyond. These
habits may be gradually transferred to ends more consciously conceived
and more remote." Elementary School Record.


their method and motive.^ But the imitation becomes
more refined, detailed and accurate, and consequently
requires more highly specialized apparatus than hereto-
fore. So the child can hardly help giving more or less attention
now to making what might be called the tools of play-^the
things necessary to the carrying on of this more definite imita-
tion. Play houses, toy boats, furniture and weapons, dolls,
dolls' clothing, etc., are made and used in this form of play.
It seems accepted that this imitation type of play holds the in-
terest until into the eleventh or twelfth year,^ and that it must
influence constructive preferences seems evident — though how
much or in just what ways we have no means of telling. But
it is clearly within this period and generally in connection with
these forms of play that we must look for the first real apprecia-
tion of construction as means rather than end. It seems safe to
say that during this period work is occasionally done with the
adult-utility motive, and that the proportion of this work in-
creases with age up to adolescence and beyond.

On the whole, it can hardly be denied that our knowledge
regarding these factors of constructive interest is exceedingly
vague. This becomes particularly apparent when one attempts
to give it any influence upon school work. About all we can
really hold to is the conviction that in the development of con-
structive motive the progress is through instinctive manipula-
tion, imitative occupational work, and the making of play
materials, to the making of things useful in the adult sense.
We hardly know whether these attitudes are sufficiently
differentiated to justify calling them stages, or, with any
definiteness, at what age any one of them reaches its point of
greatest influence, if indeed there is any such point clearly de-
fined. We know little of how far sex affects motive in con-
structive work. We have no data by means of which we can
compare these stages with the various physiological and psycho-

^Outside of school a large proportion of children's plays are simply
more or less miniature and hap-hazard attempts at reproducing social

Dewey, ibid, p. 84.

^Johnson, Pedagogical Seminary^ Vol. 6, p. 519.
Gulick, Pedagogical Seminary^ Vol. 6, pp. 137-8.



logical stages of growth established from other points of view.
The following material is offered as a preliminary contribution
of data upon such points.


A natural material for such a study of construction motives
and interests was thought to be detailed knowledge of the vari-
ous lines of constructive work done spontaneously by children
of both sexes and the different ages. As an attempt to obtain
such knowledge, papers headed as follows were given to 200
children from eight to sixteen years of age in the Horace Mann
and the Ethical Culture Schools, both in New York City: —





^Brothers' ages_

.Sisters' ages

Directions : Put down everything you can think of, no matter how
small or simple. Ask your parents if they will help you to make the list as
complete as possible.

Made in

Name of

Of what



What Whom
for ? for?


These questions, when all answered (as they were with 95
per cent of the articles listed), give what would seem to be a
fairly clear idea of the main motives behind the making of an
object, its purpose and its value to the child, and a considerable
basis for judgment regarding the technical difficulties involved.

One hundred and seventy sheets were returned filled out.
Of these twenty-two children mentioned less than three articles
made and their records were not computed with those of the rest
lest they should have undue influence upon the averages. There


remained one hundred and forty-eight sheets, sixty-three being
from boys and eighty-five from girls. ^

The number of articles reported seldom exceeded ten, the
average number being seven for the boys, and eight for the
girls. Considering the age of the children and the chance of
accidents to papers, it is hardly fair to assume that the 13 per
cent of unreported cases necessarily represent lack of work or
different work by those children. And the 13 per cent of
meagre reports omitted from the tabulation give no indication of
being fundamentally different from those of the 74 per cent
studied. Still, strictly speaking, the study related only to that
74 per cent of the whole group which pays the most attention to
handwork, or rather, reports the largest number of articles. It
should be noted also that most of the children in these two
schools remain till graduation, and thus are more alike in
general ability than could be claimed for children of the same
ages in public schools where so many are withdrawn before
reaching the age of 14 years.


