Essential Resources: Pioneers and Influencers – Puzzle Games

Susan Isaacs’ belief in giving children the space and independence to lead their own learning resonates strongly today. Nicole Weinstein suggests some suitable resources

Susan Isaacs (1885-1948) is best known for her extensive knowledge of child development and her detailed observations of young children. She was a strong advocate of children’s play, especially “outdoor” play, and believed that through this form of self-expression children could safely release their feelings and figure out how to handle a range of challenges. emotions. It was revolutionary in the 1920s, in the closed society in which she lived. She founded Chelsea Open Air Nursery in 1928 and her ethos lives on in the facility’s ‘Garden of Imagination’, where children can play and learn freely, both indoors and outdoors. outside (see the case study).

Her father was a journalist and lay preacher in the Methodist Church and her mother died when she was still a child. When she was 15, she declared herself an atheist, and her father forced her out of school, refusing to speak to her for another two years.

In 1907, Isaacs enrolled to train as a teacher of five to seven year olds at the University of Manchester, then took a degree course, then received a scholarship to the University from Cambridge to study child psychology. She then trained as a psychoanalyst, becoming a fervent follower of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

Isaacs developed her theories by observing children at The Malting House, a progressive and experimental school in Cambridge, where she was headmistress between 1924 and 1927. She saw “warm human relations” and the safety of children as the point essential starting point of education, and encouraged school staff to give children the time, space and freedom to resolve their own conflicts. She believed that young children needed an “opportunity for assertiveness and independence” and saw the crèche as “an extension of the function of the home, not a substitute”.

“Her lifestyle was very bohemian in the early 20th century and she incorporated that into her practice,” says Dr. Pam Jarvis, child psychologist and co-author of Early Years Pioneers in Context (see Supplementary Information) .


As well as advising parents on how to observe and learn from children’s play in her role as the agony aunt for Nursery World from 1929 to 1936, under the pseudonym Ursula Wise, Isaacs was a prominent member of the Nursery School Association. Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of her successor organisation, Early Education, said Isaacs reached conclusions “that are as modern and relevant today as they were when she wrote them”. .

To mark its 90th anniversary, Early Education has published an online version of Isaacs’ pamphlet, The Educational Value of the Nursery School, which was first printed in 1937. Merrick describes it as a “clear call for a child-centred offer.

Isaacs wrote: “If we were asked to mention a supreme psychological need of the young child, the answer should be ‘play’ – the possibility of free play in all its forms. Play is a child’s way of living and understanding life.

She continued, “Another aspect of her piece is the imaginary. He needs to be able to indulge in imaginative play, free and unfettered by limits or adult teachings, just as much as he needs to be able to run, jump and string beads. It is in this regard that our understanding of the child’s mind and how it develops has deepened and broadened in recent years.


Malting House School, which catered for children aged two to eight, was carefully designed to facilitate children’s development.

Dr Jarvis adds: ‘There were reading and writing rooms, but most of the activity took place in a carpentry room/laboratory, a kitchen and an art room. There was a big garden with a water tap, a summer house, a swing with moving weights, boards, ladders and a jungle gym. There were also many pets; mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, hens, chickens, snakes, salamanders, a vermicomposter, an aquarium, two cats and a dog.

The interior space was rich with resources to stimulate learning through play. It included dress-up clothes, arts and crafts materials, beads, blocks, a typewriter and other play equipment. Game.

“Each child had their own plot in the garden and were allowed to experiment with it freely in order to discover the best way to care for the plants,” says Dr Jarvis.

“If the plants were not watered, the children realized that they would die. The adults did not intervene to prevent this. Susan also tried to ensure that children’s reading and writing flowed from “real world” applications such as lists and menus; there were no formal literacy classes.


  • TTS’s £124.99 children’s gardening tool set of ten includes hand trowels and larger pieces of equipment, such as a leaf rake and garden brush. For added stability when transporting leaves and soil, the £49.99 Twigz Metal Two Wheel Wheelbarrow, also from TTS, has two wheels. Use canes to support plants and connect them with cane companions and caps from the TTS Gardening Cane Collection, £38.99.
  • Cozy’s Complete Gardening Kit, £235, contains a classy kit of gardening gloves, hand trowels, pitchforks, brushes, rakes, buckets and wheelbarrows. His set of 4 super short shovels, £28.99, are ideal for young children’s digging activities, and kids will love tidying up the outdoor space with Cosy’s Litter Grabbers, £36.99.
  • Early Excellence stocks a range of gardening resources, including the Trugs gardening set, £17.97; a set of watering cans, £22.95; and the child’s wheelbarrow, £155.
  • For outdoor den making, try TTS’s £119.99 Forestry School Outdoor Den Making Kit, which comes in a handy backpack and includes insect vacs and insect traps. insect spotting cards. Or Yellow Door’s camouflage fabric netting, £16.
  • Muddy Faces sells a range of tools for Forest School. Try the Forest School Starter Set Muddy Faces, £109.99, which includes a bow saw, perfect for cutting logs and branches; a hacksaw, ideal for more intricate cuts; loppers for cutting branches and brambles; and six sturdy peelers.

CASE STUDY: Chelsea Outdoor Preschool

The Chelsea Open Air Nursery School was established in 1928 by Dr Susan Isaacs and American mother Natalie Davies. Ninety years later, its legacy of providing high quality early education and outdoor learning experiences to children in and around the nearby streets of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea lives on.

Isaacs created an environment in which children could be thinkers, reasoners, and discoverers and she could expand her story telling and observations of children.

Today, the garden is still central to the philosophy, providing year-round free access indoors and outdoors to children from diverse backgrounds. It offers the same degree of risk, challenge and adventure that was offered in the 1930s – but minus the open pit, which remained uncovered until the 1990s.

In the “garden of imagination” there are many nooks and crannies where children can play and hide. There’s also a sandbox with a pirate ship and harbor house, a vegetable garden, a muddy kitchen and a pond; equipment that allows children to climb, balance, coordinate and swing, such as traditional slides and swings; and falling trees that children use in their imaginary games.

Robinson explains, “We also have a forestry school on site, where we light fires and use large-scale tools like bow saws to cut wood. Offsite, we take eight children by bus to our designated wildlife sanctuary at Holland Park.

“Children learn to use tools, such as peelers to carve elderberry to make mini houses, and saws to cut wood to make forest school name badges. These activities are interdisciplinary and offer children the risk and challenge of knowing that they are in a safe and nurturing environment. The skills they acquire are immense, allowing them to become strong and resilient learners.

“Chelsea Outdoor Nursery School has evolved over the years, but the philosophy of Susan Isaacs has been influential in creating the school we are today.”


  • Early Childhood Pioneers in Context: Their Lives, Enduring Influence and Impact on Practice Today by Dr Pam Jarvis, Louise Swiniarski and Wendy Holland (Routledge)

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Dora W. Clawson