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Books of Instruction. 0480: Anon. (Eleanor Fenn?), The Art of Teaching in Sport

Author: Anon. (but Fenn, Eleanor?)
Title: The art of teaching in sport; designed as a prelude to a set of toys, for enabling ladies to instill the rudiments of spelling, reading, grammar, and arithmetic, under the idea of amusement
Cat. Number: 0480
Date: No date (but c.1792?)
1st Edition: 1785?
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: John Marshall, at No.4, Aldermary Church-Yard, in Bow-Lane; and No.17, Queen-Street, Cheapside
Price: 9d
Pages: 1 vol., 67pp.
Size: 16.5 x 10 cm
Illustrations: None
Note: Inscription on fly-leaf: 'For my dear little Grand Children for [...] & little Eva [?], from their Affect: Grandmother [Grandfather?] [...], Mar: 14th 1831'. Bound in leather.

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0480

Introductory essay

The sub-title of The Art of Teaching in Sport is self-explanatory. This book was never meant to stand alone, but was 'designed as a prelude to a set of toys, for enabling ladies to instill the rudiments of spelling, reading, grammar, and arithmetic, under the idea of amusement'. It was, in other words, a manual, designed to tell an adult how best to use the accompanying games to educate young children.

Though the games no longer exist, it can be deduced from the book that they came in three boxes - one for reading, one for grammar and one for mathematics. The book is divided into three sections to reflect this, one dealing with the proper use of each box. Before this came an introduction, which explained the general principles behind the didactic strategy employed. The full product apparently also contained another book which children could progress onto. This was almost certainly Cobwebs to Catch Flies, first published in 1783 by John Marshall (the identity of the book, and its presence in this package, is strongly hinted at on p.14 and n.). Cobwebs to Catch Flies (0545-0548 in the Hockliffe Collection) was by Eleanor Fenn, and she may well have been the author of The Art of Teaching in Sport too. The narrator was certainly a woman, if the pronouns of the introduction can be believed, and she talked about the book which accompanied the games - Cobwebs to Catch Flies - as the most nearly suited to children's capacities 'as I could write' (p.14). Moreover, a book-list bearing the title 'A complete catalogue of Mrs. Teachwell's Books' which is appended to a British Library copy of Fenn's A Miscellany in Prose and Verse (London: sold by Bacon Norwich; and by Mrs. Newbery, no date) includes The Art of Teaching in Sport (priced 9d sewed). 'Mrs. Teachwell' was the pseudonym often used by Fenn.

The introduction to The Art of Teaching in Sport reveals much about late eighteenth-century attitudes to childhood. The very first sentence was emphatic in its conviction that all childhood activities - whether work or play, active or sedentary - should serve some useful purpose (p.5). There was as yet, in other words, no notion that childhood or play should be valued simply for itself. Rather, childhood was still evidently regarded as a preparatory stage of life, only valued as it contributed to a successful life to come. Yet Fenn - if she was indeed the author - clearly understood play as an essential part of childhood, which children enjoyed far more than anything which they considered work or learning. It was futile, Fenn insisted, to seek to suppress such an impulse. Her central principle, therefore, was that parents and teachers had to learn to use children's propensity for play for their own purposes, and The Art of Teaching in Sport was a guide for parents to trick their children into thinking that they are merely playing, when in fact they are being taught.

The keys to doing this were, first, to present education as a game, or as a sport as the book's title has it; and second, to restrict access to the games so that the child never grew bored with his or her lessons. 'The Box must be held sacred,' Fenn wrote, and 'the little people must not be allowed to touch it', for otherwise they would cease to regard their lessons as a special privilege benevolently extended to them by a gracious parent or teacher (p.54). The purposes of the games were spelled out in some detail, with Fenn suggesting how best to employ the various cards, tables, wood-cuts, and so on, and even providing dialogues which a mother might use word-for-word to coax a child into compliance.

To teach the alphabet and spelling cards bearing the letters of the alphabet were the principle tool. These were to be found in the first box. Once they had been learned, they might be kept by the child as his or her own possessions, only to be relinquished if the child forgot them. Other paper letters were to be stuck onto wooden cubes, both of which were included in the box. These were to be used as dice, and words made out of the letters which landed uppermost (pp.29-30). To aid the child's memory, the adult might give the letters personalities: 'e is a very busy gentleman; he is the most active of them all' (pp.23-24). Or the adult might take four cards - t, m, a and e, say - and ask the child how many words might be made from these letters (pp.19-21). When the child wished to add new letters, the cards would have to be fetched from a nearby table, thus keeping the child physically active so as to avoid lassitude. The book was full of such tricks. When the child graduated onto books, for example, the adult should prevent the child from turning to any page other than the one being used: 'this finesse keeps alive curiosity' and 'prevents satiety' (p.12). And if the child's attention started to wander, this 'must be a hint to mamma to "have to more time to bestow upon play now"', thus convincing the child that his or her education is a form of game, and, by cutting short the activity, preventing the child from associating spelling, grammar or arithmetic with boredom (p.38).

