31 MAY 1930, Page 8

What is Right with England

2.—A Garden of Bright Eyes under the heading " The New England."] T DON'T pretend to understand young children, although -I- 'I do, like to see them about, and feel flattered when they smile to me from their Perambulators, as sometimes :happens. ' But I cannot sing or play to them, nor make plasticise elephants,. and I am constantly conscious of the fact that their faces want wiping: ' Mothercraft, in short, is a thing which inSpires me -with A mixture of reverence and cold shudderS; yet it is a subject that concerns us all, for garden nurseries are 'healers of physical if not of political rickets and makers of the best and brightest coin that this realm can issue. My excuse, then, for describing a visit to the Rachel McMillan Opeii;Air School = at Deptford is, first,' that babies are itriportant, whether we • like them or not, and, secondly, that I" understand* that even mothers do' not * The Nursery School. By Margaret (Dent. "3s: 6d.1 Reviewed in this issue,. always know as much as they should about their own particular craft.

Of the .pullulating infant population of Deptford, Miss McMillan has taken 340 children into her paradise. Of these, 260 are under five years old : 100 come from families living huddled together in one room ; 272 had rickets when they arrived, but recovered in six- months ; and every child suffered more or less seriously from chronic catarrh when admitted, yet after a few weeks practically every child gained clear air-passages and pink cheeks. Truly this garden of bright eyes and straight limbs is more. enchanted than Prester John's ! - ; You drive down the Old Kent Road, fork left at. the Marquess of Granby, turn left again at Church Street, and go down towards the river until you reach a dark- grey hoarding such as in other parts of London would proclaim the virtues of the beer that is good for you, or the soap that keeps your school-girl complexion. Here at the nursery-school is no poster to tell of the magic done on the other side of the fence, for there isn't any money in education—or is there ?

This garden is in the centre of dockland slums. Tattered lace is drawn over broken window-panes in the sur- rounding houses. In the streets children grovel in, the litter of the kerb (one was rubbing his face in the pavement with great enjoyment when .I arrived) or bicker on door- steps from which a smell of squalor comes. The women look fired. Even the cats are mangy. But when you open the gate you see something so vivid and lively that even the dullest eyes must be struck by the contrast between What Is and What Might Be in this England of ours.

Inside there are hundreds of happy little people, dressed in green and orange and scarlet, playing on the, lawns, dancing with their teachers, stalking plump and wily pigeons, twisting themselves into knots on ladders and chutes, listening to fairy stories, looking with a relaxed and pensive air at the guinea-pigs in their enormous cage, examining the budding laburnum, or the lordly mauve of the hydrangea beds ; or just twiddling their thumbs. I wanted to draw breath and absorb it O- W take in the spirit rather than the facts of the place— to twiddle my thumbs too—and Miss McMillan let me be, for she knows that perception takes time. Sometimes her children stay watching, watching (as I did) with lax muscles,. in .a state of reverie which is a condition as natural and as well-defined as sleep. • ' It is a travelling of the Self, this reverie, upon that thoroughfare of consciousness called the sympathetic nervous system ; a broader and older road than the brain and nerve tracks which seem to move this pen. Mind is not what it seems. Below it, with its roots in racial memory, lies the unconscious man, long studied in the East. If you would understand Miss McMillan's methods, you must look on them not entirely with worldly sight : you must be. at least intuitively aware of this Unseen.

No doubt Miss McMillan would disclaim any theories beyond what she and her wonderful sister, the late Miss Rachel McMillan, discovered through practical experience during their twenty years of - work among young children. Yet I like to think that the old ways are being made new again. The older children wash in running water, like the Indians, who do not consider themselves clean after ablutions in a stagnant bath. Like.Tagore, Miss McMillan believes in contact with earth and trees ; like him, she,- discards a great deal of the hideous formalism of nineteenth-century educa- tion. Like the ancient Greeks, her children achieve a harmony of the inner and outer man : the body's beauty is symbol of the mind, and the two are one. In all this there is no trace of faddism. The poor mothers who pay Is. 3d. a week to ber are not concerned- with the higher psychology ; they want value for their money, and they receive it in such full measure that to-day the children of Deptford are entered for the school before they are born, as other less fortunate infants are entered for the M.C.C. or a house at Eton.

Less fortunate. The children of the rich who are stuffed with sweets until their adenoids enlarge, and remain in leading-strings to their nurses (I have often seen them harnessed, as well as tethered, in Kensington Gardens), petted and coerced and fussed over by adults when- they should be playing amongst their peers, do not always lead happy lives. At any rate, they could not possibly be happier than Miss McMillan's are. Some of hers sleep two or three in a bed at home and see and hear many ugly and terrible things in the streets ; but they know there is another world of space and peace and flowers and bright tea-tables and amusing dances such as " Have you seen a cat that walks upstairs ? " or " Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe " ; and in after life they must draw strength, I think, from these contrasting backgrounds of their childhood.

Here they are at grace in their sunlit shelter, singing :— " Thank you for the world so sweet, Thank you for the food we eat, Thank you for the birds that.sing, Thank you, God, for everything.'

Three good meals a day they have ; with plenty of milk, and wholemeal bread, and orange juice for .the delicate. Also a daily hot-and-cold shower : in fact, plumbing and hot-water supply is the most expensive part of the apparatus of the Nursery School.

The " toddlers " begin their day in a kind of kitchen sink, where they disport themselves under the eye of an observant teacher, who notes any physical defect. (" The body is seen," says Miss. McMillan, " that is the beginning of salvation.") Each has his or her own towel and toothbrush, of course. Soon they learn' to hang these up, and begin to try to dress themselves. Mean- while the older children are having their shower-bath. Each shed, holding some twenty or thirty children, is complete with its hygienic arrangements : it is a home and a haven in itself, yet in and of the garden. After bathing and breakfast, the " toddlers " play, or roam, or listen to stories, while their elders learn to act a play, or sing, or dance, or hear a story from their teacher, sitting round her in a small family group. Often the children learn from each other in some quick, mysterious way : for instance, a baby sees an older child dancing and learns the steps without any formal intervention on the part of an adult. To make animals think, they must generally have a bait of some coveted food. But the human being " is capable of a higher motive, even at three years old. He wants (as even the chimpanzee does not) to place his geometrical shapes so that they will fit firmly into their place, to make a building possible." Learning is a mystery : all that Miss McMillan's eighty pupil-teachers do (and that is much) is to plan oppor- tunities and provide materials for the mintage of man.

After midday dinner, which the children eat slowly and cleanly, managing their spoons perfectly in either their right or their left hands, they sleep for two hours or more. . . . By three o'clock the stretcher-beds are folded away, noses are blown in paper handkerchiefs, and the day begins again.

A day full of doing and dreams and wonder. Some of the girls are mothers to smaller children, others look at the growing flowers, and some, I think, are Miss Amy Johnson in a magic Moth. The boys who have climbed up the ladder are look-out men in a fore-top, or explorers of Mount Everest, or Lawrences leading phantom armies. When tea-time comes, I notice that a group of dock, labourers has opened the gate of the school and are watching the children with me. Always, in the after- noons, such an audience gathers ; sometimes hundreds come. In the days of Queen Elizabeth (who lived near here) England loVed open-air drama and dancing, and we still loVe the same things. These spectators, who have come to watch the boys and girls at their play are as likely as not the descendants of folk who danced with Marlowe on the village green of Deptford. Our children might adorn ten thousand empty spaces in our urban areas, and spread an influence which would begin in the streets of slumland and extend its challenge far and wide, making us one people again. They are a sight for the sore eyes of our cities, and if we gave them the opportunity they might lead us again to Merrie