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Educational Pioneers: Susan Isaacs, 1885-1948


Susan Isaacs was a British psychologist and educationalist whose work spanned the first half of the twentieth century. She came to education with a background in philosophy and psychology and this influenced much of her work with young children. Smith (1985) writes that ‘she probably did more than anyone else to integrate the increasing theoretical knowledge of child psychology with practical methodology in both education and child rearing practices’ (p.17). Isaacs was known for the accessibility of her work to practitioners and to parents. She wrote for a varied audience, including academic papers, books and columns in parenting journals. Isaacs’ child-centred theories expanded on the work of other educationalists, such as Froebel’s approach to active learning and Dewey’s emphasis on social interaction, making them accessible to those working with children (Pound, 2005).

A Brief History

Isaacs was born into a large family in Lancashire in 1885. Her father was a journalist and a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. Her mother died when Isaacs was still a child. She left school at fifteen and travelled abroad to work as a governess, then returned to teach in England. Isaacs quickly realised that to make any progress in the teaching profession she would need qualifications, and she began a teaching course for non-graduates. Her academic ability enabled her to go on to achieve a degree in philosophy at Manchester University and to study psychology at Cambridge. Isaacs went on to train as a psychoanalyst, and she continued to treat patients until late in her life. She took the post of lecturer in infant education at Darlington Training College, and married William Brierly, but the marriage ended after a short time. In 1922 she married Nathan Isaacs, who supported her work throughout their long union. It was in 1924 that Isaacs replied to an advertisement from Geoffrey and Margaret Pyke who were looking for a teacher to set up an experimental nursery school. This became known as the Malting House School, and Isaacs worked there for four years. The children were aged between two and seven years, of mixed ability and behaviour, and came from generally well-healed, academic families. Some of Isaacs’ later written works were based partly on her findings at the Malting House School, including The Nursery Years(1929), Intellectual Growth in Young Children (1930) andThe Children We Teach (1932). Although Isaacs faced some criticism of her ideas, the social climate at the time was opening up to the concept of the importance of childhood and equal opportunities for all children, and her theories on child care were well regarded (Smith, 1985). Isaacs went on to become the Head of the Department of Child Development at the London Institute of Education, as well as contributing to other studies and reports on childhood and education. After a long battle with cancer, she died in 1948, shortly after receiving a CBE for services to education.

Isaacs’ Theories

The Value of the Nursery School

Isaacs had a passionate belief in the place of nursery education in society. She felt that attending a nursery school should be a natural part of a child’s early life: ‘Experience has shown that it can be looked upon as a normal institution in the social life of any civilised community’ (Isaacs, 1952, p.31). The early years setting was a place that should both mirror the family through love and warmth, as well as offering new and exciting opportunities and resources that might not be available at home. Isaacs was clear that ‘the nursery school is an extension of the function of the home, not a substitute for it’ (ibid, p.31). Above all, the nursery setting provided social experiences and companionship that Isaacs believed were vital to a child’s development.

The Environment

Isaacs planned the Malting House School carefully in order to best facilitate children’s development. The indoor space was richly resourced to stimulate learning through play. It included dressing up clothes, art and craft materials, beads, blocks, a typewriter and other play equipment. Like Montessori’s schools, the tables, chairs and cupboards were low down and easy to transport. There were mattresses and rugs for quiet play and resting. The main room opened onto the garden, where there was a play house, sand pit, tool shed, plots for gardening and one of the first climbing frames in Britain (Pound, 2005). Isaacs also believed in taking the children out of the setting. These trips were always purposeful and initiated by the children. Smith writes that a great deal of thought was put into all the resources: ‘None of the equipment was chosen haphazardly, for it was all intended to stimulate the child’s powers of inquiry and curiosity, and thus they would learn’ (Smith, 1985, p.64). Children were given the space to set up games and, where appropriate, to sustain them over long periods, rather than be rushed to tidy them away. Isaacs felt that this promoted focus and patience. The children were expected to take responsibility for the nursery environment, including planning the lunches, setting the table and washing up. As Isaacs explained, ‘children learn to exercise responsibility by having it’ (Isaacs, 1971, p.102).

