It is useful from time to time, to reflect on the ideas and wisdom of those philosophers, theorists and practitioners who, in previous generations, laid down many of the foundations of practice in the field of early years. In this first article I will look at the following ‘giants’ in the world of early years: Locke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and the McMillan sisters. What is notable about these wonderful visionaries is their legacy, which continues to inform our thinking, even today. It must be remembered, however, that the world in which they developed their ideas on children’s development and learning was vastly different to that of today.

John Locke (1632–1704) lived in a period when thinking was characterised largely by superstition and ignorance and yet he is considered to be one of our most enlightened thinkers. Despite being criticised and even ridiculed for his controversial ideas, Locke emphasised the importance of experience on the lives of young children and went as far as proposing that we should view the minds of newly-born infants as blank slates or ‘tabula rasa’ to be written on by all of the experiences they encountered. Unlike many of his time, he also believed that learning should be enjoyable; that play should be an essential part of children’s development; and that adults should take care not to hinder children from ‘being children’. Locke believed that young children should not have to deal with aspects of learning that were too “serious” for, he believed, “their minds, nor bodies will bear it” and, “It injures their health”. He also saw pressures placed on children at a young age as being responsible for why, “a great many have hated books and learning all their lives …” Today, we see many of Locke’s original ideas in use in early years settings where, for example, focused play and new experiences that are enjoyable, are seen as important for developing children’s learning.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) formed his ideas at a time when children were often viewed as ‘little adults’ and put to work from an early age with little, if any, experience of play or education. Rousseau believed that children were born good and inherited much of what would make up their individual characters and potential. He knew, however, that the societies children were born into, played a major part in influencing their development and he recognised the potential harm that aspects of some societies could bring to perverting thinking in children. The education of many young children at the time was often severe and an unhappy experience, with little consideration given to their feelings. Rousseau challenged this type of thinking, believing that childhood should be a time of happiness and set out his ideas on educating children in his celebrated book, “Emile” (1911), about the life of a young boy named Emile, as he progressed through stages from infancy to adulthood. Rousseau believed that children’s education should follow their natural growth and he viewed the role of the teacher as creating learning environments where children could be introduced to new and purposeful learning. We see many of Rousseau’s original ideas still in place within early years settings where children’s learning follows their natural growth and where careful consideration is given to ensuring that learning is enjoyable and that learning environments support purposeful learning.

Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827) was born in Zurich, Switzerland. His father died when he was only five years of age and for much of his life, he lived in poverty. This deeply affected Johann though it also provided him with the means to understand, at first-hand, how children were affected by poverty. Pestalozzi was heavily influenced by Rousseau and because of the importance he placed on teaching, he is often referred to as ‘the father of modern education’. Pestalozzi viewed much of the education on offer to children in his own time as largely irrelevant and of little use, especially to children from poor families. He believed the primary aim of education was to develop the head, the heart and the hands, which he believed would result in children learning right from wrong and result in a happier society. Importantly, he viewed much of the education of his time as uninteresting, irrelevant and too adult-led. He also proposed that children should learn through engaging in activities within their own environments and be free to follow their own interests. He recognised how spontaneity could be a key feature of children’s learning and that children should not be limited to receiving ‘set’ answers from adults to the questions they posed, but should be encouraged to explore their own thinking. He believed that the home should be the basis for all future learning and where children should find happiness. The legacy offered by Pestalozzi can be seen, for example, in how early years practitioners and parents today encourage spontaneity in their children, and encourage them to learn by engaging in activities within the exciting environments they create.

Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) was one of the first theorists to fully acknowledge the importance of play and the contribution it made, not only to children’s learning but also their social and emotional development. Froebel developed a range of educational materials, which he referred to as, ‘gifts’; these included objects of different shapes that could be used to stimulate children’s thinking. Gift one, for example, was a set of six small soft balls, possibly knitted or made of rubber, and in different colours. Gift two was a box containing a wooden cylinder, cube and sphere containing holes. Gift three was a box containing eight, one-inch wooden cubes. Froebel believed in the importance of children learning through engaging in tasks that were purposeful and that had meaning for them. He also emphasised the importance of children spending time outdoors and learning through nature and, importantly, introduced us to the notion of the ‘kindergarten’. This aspect of learning is now being addressed through the implementation of ‘Forest Schools’.

Rachel and Margaret McMillan (1859–1917 & 1860–1931) To fully understand the contributions made by Rachel and Margaret McMillan we need to understand the society they lived in. London, at the time, offered some of the worst living conditions in Europe and it was only in 1899 that attendance at school became compulsory. Following much effort, the sisters succeeded in their quest for children to have free school meals following enactment of the ‘Provision of School Meals Act’ in 1906. Rachel and Margaret were also influential in the government introducing medical inspections of children in schools, with the first clinic opening in 1908. They also recognised the benefits of open-air learning, being healthy and children having access to the outdoors and involving children in nurseries in caring for animals and plants, as a means of developing the values of caring not just for themselves, but for others. In subsequent years, Margaret founded the Rachel McMillan College in 1930 for training teachers and improving the training of those working with children in her nurseries. Many of Rachel and Margaret’s original ideas can now be seen in the emphasis that practitioners place on outdoor play, healthy eating, exercise and caring for others.


In summary, therefore, it is helpful to stop and reflect every so often on the ideas and the wisdom of those thinkers and practitioners who went before us and who contributed so much to our practice today. They were in the true sense, visionaries; who against frequent criticism, condemnation and even censure, challenged the thinking of their time and in doing so, changed for the better, the lives of countless children. We are today, because of their efforts, much better informed.

For further information on the philosophers, theorists and thinkers mentioned in this article, see the following link to Sean’s most recent book: MacBlain, S.F. (2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. London: Sage.

Readers can also find some of Sean’s other publications here.


About the author

Professor Sean MacBlain PhD, C. Psychol., C. Sci., FRSM, FHEA, AMBDA is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at masters and doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.

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