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Our view of what childhood is has always influenced how children are educated and what schools look like. Until the mid-eighteenth century boys and girls were often seen as miniature adults, as uncivilized imps of Satan, or, with John Locke, as blank sheets of paper on which a parent or teacher could inscribe knowledge and morality. The Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century cast the child as a Wordsworthian innocent, naturally good and eager to learn; it also had important and lasting, though far from universal, effects on the physical form of schools.
One of the earliest fictional manifestations of these new ideas occurs in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Both books take place at Plumfield, the boarding school run by Jo and her husband, which was based largely on the radical educational theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his friend Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, who once ran a short-lived day school in Boston on similar principles. At Plumfield it is assumed that all children are potentially good, and that if they are educated with kindness and according to their individual needs (as well as getting lots of exercise and fresh air and frequent moral lessons), they will grow up to be worthy citizens of a democracy. Plumfield looks like a large, comfortable family house, which it once was, and is surrounded by orchards and woods. The children have their own garden plots, keep pets, and go on educational nature walks, possibly inspired by the works of Henry Thoreau, on whom Louisa May Alcott once had a serious crush.
Over the last hundred years there have been many other Romantically inspired attempts to change the way traditional elementary schools look and operate. The Waldorf movement, founded in Europe in 1919 and based in part on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, emphasized individuality and imagination not only in children but in architecture. Its schools today, in many parts of the world, still tend to be rambling, informal-looking buildings that sometimes recall Alpine chalets, with their steep overhanging roofs and peaked gables; a few look rather like the fantasy houses of Oz. Montessori schools, which also date from the early twentieth century, encourage self-directed learning and physical activity and stress the importance of a child’s relation to nature; they may refer to their staff members as “guides” rather than teachers. These schools, too, tend to look like large, comfortable houses surrounded by grass and trees. Inside, their classrooms are full of samples of the natural world—ant farms and chickens and white mice—and the walls are papered with the children’s drawings and paintings.
A related European movement, the open-air school of the 1920s and 1930s, emphasized the idea that students should spend as much time as possible outdoors. As Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor point out in School, many of these institutions were founded for children who either had or were seen as in danger of acquiring tuberculosis; they were the juvenile equivalent of the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s…
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