Early Childhood Education

White, Edna Noble (1879-1954)

 

Edna Noble White was one of a number of nineteenth-century American women who led in developing helping professions in health and nutrition, education, including early childhood; social work; psychology, and home economics. White, an Illinois-born graduate of the University of Illinois, left a legacy for today’s early childhood professionals.

After teaching high school for a short time, White became professor and department chair for home economics at Ohio State University. In 1919, Lizzie Merrill Palmer, a wealthy widow, invited her to become the founding director of the Merrill-Palmer School in Detroit, Michigan. Later it became the Merrill-Palmer Institute and today is a department of Wayne State University. The original purpose of the school was “to train young women in homemaking and motherhood.”

At a time in American history when some women seemingly defied the female norm of marriage and motherhood by attending universities and building emerging fields of study, White exemplified the group by transforming family education and child development activities into research opportunities. She brought a diversified faculty to Merrill-Palmer to address the interrelated subjects involved.

When White became interested in preschool education in the 1920s, she traveled to England to study with Rachel and Margaret McMillan, pioneers in the British innovation of nursery school. While the McMillan sisters emphasized programs for low-income, at-risk children, White’s American ideals recognized nursery education’s values for all children and promoted the positive impact that early education could have on society.

Merrill-Palmer under White’s leadership became prominent among academically related early childhood institutions. In 1927, White was named to the board of directors of the original National Committee on Nursery Schools established by Patty Smith Hill. The Committee evolved into the National Association for Nursery Education (NANE) and, in 1964, became today’s National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

White’s legacy strengthened the concept of the “whole child,” whose learning was to be comprehensive and include physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects. She implemented this belief by bringing together a multidisciplinary faculty at Merrill-Palmer. She recognized that children are not only individuals, but are also ecological beings living in families and communities. In addition, all children would benefit from early education programs, regardless of socioeconomic status and physical or mental abilities. An early proponent of education across the lifespan, White also promoted educational experiences for infants and older children. After retiring, White established a geriatric organization in Detroit, as well as helping to establish the Visiting Housekeepers and youth programs.

To round out a cross-sectional career dedicated to children, families, and communities, Edna Noble White maintained a life-long effort to influence public policies for children. She advised President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, and served the same role with the Rockefeller Institute.

Further Readings: Braun, Samuel J., and Esther P. Edwards (1972). History and theory of early childhood education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc.; Lascarides, V. Celia, and Blythe H. Hinitz (2000). History of early childhood education. NewYork: Falmer Press. National Association for the Education of Young Children (2001). NAEYC at 75: Reflections on the past, challenges for the future. Washington, DC: NAEYC. White, Edna Noble. The Merrill-Palmer Institute collections in the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. Available online at http://www.reuther.wayne.edu/collections/hefa_1066-mpi-white.htm and http://www.hall.michiganwomenshalloffame.org/honoree.php?C=199&A=20~114~96~172~79~

Edna Ranck