Early Childhood Education

Pratt, Caroline (1867-1954)

 

Caroline Pratt, with colleagues Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Harriet Johnson, founded the City and Country School in New York City in 1921. Pratt’s distinctive educational philosophy, derived from direct observation of children, emphasized learning through play, field trips, open-ended materials, and children’s self-directed planning and problem-solving. Pratt advocated the use of wooden blocks and carpentry in programs for young children and is credited with designing the first set of unit blocks in 1943.

Born in Fayetteville, New York, “Carrie,” as she was known to her family, spent her early years participating in activities typical of village life after the end of the Civil War. Intellectually precocious, she attended local schools and taught for five years in the Fayetteville Union Free School after graduation. Pratt obtained a scholarship to begin kindergarten training at Columbia University in 1892. Soon disenchanted with Friedrich Froebel’s philosophy (which then dominated the field), Pratt decided to pursue manual training instead. During her formative years at Columbia, Pratt observed children using the Patty Smith Hill Blocks and, equally significant, learned to use tools and work with wood.

After traveling abroad to study Swedish slojd (wood working or handwork), Pratt moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she taught for several years (1894-1901). While in Philadelphia, Pratt encountered the problems of industrialization and became involved in social reform, most notably through her friend Helen Marot, a Quaker activist and social critic. Marot became Pratt’s mentor and lifelong companion; their close association endured until Marot died of a heart attack in 1940. Their Massachusetts homes—first a farmhouse in the Berkshire Mountains and later a cottage on Memensha Pond on Martha’s Vineyard—provided summer havens for like-minded friends and visitors. Pratt and Marot envisioned a world where educators and reformers would work in tandem to create thinking, responsible adults whose contributions, eventually, would improve society.

Social justice suffused Pratt’s work, beginning at Hartley House, a settlement program where she taught carpentry after moving to New York in 1901. By 1914, Pratt had founded the Play School, a program where, she emphasized, experiments were done by children not to children (in contrast to Thorndike’s “stimulus-response” experiments at nearby Columbia).

Pratt involved Greenwich Village artists (including Jackson and Charles Pollack) in teaching children. The Play School faculty also compiled collections of artwork to document children’s growth. Pratt’s resident artists and her documentation methods anticipated practices that are now associated with the Reggio Emilia preschools.

Caroline Pratt also emphasized field trips and dramatic play. The Play School curriculum often included “absorbing trips,” experiences that lent themselves to reenactment and further play to deepen understanding. Her descriptions of excursions to the marketplace, construction sites, train stations, firehouses, and other places of interest firmly established the field trip as an important component of quality educational programming.

Pratt provided simple materials for children to use as they reenacted their adventures. Paper, clay, string, wood, and other malleable materials—transformed into dramatic play props—contrasted sharply with the highly structured pedagogical materials of the day, for example, the Froebellian gifts and Maria Montessori’s didactic materials. Pratt’s materials demanded use of the imagination; yielded readily to children’s play ideas; and provided an infinite number and variety of opportunities for expression.

Pratt’s natural, hardwood blocks were intended for use by children of all ages. Noted for their mathematical properties and precision, the blocks designed by Pratt set a standard for manufacturing that survives today. Pratt also designed the first wooden block play accessories, including Do-Withs (jointed people and animal figures) and Wedgie People (community workers and family members). The Art of Blockbuilding (Johnson, 1933) and The Block Book (Hirsch, 1974; 1984) described the value of unit blocks for children.

Pratt’s New York Times obituary (June 7, 1954) lauded her pioneering work in education. The inscription on her gravestone in Fayetteville, New York, reads “I learn from children,” the title of her best-known book.

Further Readings: Caroline Pratt, educator, dead [obituary]. The New York Times, June 7, 1954. Hirsch, Elizabeth, ed. (1974; 1984). The block book. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Johnson, Harriet (1933). The art of block building. New York: The John Day Co.; Pratt, Caroline (1948). I learn from children. New York: Simon and Schuster; Pratt, Caroline, and Stanton, Jessie (1926). Before books. New York: Adelphi; Pratt, Caroline, and Lula E. Wright (1924). Experimental practice in the city and country school. New York: E. P. Dutton; Wolfe, Jennifer (2002). Learning from the past: Historical voices in early childhood education. Mayerthorpe, Alberta: Piney Branch Press.

Ann C. Benjamin