As for the 'Grammar box', it was made up of many smaller boxes, one for each part of speech. Inside each were wood-cuts, representing various nouns, adjectives, verbs, and so on. The child was to use these to make sentences. Inside the 'Box of figures' were tables of numbers, set out in multiples for instance, and various prints which might be 'bought' by the child for a set number of counters. There was also a set of dice bearing numbers, several arithmetical puzzles, and a description of a game, 'The Merchant, or Commerce' which encouraged the child to play the role of a thrifty tradesman who always counted his stock in different ways to check that he had not been cheated (pp.61-2).

Children 'must not be allowed ... to look in the book which contains the arcana', Fenn wrote, referring to The art of teaching in sport. It was not in itself, in other words, a children's book, and strictly speaking it has no place in a collection of children's literature. Nor would the games which accompanied it, even if they still existed. Fenn pointedly envisaged the games as an alternative to books. 'The rudiments of language should not be taught in a book;' she insisted, for 'a dull child, or a giddy child' might come to associate books with the tedious hard work of learning, and thereby be put off books for life. After all, Fenn wrote, 'first impressions are powerful and lasting; [and] who would not wish her little one to conceive, from the first, an agreeable idea of books?' Rather, 'The child must be led to esteem it a privilege, when he is permitted to see the first reading lessons; the honour of looking into a book, is to be reserved for those who can already read with some degree of propriety.' (p.10) This is a far cry from the Newbery era, only a generation earlier. Books like Goody Two-Shoes (0124: p.16) or Giles Gingerbread (0240: p.4) had deliberately included alphabets so that a child might learn to read using the book itself, rather than simply coming to the book once a reading proficiency had already been gained. Most subsequent books for very young children had shared this underlying ethos, being constructed by their authors and publishers almost as extended hornbooks or battledores. Thus they included alphabets, or pictures to illustrate individual words, or words broken down into syllables. Fenn's alternative strategy did not spell the end of books which aimed to teach literacy. But her doubts about the efficacy of books for the very young did offer a challenge to the supremacy which books had achieved in the world of education by the end of the eighteenth century. It is also worth noting that Fenn's awareness that children might be in danger of finding books commonplace, and therefore unexciting, is indicative of the proliferation of children's books by 1800. The identification of even the possibility of such ennui setting in suggests that children, or at least children of certain regions and social classes, were able to gain easy access to many books, and that they were no longer regarded by children as luxuries. This was a signal change in the relationship between children in their books which had occurred in a remarkably short space of time.

One perceived function of children's books, however, had remained constant over the previous century. John Locke, writing in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1793) had valued children's books because they removed upper-class children from the influence of lower-class servants, who were all too liable to contaminate impressionable youngsters with their old wives' tales and superstitions. Fenn agreed. Maids and nurses too often taught their charges 'vulgar habits, many erroneous notions, many evil principles', Fenn wrote (p.6). Her games and books were first and foremost designed to teach children literacy and numeracy, but, she added, 'if my books only prevent too much conversation with those persons whose ideas you would not wish them to imbibe, I shall have rendered you some service.' (p.16) She consistently emphasised that her games were designed to be used by mothers and their children, and not deputed to servants or even other family members (unless it be an elder daughter, for using these games with a younger sister would be a perfect preparation for marriage and motherhood: p.6). Periodically, Fenn dramatised the joy which she expected the proud parent would experience as she witnessed the development of her child ('I almost envy the joy of a young lady who looks around on her "Smiling offspring ..."': p.23). And she emphasised that only 'Maternal affection' would 'supply patience to pursue these methods' ('Bachelors would laugh, and cry "Pshaw!"': p.35). The Art of Teaching in Sport, in other words, was a project inextricably linked with the development of the nuclear family, its members linked together by bonds of affection born out of much direct contact. Fenn reflected this shift in attitudes to familial relationships, but she was also a forceful propagandist for greater mother-child intimacy.

The Art of Teaching in Sport was apparently fairly successful. The earliest known dated edition was published in 1785, although the British Library catalogue suggests a date of c.1770 for an undated edition, without suggesting why. The only indication of a publication date for the Hockliffe Collection edition comes from the given on the title-page for John Marshall, its publisher. Marshall had been at 4, Aldermary Church-Yard since 1782, but he had occupied the second address given - 4, Queen Street, Cheapside - only from 1787 to 1798 (although it is possible that he was there longer: Maxted 1977: 148). Publication sometime in the late 1780s or early 1790s seems most likely therefore. Some years later, a similar scheme was employed for a project published by John Harris, The Teacher's Assistant, in the art of teaching grammar in sport. Designed to render the subject familiar to children (1809). The Hockliffe copy of The Art of Teaching in Sport was apparently used for the purpose for which it was intended. On p.39 one of the blanks in Fenn's mother's monologue, into which the speaker is supposed to insert the name of her child, has been filled, in a neat manuscript hand, with the name 'Cecil'.