Five independent classifications of this material were
attempted, the child's age being made in each case the basis of
the tabulation. Of these the two most important dealt with the
motive behind the making of the article, and the material of
which it was made. The third tabulation shows the number of
times that such distinctively art work as drawing, painting,
etc. , were recorded, and the fourth shows the presence of an
element which we will call "vitality" — the "go" which belongs
to a toy water wheel or windmill, and is lacking in a tool chest
or picture frame. Both of these really belong under the general

iWhile a larger quantity of them would have been exceedingly desirable
and easily obtained, it seemed important that the tabulating should not be
delegated and that it should have the uniformity of one person's view-point.
It is believed that a somewhat careful and detailed treatment of the data
presented has more value as a preliminary study than the kind of work
which would have been necessary with a larger amount of material.


head of motive but are tabulated independently of what appears
to be the ruling motive of a project. The fifth tabulation was
an effort to determine ihe part played by the school in suggest-
ing the handwork done outside, but the information here proved
too me.igre to be worth recording.

It was difficult to determine what classification of the
motives for making these different articles would be the most
inclusive and fruitful. The utility class and the play class are
the two which we are perhaps most interested in comparing. But
while these are very geneml they do not seem to cover the whole
field. Things made as gifts are often useful and often play-
thiui^s, but the utility or play motive here involved is quite a
different thing from that c^ntermg in the making of things for
the child's own use. So the most logical basal division would
secf-n to be into the two classes, made-for-self and made-for.
others, each of which may be subdivitled into play and utility
classes. This, however, is an incomplete analysis of the made-
for-')thers section, for in addition to useful gifts and play gifts
there are also those which are mere remembrances, and have no
funher purpose. H )wever, our miin purpose is a quantitative
study of the various forms of the play and utility motives already
mentioned and of their reLitive importance in the different years
or periods of childhood. So the smaller made-for-others classes
were kept separate, not so much for their own significance as in
order not to prejudice results in these main groups. The most
practical though not the most logical primary division is into
classes representing the play, the utility and the gift motives.

The subdivisions of play motive are in general those already
discussed, the two main ones being play-imitation in which the
construction itself constitutes the game, and play-utility in
which the purpose is to obtain tools of play. Several lines of
work which were quite prominent and continuous were listed
independently of these two classes. These were (i) the making
of boats, (2) construction connected with animals (houses, traps,
etc.), (3) the making and dressing of dolls, and (4) cookery.
These are all particularly hard to separate into the two classes
first mentioned. It seems to the writer, however, that in the
making of boats, dolls and animal traps, the play-utility motive
is the most general and prominent and that making animal


houses belongs here also, though less completely, as the simple
utility motive seems to enter rather more. Cookery is hardest
of all to classify. It probably depends more largely upon the
instinctive manipulation pleasure than any other line of pro-
ductive work included in this study. At least, it will seldom
be practiced voluntarily except by the children who do gain
some of this kind of pleasure from it. But this motive will be
greatly reinforced by that of play imitation in the case of younger
girls and doubtless by the utility— or gustatory — motive with
the older ones. Things made with the adult-utility motive
were placed in two classes: that of "utility," containing the
things made for the worker's own use, while such things made
for others fall into the useful-gift class. The gift class as a
whole was divided into the three of useful gifts, play gifts and
gifts, the last including such gifts as are mere remembrances
and without other value. It is evident that these classes must
shade into each other with great delicacy at times, and that the
attempt to take things which must represent such an interplay
of motive, and place them in classes so simple and sharply de-
fined is bound to raise some question as to the real value of such
a study. It must be admitted that it was sometimes difficult to
select one of two or even three classes for a given article. This,
however, was far more often due to the fact that the article
clearly represented a transition stage than for mere lack of in-
formation about it. For example, does the building of a camp,
hut to sleep in or the making of a real row-boat belong in the
play-Utility or in the adult-utility class.'' They were finally
placed in the former, but so far as the separation of means and
end is concerned the adult view-point seems fully reached, and
the utility class would seem to have an almost equal claim upon
them. Then there were sometimes difficulties in classifying

1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryErnest Beckwith KentThe constructive interests of children → online text (page 1 of 6)