The Role of the Adult

Isaacs’ felt that the adults working in the nursery school were as much a part of the environment as the space and the resources: ‘Children use reality as a ‘canvas’ on which to project their feelings, and since that reality included both people and things, the whole environment had to provide for successful projection’ (Smith, 1985 p.70). Isaacs believed that this ‘projection’ of feelings, or self-expression, was a vital part of a child’s emotional and social development. Her psychoanalytical background influenced her theories on the social behaviour of young children. She used the term ‘super ego’ to denote the uncompromising need for self-expression demonstrated by the children in her care: Smith explains that the adult’s role was to ‘promote this social development by acting as the good parent, as the positive side of the super ego of the children’ (Smith, 1985, p.107). Isaacs’ understanding was that very young children did not know, for example, how to make amends for something they should not have said or done. The adult’s task was to ‘help them to be good’ (Isaacs, 1951, p.175). Boundaries were clear and consistent, but demonstrated rather than imposed, so that children could begin to understand the consequences of their actions. In this way, a safe, secure, and loving environment was created, which Isaacs felt was key to successful development and learning: ‘Without security as a background to his life he cannot dare to explore or experiment, to express his feelings or to try out new relations to people’(Isaacs, 1952, p.21). She advocated a detailed knowledge of each child in order that the practitioner could respond appropriately to individuals in any situation. Like other educational theorists before her, she believed that this knowledge came from observation. In her customary desire to create user-friendly systems, she produced record cards for teachers to use in their classrooms, designed to build up a picture of the whole child. As well as these more studied and practical roles, Isaacs also encouraged the teacher to enter the magical world of childhood, without interfering in it: ‘By patient listening to the talk of even little children, and watching what they do…we can wish their wishes, see their pictures and think their thoughts’ (Isaacs, 1971, p.15).

The Importance of Play

Isaacs used her psychoanalytical knowledge to underpin her understanding of the role of play in a child’s development. She explained that children’s play was a form of self-expression that enabled them both to release their real feelings safely and to rehearse ways of dealing with a range of emotions. Play was the vehicle for development, the ‘breath of life to the child, since it is through play activities that he finds mental ease, and can work upon his wishes, fears and fantasies so as to integrate them into a living personality’ (Isaacs, 1951, p.210). Isaacs felt that one of the most valuable contributions of the nursery environment was that it provided opportunities for cooperative play. Children could explore relationships with family and friends and develop positive social interactions. As well as the emotional benefits of play, Isaacs also saw it as a means for children to discover and experiment with the world around them. Play allowed emotional and imaginative development to coexist alongside practical inquiry. Children’s play was to be respected and left free to evolve on their own terms because, as Isaacs explained, ‘play has the greatest value for the young child when it is really free and his own’ (Isaacs, 1971, p.133).

Linking Isaacs’ theories to today’s practice

Isaac’s theories on education have a contemporary feel to them, even though she began working on them almost a century ago (Smith, 1985). This is partly due to her progressive ideas, and partly to her concise and approachable style. Isaacs’ creative use of the outside space at the Malting House School will be familiar to early years settings, who are using their outdoor areas more and more. Then there is the debate about how best to record observations and inform planning for individual children, which is still, perhaps remarkably, a very current issue. According to Smith, another of Isaacs’ contributions to modern practice lies in her data and analysis of child-centred practice and play. She gave weight to this approach, contributing to its longevity and giving confidence to practitioners who were already following these ideas. These theories are now woven into the fabric of modern early years teaching, as demonstrated by the EYFS guidelines:’ While playing, children can express fears and relive anxious experiences. They can try things out, solve problems and be creative and can take risks and use trial and error to find things out’ (Learning and Development – play and exploration). Isaacs’ understanding of the need for emotional security to support learning is also present in the EYFS: ‘To mentally or physically engage in learning, children need to feel at ease, secure and confident’ (Learning and Development – active learning). On a grander scale, Isaacs’ vision for nursery attendance for all young children has become a reality.


Isaacs’ educational practices were based on complex psychological theories. Through her gift for communicating ideas, she influenced early years education at both individual and national levels. Her desire for a ‘generous’ environment for children, both in terms of care and resources, remains with practitioners today.

Links with other educational pioneers

Friedrich Froebel, 1782-1852

John Dewey, 1859-1952

Maria Montessori, 1870-1952



Isaacs, S. (1952) The Educational Value of the Nursery School, Headly Brothers Ltd, London

Isaacs, S. (1971 edition) The Nursery Years: The mind of the child from birth to sixth years Routledge, London

Isaacs, S. (1951 edition) Social Development in Young Children, Routledge, London

Smith, Lydia A.H. (1985) To Understand and to Help: the Life and Work of Susan Isaacs(1885-1948), Associated University press, USA

Pound, L. (2005) How Children Learn, Step Forward Publishing, Leamington Spa (The section on Isaac’s life is collated from details in Pound’s book).

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, more years ago than she’d care to mention, Juliet taught in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 classes in South London and East Sussex. She has also worked as a Learning Mentor. She was originally a freelance writer for the FSF and had a children’s picture book published. Juliet is now officially employed by the FSF and Tapestry, working in product support and as an Education Advisor. Along the way she has accumulated a husband, some children and way too many pets!

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