Early Childhood Education

Owen, Grace (1873-1965)


Grace Owen was honorary secretary of Britain’s Nursery School Association from 1923 to 1933. Owen was a pivotal figure at the City of Manchester Training College for nursery school teachers and ran the Manchester nursery school in the 1920s. When Abigail Adams Eliot visited the school in 1921, she described Owen as “scientific and ‘broad-minded’” (Beatty, 1995). Owen was a graduate of Teachers College and sister-in-law of psychologist James McKeen Cattell. She was instrumental in the creation of a “federation” of the Child Study Association, the Educational Guild, the Educational Handiwork Association, the Froebel Society, and the Nursery School Association in 1925. Owen also played a key role in designing the Nursery School Association’s “Suggested Scheme of Training” for teachers.

In her classic book on Nursery School Education (1920), Owen notes that “nearly half of English three and four-year-olds were being perched miserably on wooden benches, chanting the alphabet” (TES Web site) in schools which “laid a deplorable emphasis on definite instruction given to rows of children seated in galleries, kept in order by strict... discipline” (Owen, p. 11-12). In opposing these practices, Owen was committed to the notion that “careless gaiety and bubbling fun are true evidences of the untrammeled spirit, and where these are absent, there is something wrong” (p. 24). She lauded the Education Act of 1918 as evidence that “the country as a whole has ... perceived that all schemes of national reconstruction ... are based on shifting sand if the young life of the nation is not sound, healthy and well-developed during the first critical years” (p. 15). Owen was optimistic that the Act’s proposed Nursery School would not be “hampered by the traditions of past generations” and thus “free to work out its own salvation” (p. 15).

Nursery schools were to be “included in every housing scheme” (p. 14) and open to all children over the age of two. Owen believed these should “secure ... freedom from nervous strain, and happy occupation for all children” (p. 13), counteracting the effects of “Narrow streets and hard pavements, ill built houses and drab and meager home conditions” (p. 23). Other benefits of the nursery included “grown-up friends who have plenty of time to play with [the children], answer their questions, and wait for them while they slowly learn to perform all the little duties of their daily lives,” since “The intelligent child has more bodily and mental activity between the ages of two and six than can be easily satisfied by the very busy people with whom he lives, most of whom do not understand what he does, or wants to know, is at all important” (p. 20).

The nursery school Owen envisioned included “a garden ... because it is for the child an infinite source of ideas of life, growth, form and colour ... it calls out his early sympathies” (p. 23) and a “sunny aspect.” Owen specified further details of this nursery school, such that “time-tables are abolished” (p. 17) and “the numbers of children ... in a single Nursery School is strictly limited by the need for individual care and an intimate personal relationship between the children and the mother of the group” (p. 21).

Owen pointed to other virtues of the nursery school experience: “The daily habits that have to be learned ... are not nearly so difficult and irksome when others are sharing the experience ... much that is a real trial when done at home is accomplished with enthusiasm when it is part of the Nursery School routine” (p. 20). And “the growing instinct of self-assertion—healthy in itself—is kept in due check by the absorbing interest of living with other children, and the necessity for the spirit of give-and-take which it involves” (p. 21). In addition, “Generous impulses ... and habits of considerate action can be encouraged and these will surely have their effective influence on that future day when the real fight with selfish impulses must take place” (p. 24).

Owen further asserted “instruction in the Nursery School ... has no place. No reading, writing, no number lessons should on any account be required—no object-lessons ... should be allowed, for the time for these things has not yet come. Up to the age of six the child is usually fully occupied in mind and body with learning from actual experience ... he is experimenting with his limbs, sense, hands, in a thousand ways. But should he show spontaneously a great desire to learn to write or read, he should not be thwarted ... yet no special encouragement should be given—for the energy thus used is diverted from direct experience” (p. 25).

Testing and standard assessments were also emphatically forbidden in Owen’s nursery school. “All test of progress should be rigidly excluded.... The Nursery School has nothing to do with standard results as known in the elementary school” (p. 25). Rather, learning is evident through children’s “healthy growth of body, increase of physical control and power of sustained attention, multiplying interests, and happy freedom in creative activity” (p. 25). With reference to the training of nursery school personnel, Owen (1920) asserts, “the teacher may or may not be specially trained” (p. 17).

Although Owen recognized that “the right conditions and equipment ... will bring an increase in expenditure per head so far considered sufficient for young children ... it is the time to throw aside half measure, and spend ungrudgingly in an unsparing effort to put the feet of the children of the coming generations firmly on life’s path. May public opinion not be found wanting!” (p. 16). See also Child Study Movement; Froebel, Friedrich.

Further Readings: Beatty, Barbara (1995). Preschool education in America: The culture of young children from the colonial era to present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Owen, Grace, ed. (1920). Nursery school education. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company.

Web Site: TES Web site at http://www.tes.co.uk/section/story/?section=Archive& sub_section=Friday&story_id=305019&Type=0.

Gay Wilgus