Susan Isaac’s Malting House ‘child laboratory’

Following the early progressive educational thinkers such as Froebel and Dewey, came came the influence of research into medicine, the physical sciences and the emerging fields of sociology and psychology. Scientific data provided the basis of arguments for public investment in children and to cater for their development. The new ‘science’ of child-rearing and child development reconstructed the role and tasks of motherhood, and early childhood services came to be seen as by some experts as offering better than mothers could provide.
Susan Isaacs (1885-1948) was one such influential pedagogist who translated the complex psychological developmental theories of theorists such as Freud and Piaget into something that could be practically used and understood by parents and teachers rearing or teaching children in the early years.

Left: Portrait of Susan Isaacs, c.1910; right: A biography of Isaac's extraordinary life by Philip Graham (2009)

After training as a teacher and demonstrating academic brilliance, Isaacs was accepted to study philosophy at Manchester University. She later became an infant school teacher. Yet it was when she was approached by Geoffrey Pyke to head a new progressive early childhood school that she found her true vocation pioneering a radical approach to educating young children.

Malting House Garden School, 1927

Isaacs, like Froebel and Dewey, advocated an individualised approach to learning characterised by gentle encouragement to children to discover the nature of the world for themselves. She was also heavily influenced  by the scientific psychological and developmental theories of Freud and Piaget; and was a pioneer in child-psychoanalysis developing on Melanie Klein's work.

Malting House interior, c.1990. The original balconies are still visible, where stenographers took notes on the children’s conversations and behaviour. Pyke’s family quarters were to the right.

With Pyke, Isaacs established the Malting House School in 1924 devising an environment and curriculum that was to stimulate the child’s powers of curiosity and inquiry, and where the intellectual development and emotional behaviour of the child was to be observed and recorded. The role of the teacher was to facilitate and guide the child.

Susan Isaacs with children at the Malting House School.

"A large rambling residence” situated in Malting House Lane, Cambridge, the house was adapted for use as a school, yet contained no classrooms (Graham, 2008: 8). Instead, it included a range of stimulating equipment and spaces. Outside, this included a garden with a sandpit, water-tap, tool shed, a summer house with open sides, a see-saw, sliding boards, movable ladders and a “jungle gym” climbing cage (Grenier, 2009: 26). Inside was a space with paints (both artists and house painter’s paints), woodwork tools and materials, maps of Cambridge towns and country, a gramophone and records, a pendulum and a laboratory for the older children. There also included some formal educative material such as Montessori equipment, a library and a typewriter.

Children in the Malting House workshop where they used an adult-sized drill press and lathe.

In order to observe the emotional behaviour of children, as much freedom as possible was allowed. Based on Freudian principles, the aim was to “produce a new generation less nerve ridden than the old. The newest psychology has taught us something about what to avoid in the way of repression, what kind of attachments should be encouraged and what should be discouraged, what sort of emotional outlets should be provided.” (May, 1997: 169) 

Malting House children with a gramaphone they operated themselves.

However, Isaacs did acknowledge that within a free environment children also needed order, security and guidance. Through her observations of children in their play she saw how the children used the environment to make sense of the world, noting that children showed a capacity for logical thinking that was not fundamentally different from that of adults (May, 1997: 169). Yet she also saw the shortcomings of Piaget’s theory of stages, and questioned his reliance on clinic-based observations, noticing that children were more likely to show their thinking and capabilities in an environment like the Malting House School (Grenier, 2009: 26)

Here the children work in the Malting House science laboratory. The boy is using a bunsen burner for his experiment.

Though the school venture was short-lived, running for only five years, her writings which combined her experiences with a Freudian view of child development had a lasting impact on early years education. 

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