Key contributors

Robert Owen (1771–1858)

After becoming the manager of the New Lanark Mills, Scotland, in 1800 Robert Owen abolished the practice of employing young orphans in the mills and gradually moved away from child labour by offering education as an alternative to work. Consequently, he sought to educate both the adults and children of New Lanark, with young children going to the nursery whilst their mums were at work. This was the first infant school in the world. In later life he moved to the USA where he established the first kindergarten in America and the first free public library.

Adapted from New Lanark Kids. Available at: (accessed 29 May 2016)

Samuel Wilderspin (1799–1866)

After a disastrous first attempt in 1820 to teach young children in his new Infant school in Spitalfields, London, Wilderspin desperately engaged the children in games and rhymes. Much to his surprise the children responded well. He drew two conclusions from the experience - that in any valid scheme of teaching the senses of the children must be engaged, and that the great secret of getting the child's attention was to descend to their level and to become a child oneself.

These practices did not suit the mothers of the children, who protested that they wanted their children to be taught proper lessons, removed them from the school and pelted Wilderspin with filth on his way to work in the morning. He persevered, however, and soon built up attendance to the former level. Four years later he became missionary for the newly formed Infant School Society. Behind the formation of this body in the summer of 1824 lay the publication in the previous year of his manual on infant teaching: On the Importance of Educating the Infant Children of the Poor.

He continued to spread his philosophy throughout the British Isles for nearly two decades, giving demonstrations of his teaching and founding schools. He is remembered as the first English educator to organize a system of schools based on a realization that infancy is a special period of development requiring particular modes of teaching.

Adapted from McCann (1966).

Johan Pestalozzi (1746–1827)

Pestalozzi is one of the first thinkers to emphasise psychological methods of instruction and placed emphasis on spontaneity and self-activity. He believed that children should not be given ready-made answers, but should arrive at answers themselves. He promoted the idea of education for the whole child and he developed the ‘Pestalozzi method’, which is based in balancing three elements – hands, heart and head. (Palaiologou, 2012: 16)

Fredrich Froebel (1782–1852)

Froebel had a troubled childhood as his mother died when he was only nine months old and he was neglected until an uncle felt mercy for him and send him to school. After leaving school he developed an interest in nature as he was an apprentice in forests. He started in education by teaching in schools in Frankfurt that were influenced by the ideas of Pestalozzi. In 1818 he opened his own school and begun to explore his ideas about education in practice. In 1826 he published his work, The Education of Man, where he discusses how he views education for young children.

He was a pioneer who created the first kindergarten, - a garden or nursery where young children were allowed opportunities to develop at their own pace, with the support of knowledgeable and supportive adults.

Key ideas of Froebel:

  1. The importance of the earlier years of a child and the role of education as foundation for all later learning;
  2. The importance of learning through experience, self-activity , talk and play;
  3. The five Froebel gifts (Spielgabe)which are, according to him:
    ​The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.’ (Sonntagsblatt, 1838)

The Sonntagsblatt (1838 – 1840)

In 1838, Friedrich Froebel published a request for families to unite to carry out the motto of this paper:

‘Come, let us live with our children.’

‘As this paper is designed, first of all, to explain and introduce the proposed institution, it begins immediately with the foundation of the whole. In the germ of every human being lies embedded the form of its whole future life. On the proper comprehension and care of this beginning depends solely the happy unfolding of each human being leading to perfection, and the ability to accomplish their own destiny, and thus to win the true joy and peace of life. The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education and true culture, and our understanding also, is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity, in the family; in the judicious unfolding of the child, to the satisfaction of the same, and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.’

The Sonntagsblatt has a special value because Froebel published in it his play gifts (Spielgabe), explained their meaning, and described their use.

Froebel’s practical experiment in Blankenburg was received at first with doubtful smiles. But when the people saw with what joyful zeal children of every age, after a short time, pressed to the merry sports, in the invention of which Froebel was inexhaustible, and in the guidance of which he was a master; when the children took home their ornamental sewing and weaving, where, contrary to their former habits, they devoted themselves, of their own free will, to entertaining occupations, then, with their growing understanding of the system, the parents began to appreciate it, and doubt changed to true interest in Froebel’s young creation.

In the midst of this activity, full of life and experience, the idea of the Kindergarten grew clearer and fuller in Froebel’s mind. Based on these experiences, Froebel made his gifts for play as simple as possible, to enable each child to express the instinct of activity, so worthy of recognition, and to nurture in each child the desire for knowledge and learning.

In 1840, at the Guttenberg Festival, which the educational institutions for children and youth in Blankenburg and Keilhau celebrated in common, Friedrich Froebel presented a new and more comprehensive plan, which he hoped to call into life with the help and participation of many people.

John Dewey (1859–1952)

Dewey promoted the idea that education and learning are social and interactive processes. Consequently, schools were viewed as social institutions through which reform can and should take place. He also promoted the idea of ownership of the curriculum by learners and that all learners are entitled to be part of their own learning. Key terms in Dewey’s work are democracy and ethics. He strongly emphasised the role of education as one of creating a place in which to live: ‘to prepare him (the student) for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities’. Palaiologou (2012: 15) [For more on the influence of Dewey please see Chapter 8].

Maria Montessori (1870–1952)

Montessori took the view that all children are competent beings and with the support of the environment (child-size environment-microcosm) children can be encouraged to achieve maximal potential. Emphasis on absorbent mind and critical periods where, with the support of self-correcting auto-didactic materials, children from a young age can be helped to achieve their potential. Palaiologou (2012: 16)

Edmond Holmes (1850–1936)

As Senior Chief Inspector from 1905–1911, Edmond Holmes was responsible for supervising the first National Curriculum, along with its testing, standards, and heavy inspection regime. After his retirement he analysed all that he had been doing and declared a sense of shame for being a part of it.  His books, What Is and What Might Be and The Tragedy of Education, condemned his previous work and suggested that the education system would have to stop telling children what to do and compelling them to do it, since this produced only passivity, lassitude, unhealthy docility or, in the stronger, more determined spirits, ‘naughtiness’.

Margaret McMillan (1860–1931) & Rachel McMillan (1859–1917)

Margaret and Rachel McMillan placed an emphasis on improving hygienic conditions, overcoming children's physical defects, and providing an appropriate 'environment' for young children. Their early work in urban areas convinced them that they should concentrate on trying to improve the physical and intellectual welfare of the slum child. After moving to London in 1902 their campaign for school meals led to the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. The legislation accepted the argument put forward by the McMillan sisters that, if the state insists on compulsory education, it must take responsibility for the proper nourishment of school children. In 1914 the sisters started an Open-Air Nursery School & Training Centre in Peckham. Within a few weeks there were thirty children at the school ranging in age from eighteen months to seven years. During the first six months there was only one case of illness and, because of precautions they took, it did not spread to the other children.

Adapted from: (accessed 29 May 2016)

Susan Isaacs (1885–1948)

Heavily influenced by the psycho-analytic school of thought, Isaacs promoted the idea of children’s freedom in the classroom – and play as a method of expressing themselves and mastering the world through discovery. Palaiologou (2012: 15)


Holmes, E. (1911) What Is and What Might Be. London: Constable & Co. Ltd.

McCann, W. (1966). Wilderspin and the Early Infant Schools. British Journal of Educational Studies 14 (2):

Palaiologou, I. (2012). Child Observation for the Early Years (2/E). London: SAGE.

Tovey, H. (2013). Bringing the Froebel Approach to your Early Years Practice. London: Routledge.