I Learn from Children

I Learn from Children

Caroline Pratt, the founder of The Play School, later known as The City and Country School, believed that the school should fit the child instead of the child fitting the school. In the early 20th century in New York City, this was a progressive idea along with her ideas that early learning comes through first-hand experiences with play being the most effective and natural avenue for children. After three decades of leading such a school, she wrote her beliefs and experiences in educating the whole child in I Learn from Children, which was first published in 1948 by Simon and Schuster.

Growing up in the late 19th century in rural New York, Caroline became a teacher in a one room school at age sixteen. After moving to the village to teach the first grade, she was offered a scholarship to a Teacher's College which began her formal education in the then very structured ways of teaching. Being dissatisfied with the Kindergarten curriculum, she transferred to the Arts and Crafts focus. Again, she was frustrated with curriculum based on the idea that “education was practice, but never by the slightest taint practical!”1

After graduating, she began teaching Manual Training at the Normal School for Girls in Philadelphia, another teacher's college. Seeking a better way to teach, she attended a summer course on useful models for Manual Training at the Sloyd School in Sweden. Still not satisfied, she began her own education at a library, which was a gathering place for liberals. There, education became a living entity for her, and she realized that “a school's job was... not to finish but to begin education.”2

To further round out her education, Caroline assisted Helen Marot in investigating the custom tailoring trade, which brought her into the homes where the women worked long hours in poor conditions. She came to believe that “a school's greatest value must be to turn out human beings who could think effectively and work constructively, who could in time make a better world than this for living in.”3

In I Learn from Children, Caroline outlined how she began to implement her new ideas, beginning with a private school and two settlement houses in New York City. Her direction was for the children to make what they wanted and she was on hand to assist as needed. Her one rule was, “Work or leave the shop.”4 She saw the children decide what to make, plan their work, and create the object by themselves with only occasional assistance when needed.

Caroline was further intrigued by beginning this practical education with young children so that they would be “started right.” She felt that the desire to learn was natural in children and that “the play impulse in children is really a work impulse.”5 She felt adults did not understand children's “play” and believed that “the moment we scorned this impulse and set it aside, and treated it as something apart from serious work, at that moment we were beginning to waste the child,” his energies and his time.6 She asked, “What economy have we served if we have wasted the urge to learn?”7

In summary Caroline declared, “It has taken me a lifetime of learning from children to begin to know these things: how to stop the waste, how to channel the precious forces of children.”8 In the balance of the book she outlined how she learned to teach the whole child through child-directed, meaningful play. Along the way she learned the importance of not answering a child's question so that he will discover the knowledge first hand, of not asking questions for the child so that she will discover how to ask for knowledge, of providing opportunities for first-hand experiences in their world, and of allowing the children to use their senses in hands-on ways to interpret their experiences.

Caroline began in 1914 with six five-year-old students, and the school eventually grew to include children from five to thirteen years of age. She discovered that each age had different needs in their development. The sixes, for example, naturally drifted to a more cooperative depiction of their world in which they would build a city as a group and take turns acting out the different roles such as a grocer or a train conductor. The sevens needed to produce a product and thus made a realistic model of the city, learning mathematics as they measured and crafted metal buildings to scale. The eights, needing concrete experiences through meaningful work, established a real school store complete with buying wholesale stock, selling supplies, and balancing the accounts.

Each age group had a class job such as a post office (nines), a custom hand lettering business (tens), a print shop (elevens), a toy manufacturing business and publishing the monthly The Bookworm's Digest (twelves), and building maintenance, photography, and tutoring (thirteens). Caroline found that these jobs naturally led to learning reading, mathematics, writing, geography, history, science, the arts, and technical skills as they expanded on their responsibilities. For instance, the tens, as they created hand lettered signs and charts, might explore the beginning of languages and letters, the history of scribes, the illuminated texts created in the Middle Ages, illustrations techniques, the making of ink, and the math of planning a balanced chart.

Another discovery was the relationship children have between freedom and interest. Caroline found that “Freedom to work, and the discipline of work, both individual work and group work – these were the values on which the children thrived and grew.”9 She found that children, just like adults, needed to be taken seriously and given respect for their work. And she found that as children took on jobs, they developed a sense of responsibility to their group and to the school. She saw this as a solid foundation for “future citizens of a democracy.”10

Dramatic plays created by the children were a way of displaying their shared learning and had the added benefit of uniting the “word-minded” and “graphic-minded” children in one creative activity. Caroline explained, “As they learned about their world they gave it back in this richly satisfying group activity, pooling their knowledge of facts and their imaginative understanding of how things really were, in the near, present world about them or in the far-away or long-ago.”11

Ironically, Caroline found it was a difficult part of her work to “sell” the children's parents of her generation about “the charm, intelligence, wit, and general excellence of their children!”12 Throughout I Learn from Children, Caroline displayed her faith in the children's desire and ability to learn through their first-hand play and work experiences, supplemented by other sources when needed.

  • 1. Pratt, Caroline. I Learn From Children. Perennial Library Edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. p. 12.
  • 2. Op.cit., Pratt., pp. 14-15.
  • 3. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 15.
  • 4. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 16.
  • 5. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 7.
  • 6. Op.cit., Pratt., pp. 7, 9.
  • 7. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 9.
  • 8. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 10.
  • 9. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 68.
  • 10. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 168.
  • 11. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 148.
  • 12. Op.cit., Pratt., p. 192.