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What are the past origins and philosophical concepts of childhood? Has the society always treated the child as a ‘whole person’, given him or her the necessary status in society? Was there a break-through in mentality? The purpose of this essay is, to help me identify and gain an understanding to see whether childhood became an established and recognised time of life for the child throughout the centuries. Personally, I believe that, all children deserve an opportunity to prove their capabilities and that they should be respected as individuals.
However, until around the twelfth century, European society did not think of childhood as an important period of development, in the manner that we do nowadays. Children were not cherished as individuals. In the Middle Ages, children had no status in society, and were considered as ‘miniature’ adults. Children were trained to become the future productive members of the society or community. Moreover, the young children were not expected to need any special treatment. This placid attitude, reflected deeply in the lack of schools available. The possibility of having proper education was remote, and considered to be an extravagant luxury fit only for the boys coming from wealthy families. Children’s welfare and rights were still not recognised or acknowledged. But society’s ideology towards the conception of childhood changed gradually from time to time. Research shows that eventually, children stopped being considered as an addition contribution to their families’ financial economy. Thanks to the initiative efforts and work of influential international figures, new concepts of childhood were introduced. New systems and reforms were established to give status to the child. Towards the twentieth century education replaced child-labour. Unlike previous centuries, society acknowledged the assets of the child’s educational contribution, rather than his financial input. Since then, education became the main element of childhood, and has become a necessity. Much can be said about the twenty- first century where, individualism and creativity are synonymous with early childhood.
Studies into the history of childhood during the medieval times
This was not always the case, as one of the most controversial issues of the study of childhood’s history is whether or not children were treated as miniature adults.
Early studies into the history of childhood were those of Aries Philippe (1962), and Lloyd De Mause, (1976). Both historians came to a conclusion and stated that the children’s welfare has evolved significantly throughout the last centuries. Both historians give a very negative image of medieval childhood. Lloyd De Mause (1976) went as far as saying that;
“The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken,”
Moreover he stated that;
“The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused”.
Lloyd De Mause, (ed.), The History of Childhood (London, 1976).
Furthermore, Aries pointed out and supported this idea by saying that,
“It is hard to believe that this neglect was due to incompetence or incapacity; it seems more probable that there was no place for childhood in the medieval world.”(Aries, 2002, p.33)
Moreover, in his book ‘Centuries of childhood’, he continues to sustain this argument by saying that “there was no concept of childhood as a state different to adulthood in these centuries, and therefore, even if parents did feel affection for their offspring, they did not fully understand how to respond to the emotional needs of their children.”.
Ariès, Philippe, 1962, Centuries of Childhood, New York: Random House
However, this argument was strongly challenged by Hawalt et al (1986). To prove her point she researched corner inquest records where it was concluded that medieval families did in fact make a distinction between a child and an adult.
Hawalt (1986) Hwang,P.C., in Lamb,ME., and Sigel I.E. (ed)(1996) Images of Childhood. London: Routledge
David Archard (2001), also agrees with this opinion. He argues that,
“all societies at all times have had the concept of childhood, that is to say, the concept that children can be distinguished from adults in various ways”
Archard D., in Heywood. C (ed) (2001) A history of Childhood. USA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Linda Pollack, (1983) in her rigorous research criticised severely all the opinions of Aries and de Mause and argues that childhood was not as stern as it was implied by these two writers. She continues to sustain her point and says, that the parents always treated their children in the same way and that there was no change at all during this period. Moreover, she argues that childhood did not evolve much during this period.
“The texts reveal no significant change in the quality of parental care given to, or the amount of affection felt for infants for the period 1500-1900”
Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children – Parent : Child Relations from 1500-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
It is worth assuming that, there are different opinions of how childhood was perceived throughout the centuries. In order to determine this, it is important to establish if there was a change, how it changed, and the final outcome of this change.
The change through History
“Any country and citizenry that truly believes attention to children’s care and education during the early years is of inestimable value to society would make every reasonable effort to invest in preschool education”.
Early Childhood Education journal, Vol 32, no 3 December 2004 (c2004) Blended perspectives A Global vision for high Quality E.C.E.
Between the 16th and 17th century (pre-industrial period), England was mainly rural and agricultural. During their childhood, kids worked in the fields. If they could not work on their families’ farm, they were put to work elsewhere.
The modern idea of childhood being separated from adulthood life, started to develop throughout the sixteenth century. Middle class parents began to demand some form of formal educational system for their sons. Consequently, schooling for boys started getting popular. This revolutionary social attitude towards children and childhood, now requested new educational provisions. The number of new schools began expanding throughout Europe. Parents opted for their children to attend school, rather than teaching them grown-up skills.
By the end of the sixteenth century, and beginning of the seventeenth century, society started distinguishing the role of a child from that of an adult. This new conception of childhood put upper class children in the limelight, and they soon became a source of amusement among adults. They were dressed fashionable clothes and were the delight of their parents. However, another new perception of the concept of childhood soon arose amongst the church and the moralists, who felt that during the early years, spiritual development was important. They thought that children needed discipline and education. The child was perceived as
“a delicate creature, who must be protected, educated, and moulded in accordance with the current educational beliefs and goals”. (Aries, 2002, p.35)
However, during the Victorian age, the thought of having any primary education was still not that essential. Nevertheless, the Victorian era has been depicted by historians, as a basis of the modern concept of early childhood education. Paradoxically, during this period, the Industrial revolution promoted child labour.
At this time, the industrial Revolution brought on new jobs. Children worked daily in coal mines and factories. They carried out hazardous jobs. They were ideal for these jobs as they were agile, and could crawl into small places between the heavy machines. They were paid less than adults. Throughout their childhood, boys and girls had no choice but to work hard, in order to help their families. This was not considered mean or odd, because parents thought that work was important for the financial situation of their families. Throughout this time, children spent their childhood crammed in overcrowded rooms and unhealthy environment. All this resulted in bad health, injuries, and sometimes even death. In his novels, Charles Dickens (1812) emphasizes on the severity of their childhood.
Child manual labour was slowly diminished and finally stopped in Britain. This change was brought on through the introduction of the factory Acts of 1802-1878. Britain and all Europe were still short of any primary educational provision. During the 17th and 18th century, “Monitorial” schools, which were established by the Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, and the New Lanark elementary schools, founded by Robert Owen were the only foundations which provided education for the infants. During this period there was still the idea that education throughout childhood was irrelevant. The majority of the children did not attend school, as it was not yet compulsory. Only boys coming from wealthy families could afford to go to school. They were provided with elementary education to help them with basic literacy, and arithmetic. On the other hand, little girls in Britain, stayed at home, to learn how to become good wives. Disabled children were also subject to be neglected and forgotten. However, it was very unlikely for children to have good quality jobs when they became adults. Lloyd de Mause (1976) supports this argument, and says that children grew up ‘unable to write or read’.
De Mause, Lloyd, (1976). (ed.), The History of Childhood :London,
The Victorians gradually started realising the role of the child during childhood. Influential reformers started becoming aware of the true concept of childhood. They started debating the development of children. Politicians also become conscious that educating children could be an asset to the future society.
Since then this concept of childhood remained dominant in other societies. Nutbrown et al (2010) sustains this by
“the education of young children could contribute to the development of a better society”
Nutbrown C., Clough P., and Selbie P (2010) Early Childhood Education., London:Sage publications
Throughout history, early childhood educators struggled to better children’s education and holistic needs. Historically they all sustained the same idea that of children need education to develop their maximum potentiality.
However these influential figures weren’t all of the same opinion about the teaching and theories of learning. They disagreed on several issues, but all emphasized on the importance of a multi-sensory approach to learning.
Froebel, Montessori and Steiner all agreed upon tangible material which enabled the child to explore and discover the world around them.
Some other pioneers of that time assumed that child’s development is an innate skill. Although their conception of child’s development differed, Russeau, Piaget and Vygotsky all agreed that the child’s characteristics were part of ‘nature’.
Consequently, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries schools started being established by benefactors and politicians who believed that society could be of an advantage by having better educated children . Nutbrown et al (2010) wrote,
‘Schools were being developed and systems devised and expanded, not only by religious organisations and benefactors, but also of course by the socially and politically motivated who were driven, not by religious conviction but by a belief that the education of young children could contribute to the development of a better society’.
When compulsory education was introduced in the nineteenth century there was a desperate resistance from working-class families. They needed the children’s wages and would not exchange them for education.
However, the work and effort of early pioneers contributed to the historical and philosophical changes which eventually improved the role of the children in society.
Influential Figures and their philosophy of childhood
Education is the womb in which our society reproduces itself and re-creates itself for the future. ( Louis Galea Minister of Education, National Minimum Curriculum Malta -1999)
Many influential figures in history started changing the ideas, the policies and habits of how early education was perceived by society. The idea that educating children would give contribution to society was accepted. Nutbrown et al (2010) pg 5, sustains this argument when she wrote and said
‘seeing education and schooling as part of what we could call a social intervention to make a difference to the lives of poor and orphaned children’
Influential figures that contributed in the development of early childhood education are brought up in this study. Although their ideas of childhood development were different, all of them thought that the child’s innate tendencies and characteristic were part of ‘nature’ and that learning should be by discovery and not by instructions.
Comenius (1592-1670), is credited for introducing the first illustration book for children who was called: “Orbis Pictus (The World of Pictures). He believed that children needed pictures to help them learn. His philosophy was based upon the idea that, children should be permitted to play, learn and discover at their own pace. He compared the children to ‘seeds’ Selbie & Clough (2005)
journal of early childhood research 2005, Sage Publications (www.sagepublications.com)
Nutbrown C et al (2010) pg 113 sustains this and says, that they need a ‘guiding hand to help them flourish’, and that ‘a child cannot be forced to learn’. Nevertheless, she continues to say that ‘a child will blossom into the flower he or she was created to become’. Moreover, she believes in social improvement of inclusive education where ‘all children should receive their education, whatever their gender and social class’. In Nutbrown C. et al (2010)
During the eighteenth century Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a philosopher, first wrote about ‘nurturing’ children as opposed to the ‘repressive’ perspective taken at the time (MacLeod-Brudenell 2004). Rousseau renowned for his book Emilie, encouraged free play. He focused on the surrounding settings. His style is still followed today in early childhood classes. Following on from his work, other theorists have developed varying approaches to the care and education of children.
Pestalozzi, (1746-1827), born in Zurich, believed that children should ‘discover the world through activity’. Nutbrown C. et al (2001) Pg 112. His wish was to educate the child as a whole individual. His interests in children’s rights makes him an important focus of historical and philosophical studies. He was one of the primary founders of inclusive education and later founded a school for girls.
Following Pestallozi, was Robert Owen ((1771-1858), who started the first elementary schools for children whose parents and older brothers worked in the New Lanark Mills. Moreover, as stated in the book early childhood education, Nutbrown et al (2010) he was ‘making an education of the community’. He supported the enactment of the Factory Act of 1819, and was the first from forbidding teachers to hit children.
‘I support a philosophy of education which does its best to reduce any need for punishment’
Nutbrown et al ( 2010) early childhood education Sage Publications
Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), a German educator, was one of the early pioneers of the reformation of childhood education. As an idealist, he supported the idea, that every child from birth had educational potentiality, and that an appropriate educational setting was imperative to help the child to continue to grow and develop his or her optimal potential.
“Young children are to be regarded and tended essentially like plants. Like these, if they were given the right conditions, they would grow and unfold and flower, by their own law, each according to its individual capacity and destiny.” (Lawrence, 1969, p.195)
Lawrence, E (1969) Friedrich Froebel and English Education London, Routledge&Kegan Paul
Froebel believed that a child should learn at his own pace, and the child should never be hurried or rushed in this childhood development.
“Young animals and plants are given rest, and arbitrary interference with their growth is avoided, because it is known that the opposite practice would disturb their pure unfolding and sound development; but, the young human being is looked upon as a piece of wax or a lump of clay which man can mould into what he pleases” (Froebel, 1907, p. 8).
Froebel, F. (1907) The Education of Man New York, Appleton & Co
Froebel s philosophy was based on the importance of play through manipulative materials, creativity and motor experience.
‘Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words’
Friedrich Froebel (1895) Pedagogies of the Kindergarten research publisher on internet
He maintained the idea that a young child can only learn through direct contact with tangible objects.
Froebel’s dream was to create a world for little children… a world which he called kindergarten. According to Froebel, “play is the freest active manifestation of the child’s inner self which springs from the need of that inner living consciousness to realize itself outwardly.” (Bowen, 1907, p.116)
Bowen, H. (1907) Froebel and Education by Self-Activity London, William Heinemann
In Froebel’s kindergarten, activities through play enhanced a child’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual development. Play was the most important steps in the child’s growth. Froebel was fascinated by the child innate wish to play.
“It is through play that the child learns the use of his limbs, of all his bodily organs, and with this use gains health and strength. Through play he comes to know the external world, the physical qualities of the objects which surround him, their motions, action, and reaction upon each other, and the relation of these phenomena to himself, € a knowledge that forms the basis of that which will be his permanent stock for life.” (Bowen, 1907, p.101)
Bowen, H. (1907) Froebel and Education by Self-Activity London, William Heinemann
To sustain his philosophy, he provided the infants with educational toys to stimulate their creativity.
Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), another pioneer, whose philosophy in educating was by letting children use their own senses and learn through experience. She also encouraged home education.
On the other hand, the Macmillan Sisters (1859-1931) dedicated their lives on promoting a combined kind of service, that of social, health and education. This was to encourage mothers to bring their children to the nursery. Children stayed in well-supervised play areas. They introduced health and social welfare in their kindergarten schools to deal with a holistic development of the child.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austro-Hungarian philosopher believed that learning should be holistic. In his Waldorf schools, crafts music and arts played an important factor in the school’s curriculum.
Whereas, Montessori and Froebel focused on other aspects of learning that of individual discovery, Steiner based his ideas on more social aspects.
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician, worked with poor and mentally disabled children. She taught them self help skills. Montessori also believed that children had an innate ability to learn educational skills. In the Montessori environment, children were encouraged to correct their own mistakes, hence permitting the child to be reinforced positively and subsequently acquire an internal satisfaction. Whilst Froebel believed that concrete objects would also teach abstract concepts, Maria Montessori believed that children’s learning would guide and help the child to build up a better future. Her multi-sensory approach to learning is still very popular in kindergarten classes.
Another pioneer, Susan Sutherland Isaacs’s (1885-1948) influence is still experienced in schools. She established the ‘experimenting’ Malting House School in 1924. Nutbrown et al (2010) pg 54 her philosophy highlighted the concept of ‘discovery’ learning and play as the child’s primary education. She also believed in the ‘maximum use of the outdoors’ Nutbrown et al (2010) pg 107
Jean Piaget’s (1896-1980) philosophy also respected children as ‘independent learners’. He argued that children learn from their spontaneous involvement of activities. He also emphasised the involvement of play to enhance cognitive development.
‘Piaget viewed play as a process in which the child is active and through which the child learns’, (O’Hagan and Smith, 1993, p.69).
O’Hagan, M. & Smith, M. (1993) Early Years Child Care and Education: Key Issues 2nd ed. China: Tindall
Piaget spoke about children during their childhood as being ‘egocentric’, that is to say that because of their restricted knowledge of the world, they have trouble understanding the point of view of others. His work presented much criticism. Donaldson (1978) in particular argued that many of Piaget’s research lacked relation to actual life. (Donaldson 1978) .
Donaldson, M. (1978) Children’s Minds London: Fontana
Another early theorist, who can be remembered as a ‘constructivist’ is Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). Whilst agreeing with Piaget that children were ‘active’ learners, he placed more weight on social communication with others, as a way to stimulate learning. He introduced the ‘zone of proximal development’. Although he also believed that intellectual development was natural, he argued that a child had to have the guidance of adults to attain her optimal potentiality. (MacLeod-Brudenell, 2004).
MacLeod-Brudenell, I. (Ed) (2004) Advanced Early Years Care and Education Oxford: Heinemann.
It can be argued that, the philosophy of these historical figures can be correlated to their interpretation of the issue of ‘children’s rights’. All agree that children have the right to learn. Jalango M.R. et al, support this idea by stating that
“All young children have a right to develop optimally, to have their intrinsic worth as human beings recognised, and to have their learning facilitated by caring adults”
Jalongo M.R., Fennimore B.S., Pattnark. J., Laverick D. M., Brewster J., and Mutuku M. (2004) Blended perspectives: A Global vision ,” Early Childhood Education Journal Vol 32, no 3
The concept that learning is a process which cannot be hurried has been echoed through time by all pioneers of Early Childhood Education. Nowadays children are made to learn from printed out handouts. It is difficult for me to believe that young infants can achieve more from this formal teaching, than they do from experimenting with age- appropriate tasks. Nowadays, the ideal kindergarten classroom is letting children experimenting in an enriched environment, caring for pets and plants, creative painting, engaging themselves in role play and above all getting messy.
Acts and Legislations
“There is no duty more important than ensuring that children’s rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and that they can grow up in peace”.
Kofi Annan, the 7th Secretary-General of the United Nations
It is argued that all children ought to have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and should be respected as individuals. Unfortunately this was not always the issue.
In 1862, the Revised Code was established. Grants were given to elementary schools according to the grade of performance and abilities of its pupils. Gradually, the life for poor children started changing. It took some time for the present government to decide that it was important for the children to be protected by law. Child-labour was discussed in parliament, and it was established that no child under the age of ten was allowed to work in a mine. Parliament also passed a law requiring children to attend school every week. This was presented in parliament by Lord Shaftesbury who later on founded and was chairman of the Ragged School Union. These ‘ragged schools’ were for poor children. However, school was not yet compulsory, and children had to pay for this service. The Forster Education Act of 1870 came into force and required that all England would provide elementary schools to young children. The Mundella Code of 1882 brought on a big change. Finally, schooling became compulsory. All children had to attend school till the age of 10 and later on it became obligatory till the age of 12. Shortly after on, the school’s ‘pence’ fee was removed.
Discussions started in parliament, to decide the age when a child should start attending school. The idea of sending the children a year before other European countries was brought up by Mundella. He addressed the parliament and said
“I ask you Englishmen and Englishwomen are Austrian children to be educated before English children?” (National Education League 1869:133)
National Education League 1869:133) Report of the General Meetings of the Members of the National Education League., Birmingham: National Education League
After the Second World War, in Britain, the decrease in family siblings and the closing down of kindergarten schools had lessened the opportunity for little children to play and socialise. At that time, the Local Education Authorities (LEAs) found it hard to add to the number of nurseries, as the Ministry of Education Circular 8/60 said that there could be no increase in nursery school provision. The shortage of LEA nursery places and the continuous increase of parental awareness in the little children’s wellbeing and education during their childhood, triggered a new sort of nursery provision, that of nursery groups.
In 1972, the Secretary of State for Education, Ms. Margaret Thatcher presented a White Paper, which planned for nursery day schools to be provided for the little children. There was no turning back. Nowadays research shows that children’s rights are recognised internationally. These have been acknowledged in most of the countries, through both international and national treaties. The most important laws which contributed to the rights of the children are, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Declaration of Human Rights, Children Act 1989, the Education Act 2002, Every Child Matters, and the new Childcare Act 2006 which is entirely devoted to early childhood practice. Moreover, the Salamanca Statement, 1994 -UNESCO also states that all children irrespective of their culture, ability or language have the right to develop their individual potential. Historically, children with special needs were excluded from mainstream classes. This became a major human rights issue.
‘Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming society and achieving education for all”
The Salamanca Statement 1994, UNESCO 1994
Clearly now all the children are active individuals who “can contribute to society amongst others, and who are much more competent than we choose to believe and at much younger ages too”. Freeman cited in King, (2007:210)
King, M.(2007) Children’s rights to participation. In waller, T. (2007) An introduction to Early Childhood. Paul Chapman:London
The Establishment of Laws and Acts in Malta
Education is the womb in which our society reproduces itself and re-creates itself for the future. ( Louis Galea Minister of Education, National Minimum Curriculum Malta -1999)
During the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century in Malta, the vast majority of Maltese families also lived in great poverty. Childhood was not much different for Maltese children. Boys, at a very early age, were sent to toil in fields to help their families whilst, girls helped their mothers at home. As the Maltese families were very poor, the necessity to provide their children with proper education was never considered. During the British stay in Malta, the Governor Sir Henry F. Bouviere (1836-42) engaged Mr. John Austin the High Commission to do research about the situation of the Maltese families. In the Commissioner’s report of 1836, Mrs. Sarah Austin commented on the Maltese children and stated that:
“The moral and intellectual contribution of the people is dreadful. No schools in the Casals, no tolerable education for the middling classes, a University whose first professor received £25 a year, no press, no place for discussion, no intercourse with the English of an amicable and instructive type- what wonder if they are ignorant and childish. The only thing I cannot understand is how life is sustained under these circumstances.”
Quoted from Dr. David R. Marshall in History of the Maltese Language in Local Education (Malta, University Press 1971) pg 13
In 1849, in Malta there were only 30 primary schools, whilst in Gozo only two small schools were established. Sir Patrick Joseph Keenan, the current Commissioner writing a report about, in 1881 also suggested ‘payment according to results obtained by children’. Teachers were paid according to the results, which were obtained by the children. These had to sit for an exam which was given by the ‘inspector’. This English system was also used in Malta till 1900.
J. Zammit Mangion states; ‘the tyranny of reading and writing and figuring was now complete. The children were trained like pointer to bark at print’.
J Zammit Mangion,in op.cit. p.135.
In the early twentieth century (1927) a survey was carried out in Malta, and Pawlu F. Bellanti (1901) stated that,
“the fact that nearly fifty per cent of the rising generation are growing up without any sort of training or instruction is of too serious a nature to be left unnoticed.”
Bellanti P.F., Census of the Maltese Islands taken on the Sunday the 31st March, 1901, under Ordinances no X of 1900 and NoIII of 1901, (Malta Government Printing Office, 1903) p.LVII
In 1944 the Education act gave rise to the creation of other schools and in 1981, the creation of special educational needs schools.
The Education Act in Malta came into force in 1988. It declared that obligatory education commences at the age of 5 years. It also declared that it was the responsibility of every parent of a child to make certain that their infant had to attend school everyday during the whole scholastic year.
It was a break through for all the children. Inclusive education was also a big issue and the Maltese National Minimum Curriculum ( 1999), dedicates a section entirely to early childhood education. It acknowledges inclusive Education as one of the basic principles in education. By contrast to previous centuries, a child with a disability now attends a mainstream kindergarten, with other children. In 2000 The Equal Opportunities Act was established in ParliamentInfo. The Equal Opportunities Act (2000) spoke about inclusion and stated that it was against the law for an educational entity to discriminate agai
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