Mitchell, Lucy Sprague (1878-1967) - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Mitchell, Lucy Sprague (1878-1967)


Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of Bank Street School of Education, was a major figure in American progressive education during the early twentieth century. Influenced by John Dewey, she recognized children’s need to learn through play and direct experience. A leader in the child study movement, Mitchell saw herself as an experimentalist. In addition, she democratized progressive education by spreading its ideals through teacher education and the development of children’s writers.

In 1916 Mitchell founded the Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE). This cooperative venture had four major activities: a lab school to work with children who were failing to thrive in a conventional school, analysis of the growth and development of normal children, the establishment of a sex education curriculum using nature study, and support of Caroline Pratt’s Play School in Greenwich Village. The BEE was the site of much observation of children and their language, and ultimately became the Bank Street School of Education. While Mitchell embraced the scientific approach of her era, she was determined that an emphasis on the whole child should not be lost in the enthusiasm for measuring and testing (Mitchell, 1953). In its education of teachers, the Bank Street School combined the scientific study of children, an emphasis upon the whole child, a curriculum built upon direct experiences and fieldwork in its lab school classrooms. Under Mitchell, the Bank Street approach emphasized dramatic play centers that would link home and school, as well as the use of field trips to provide direct sensory experience. The laboratory school at Bank Street College of Education pioneered the developmental interaction approach which stressed that learning grows out of the interaction among the child, others, and environment. The laboratory school was the initial model for the 1965 Head Start Program.

In 1921 Mitchell published the Here and Now Story Book, a forerunner of much of the realism seen in children’s literature today. With this book, she changed the emphasis in American children’s literature from classic fairy tales to stories focused on everyday experiences of children. In the preface, “What Language Means to Young Children,” she stated that “young children live largely in the ‘here and now’ world of their own experiences” (Mitchell, 1948, p. 7). Her insistence on children’s interest in everyday and familiar events ignited a conflict with the New York Public Library known as “the fairy tale war.” In addition to the Here and Now Story Book, Mitchell authored more than twenty children’s books.

Recognizing that the “here and now” movement needed authors more talented than herself, Mitchell founded the Writer’s Laboratory at the Bank Street School. Here, selected students in the teacher education program participated in a writer’s workshop. The Writers’ Laboratory developed a distinguished crew of children’s authors, including Edith Thatcher Hurd, Ruth Krauss, Eve Merriam, and most famously Margaret Wise Brown. Mitchell also collaborated with the Little Golden Books, a series of children’s books sold for 25 cents a copy in the post-World War II years.

Further Readings: Antler, Joyce (1987). Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The making of a modern woman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Mitchell, Lucy S. (1953). Two lives: The story of Wesley Clair Mitchell and myself. New York: Simon and Schuster; Mitchell, Lucy S. (1948). Here and Now Story Book. Rev. ed. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Susan Hall