Perkins at Play

Female students playing on a playground in 1908

Female students playing on a swingset, a wagon, and one hanging from a Trolley Coster, which is a raised line with a handle that children hang on while sliding across the line high off of the ground. Kindergarten for the Blind in Jamaica Plain, MA, circa 1908. AG147-50.

June 18, 2019

“The little games of childhood are preparatory to the greater games of manhood; the ball, the kite, and the hoop call for thought, invention, and energy; and every game excites emulation and perseverance, all simple and childish indeed, but no more so than were the early mental efforts of a Caesar or a Newton.” -Samuel Gridley Howe.

This quote is found in the Ninth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, published in 1841. Perkins Founding Director, Samuel Gridley Howe is writing about a Perkins education and about the importance of play. Howe continues, “the blind have seldom this early training; they do not meet and overcome opposition and difficulty by effort and energy, but they have their wants supplied to their hand; the mother runs and fetches whatever the child requires, and pets and humours it continually. The consequence is that he is unfitted for the rough arena of the world; and in after life is apt to be uneasy under any discipline, daunted by any obstacle, and fretted by the least opposition” (Howe, 6).

He goes on to explain that imparting knowledge to someone with blindness is easy because of the soul’s innate “thirst for knowledge.” What is harder is getting friends and family to allow someone with blindness or visual impairment to do things for themselves and this he extends to play (Howe, 7).

“Do not too much regard bumps upon the forehead, rough scratches, or bloody noses; even these may have their good influences; at the worst, they affect only the bark, and do not injure the system like the rust of inaction” (Howe, 8). He feels a boy should, “saw wood, take care of cattle, do jobs about the house; and if you can afford it, let him have a leader to go off upon long excursions; let him learn to ride, to swim, to row, to skate, &c” (Howe, 8). Howe recommends bringing up a girl to “be active about the house; to do every possible kind of work which requires motion of the body; and do not confine her too much to knitting, sewing, &c” (Howe, 8).

Three boys playing a form of baseball, circa 1890

Three boys playing "3 old cat" an early form of baseball outside at the Perkins Institution in South Boston in 1890. One boy swings, while one boy, below him prepares to catch the missed ball. Two boys stand nearby. AG147-118.

In 1841 when this was written, the school had been teaching pupils just shy of 10 years. Opening with just six students, by 1841, there are now 67 students. In the 1834 Annual Report, Howe addresses steps to accommodate growing attendance and writes that he found it “necessary to provide a large play ground” (Howe, 7). The estate in the rear of the mansion being used as the school, was purchased for this purpose.

This attention to play was treated as an important part of the education provided at Perkins from its earliest days. It was also something that Howe recommended be encouraged at home.  He notes that for children “nature provides such an exuberance of animal spirits, that motion, not rest, seems their natural condition; and a dozen blind children put into a clear room or play-ground will so make it ring with their merry shouts, and so heartily play their simple games, as to show that bare existence is a boon, and that sun-light and eye-sight are but its additional blessings” (Howe, 4).

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More information about 3 Old Cat and early forms of baseball: