One of the most exhilarating books on early childhood education – or, any educational age for that matter – comes from a perhaps unexpected voice, Carolina Pratt. We only say unexpected because her highly influential text, “I Learn From Children”, doesn’t have the readership that it most certainly deserves. We hope that changes and a new generation will discover her singular voice the way we have.
Informative, hopeful, and at times combative, “I Learn From Children” flips the tables, rather definitively, on standardized approaches to education. Basically, the industrialization of education, with students neatly positioned uniformly in rows, is upended, in favor of a more personalized approach. Metaphorically speaking, out with the factory-style learning, and in with a customized, individual understanding of how children learn. Her insights, now approaching one hundred years old, still strike us as relevant today as they were then.
In this respect, Carolina Pratt shares much in common with Maria Montessori.
So, who was Carolina Pratt? Originally from rural, upstate New York, Carolina Pratt was a progressive reformer of education who was highly influenced by the idea that children learn best through play. (She believed that open-ended exploration would lead children to important discoveries about their world.) After teaching traditional first grade in the local village school, she moved to New York City, where she eventually founded what is now known as the City and Country School, in Greenwich Village.
Working at the turn of the twentieth century, at a similar time to Montessori, Pratt essentially shed the pedagogical assumption that “teachers know best”. No easy position to adopt, especially amongst fellow teachers. Invariably, she shook things up amongst the establishment by trying to innovate against the grain of tradition. To use Montessori’s often recited dictum, Pratt built her school on the idea that education should be about, “following the child”.
Children come first. Not teachers. And, least of all, curriculums.
Recognizing that every child is different, Carolina Pratt sought to displace the status quo. Instead of a teacher at the front of the classroom, telling children what to do and when to do it, Pratt insisted that it is the children that must take learning into their own hands. She believed in this adage so much that she actually created her own set of wooden blocks, now called the Carolina Pratt Unit Blocks, which are still in production today.
These original blocks, having celebrated their one-hundredth anniversary in 2003, serve as the foundation for the school. They are literally, not to sound cliche, the building blocks for how the school has evolved into the beacon of alternative approaches that it is today. The motto of City and Country reads: “How a child learns to learn will impact his or her life forever. It all starts with a block, and that block leads…”
“I Learn From Children” is comprised of so many gems, insights which continue to sparkle across the past century and beyond. If only we can learn to follow these original intuitions, adopting the attitude and mindset to put together new creations, working diligently with these tried and tested wooden blocks.
You can order the book here.
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