In my previous article, I wrote about a number of giant figures whose ideas in many ways, formed the foundations for much of what we see today as best practice in the early years. In this article, I wish to look at the ideas of four more giant figures who challenged the thinking of their time and came to influence how we now think about children’s learning and development: Rudolf Steiner, John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Susan Isaacs. Though different, their ideas have, nevertheless, provided us with wonderful insights into the minds of young children that continue to fascinate.

RUDOLF STEINER (1861 to 1925)
Rudolf founded his first school in the city of Stuttgart after being invited to do so by a wealthy industrialist named Waldorf Astoria, who at the time, owned a large cigarette factory and wanted a school where the children of his workers could be educated - hence the legacy by which Steiner schools are also sometimes known as Steiner-Waldorf schools. Currently, there are many Steiner schools throughout the world and despite the original philosophy remaining constant, many of these schools and settings have developed in different ways. I was fortunate enough to visit a wonderful Steiner setting some years ago and I was very taken by the sense of calm and the relaxed atmosphere in which children and adults worked closely alongside each other.

Rudolf viewed the purpose of education as that of responding to the evolving intellectual and emotional needs of children and learning as a continuous process, with practitioners applying patience as the process of learning in each child unfolds. Central to the Steiner-Waldorf tradition is the idea that young children learn through imitation; adults model behaviours that are beneficial to children’s learning, and imitation is seen as a natural process in children’s development. The tradition also embraces the notion of establishing and maintaining relationships between practitioners and children. It is possible to observe many elements of Steiner’s original thinking being applied by practitioners in early years settings today. We see imitation in children’s learning experiences, where adults take care to actively observe children and hold back from hurrying them in their natural development. Practitioners are sensitive to how children learn, the rate at which they learn and the types of activities and environments that facilitate natural learning, and they model behaviours that children imitate and learn from, giving them opportunities to develop relationships that encourage strong emotional growth; creativity is encouraged together with an appreciation of the natural world.

JOHN DEWEY (1859 to 1952)
John was born in the USA in the same year as the infamous western outlaw ‘Billy the Kid’ and when Queen Victoria was still monarch. John was a controversial figure and whilst his legacy has been embraced by many, it has also been rejected by others. It must be remembered that children’s learning at the time was defined by strict codes of behaviour, with lessons taking place in silence and children’s learning being mostly confined to memorising facts; early years education was poorly understood and even more poorly resourced. Many of John’s ideas were drawn from his ‘Laboratory Schools’, which he established in Chicago in 1896 for children from nursery age through to 12th grade, and he saw the school as an extension of the home. John believed that children require support with structuring their learning and he saw the role of teachers as that of being a guide and facilitator of new experiences. He believed that we should understand how children’s experiences impact on their learning as no two children learn from experiences in the same way. We can see examples of John’s ideas in many early years settings where practitioners work closely with parents and structure children’s learning in a way that the children gain new learning experiences, and where children are encouraged to take the lead in working on their own projects.

MARIA MONTESSORI (1870 to 1952)
Maria was born in Italy and was the first woman in that country to become a doctor. At 13 years of age, Maria chose to attend a single-sex school for boys as a means of educating herself to take up a career as an engineer. Maria took a special interest in working with children with learning difficulties who, at the time, were often thought to be uneducable; because of her success with these children, she was appointed Director of the Scuola Ortofrenica, one of a number of institutions that looked after children with mental health problems. Maria promoted the idea of children learning to look after themselves, as well as their environments, and the need for children to develop at their own pace and be encouraged to see learning as enjoyable. We can see examples of these ideas in all early years settings today.
Maria saw repetition as important in laying foundations for future learning, though she believed that repetition should promote creative thinking and stimulate overlearning, resulting in new understanding. She placed emphasis on developing children’s skills of observation through all of their five senses and introduced us to the notion of the ‘Casa dei Bambini’, or ‘Children’s House’ where adults create environments that stimulate children and where the children are unrestricted in their learning. She even designed special furniture for the Children’s Houses, examples of which can be seen today in early years settings. Maria’s influence can be found almost everywhere in early years practice where environments are designed specifically for children and where substantial emphasis is given to promoting creativity and developing the senses.

SUSAN ISAACS (1885 to 1948)
Susan was born in Lancashire and after working as an educationalist, entered the field of psychoanalysis. In 1924, Isaacs responded to an advertisement from Geoffrey and Margaret Pyke who wanted to set up a nursery school for children between the ages of two and seven years, based on new principles of learning and development. Susan rose to the challenge and created the Malting House School, which she designed in a way that would support children’s physical and social development. Space was used to stimulate children’s thinking and learning through play, and like Maria Montessori’s furniture, it was adapted for young children. Places were given over to quiet play and rest, and materials were readily available to stimulate the children’s imagination such as beads and blocks and soft materials. The main room opened to an outside area with a playhouse, an area for gardening, a tool shed and sandpit. Susan believed strongly in taking children outdoors to experience other environments and engage in different types of activities. One only has to think of the recent development of Forest Schools.
Susan believed that at the heart of early learning was the need for children to develop their emotions and that learning environments were a necessary resource in helping them with this. Children were set boundaries, and these were demonstrated rather than enforced with an emphasis on consistency, which would build the children’s sense of security. She saw the importance of careful observation of children in different situations, which is of course a key element of practice in early years settings today. Susan also believed passionately that early education should reflect the warmth and love that children should ideally receive in their homes, and offer experiences that children might not have in their homes; again, we see examples of this today in all settings.

Susan saw play as a means of self-expression, which enabled children to express their true feelings and in ways that allowed them to engage in rehearsals for dealing with difficult emotions that they did not really understand; through play children could find ‘mental ease’ and work upon their ‘wishes, fears and fantasies’.

It is always useful to pause and reflect on how the practice we see every day in early years settings evolved and how key figures who often devoted their lives to challenging the thinking of their time, ensured that young children could have opportunities to learn and develop in settings that valued them as unique individuals. We owe so much to these ‘giants’, on whose shoulders, countless others have stood over generations.

For further information on the ‘giants’ 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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