Early Childhood Education

McMillan, Margaret (1860-1931)


Margaret McMillan was an educator, teacher educator, and child and family advocate who fought for children’s causes and inspired legislation on the local and national levels in England. She and her sister Rachel McMillan founded an open-air nursery that later became the internationally famous Rachel McMillan Nursery School and Training Centre. The Centre trained the majority of the first nursery school teacher-administrators in the United States. Margaret was one of the cofounders of the British Nursery School Association, and became its first president. She and Grace Owen were instrumental in the passage of the Fisher Act of 1918, giving Local Education Authorities the power to provide nursery classes or schools for children between the ages of two and five years. This act encompassed many of the ideas and beliefs that McMillan had been espousing for years, including attention to the health, nourishment, and physical welfare of young children. It set standards for the cognitive and social education of children, and the staffing and administration of nursery schools.

Margaret McMillan was born and educated in the United States. The demise of her father disrupted the family’s life. Her mother returned to Scotland, taking her children to live with their maternal grandparents. Margaret completed her schooling, and took positions as a governess and as a companion to a wealthy elderly woman. However, when her employer forced her to choose between socialism and speaking out or inheriting a large sum of money, she left the woman’s employ to join in founding the Independent Labour Party. As an elected member of the Bradford School Board she visited many schools. She discovered a high level of curable diseases and malnutrition among the students. After ascertaining some causes of the problems, including lack of sunlight and fresh air, medical and dental care, she became determined to eliminate these causes of poor health in children. She and her sister founded clinics and an open air camp that later became known as the nursery school.

Margaret saw a need for revising the initial and in-service training of teachers, following her difficulty in finding appropriate teachers for her school during World War I. She decided to add a training center for those who wanted to work with disadvantaged children. One of the institution’s distinctive features was a focus on understanding children’s behavior through observation. Margaret’s philosophical stance, that a nursery school teacher “helps to make a brain and a nervous system,” finds its current expression in brain-based research and practice. Her declaration that the teacher of very young children must have “a finer perception and a wider training and outlook than is needed by any other kind of teacher” forms the foundation for today’s early childhood teacher education standards in the United States.

Margaret McMillan’s ideas were spread through her prolific writing, which included several editions of her book, The Nursery School, one with a forward by Patty Smith Hill. She was the recipient of numerous awards and government honors for her war and nursery school work. She died at the age of 70, a champion of the power of the environment and an advocate for the rights of the child.

Further Readings: Bradburn, Elizabeth (1976). Margaret McMillan: Framework and expansion of nursery education. Surrey, England: Denholm House Press; Bradburn, Elizabeth (1984). Margaret McMillan: Portrait of a pioneer. London: Routledge; Eliot, Abigail Adams (1972). Nursery schools 50 years ago. Young Children XXVII(4) (April), 210211; Hewes, Dorothy W. (1998). “Its the camaraderie": A history of parent cooperative preschools. Davis, CA: Center for Cooperatives, University of California; Lascarides, V. Celia, and Blythe F. Hinitz (2000). History of early childhood education. New York: Routledge Falmer Publishing; McMillan, Margaret (1919). The nursery school. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.; McMillan, Margaret (1921). The nursery school, with a foreword by Patty Smith Hill. New York: Dutton; Steedman, Carolyn (1990). Childhood, culture, and class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860-1931. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Blythe Hinitz