Learning & Development: Susan Isaacs and Chelsea Open Air Nursery

In the fourth part of our series marking Early Education and Nursery World's tenth decades, Kathryn Solly and Sue Allingham reflect on the contribution of Susan Isaacs

A historical perspective can reinforce our principles and understanding of developmentally appropriate practice with an informed underpinning.  With this in mind we have chosen to reflect on Susan Isaacs. 

Susan Sutherland Fairhurst was born in Bolton on 24 May 1885. Her mother died when she was six and when her father then married the nurse who had cared for her mother, Susan became alienated from him.  

Her unhappy childhood was further damaged by – the by now 15-year-old - Susan declaring she was agnostic, resulting in her father removing her from secondary school and keeping her at home. Aged 22 she began a career to train as an infant school teacher at Manchester University. Here she thrived and ultimately graduated with a first class degree in philosophy in 1912.  

Susan went on to study for a master’s degree at Cambridge, which began her life-long interest in psychology. She married twice, firstly to William Brierley, divorcing him for Nathan Isaacs in 1922 who collaborated with her education work.


Whilst researching with John Carl Flugel and Otto Rank, Isaacs studied the works of Froebel and Dewey. She become enthralled by the work of Joan Riviere and Melanie Klein, who - like Froebel - felt that children largely learn through play and are akin to scientists.

 'Play is indeed the child’s work, and the means whereby he grows and develops' (Isaacs, 1929).

Later, Isaacs went on to study the work of Freud and Piaget, but criticised the latter’s research on schema as they were not based upon child observations, unlike her own conscientious work.

Always innovative,  in the 1930s, under the pseudonym ‘Ursula Wise’ she answered readers’ questions in Nursery World with sound advice and sympathy.

'The aim of education is to create people who are not only self-disciplined and free in spirit, gifted in work and enjoyment, worthy and desirable as persons, but also responsible and generous in social life, able to give and take freely from others, willing to serve social ends and to lose themselves in social purposes greater than themselves' (Isaacs in Gardener, 1969:171).

Her identity was never disclosed, but her understanding of the child and parents was vast and she responded on a one-by-one basis with firmness, patience and tact. Her view of the individual child was generally that given time, reassurance and a positive approach, most difficulties would be temporary.  

Isaacs understood the importance of children’s emotional needs and was determinedly against smacking and over-praising children. Not only was it important to observe the child in 'free enquiry', it was also important to consider 'the meaning of the child’s experiences to himself' (Isaacs, 1948, 84.)  This understanding that any sort of learning is difficult unless emotional needs are met is clear in Isaac’s writings.  She wrote several books where her central concern was to make readers aware of child psychology and how to understand children.



Drummond writes that, 'Isaacs was in no way a conventional infant school teacher' (Drummond, 1999. p3).  For example, her book Intellectual Growth in Young Children (1930) includes many observations of the children that attended the Malting House School from 1924 to 1927. The reason for this was to watch:

'…the spontaneous cognitive behaviour of a group of children under conditions designed to further free inquiry and free discussion' (Isaacs, 1930. p6).

This may then:

'…reveal facts which would scarcely yield to the direct assault of test or experiment' (Isaacs, 1930. p6).

This was evident when she went on to lead the Maltings School (1924-27) in Cambridge, founded by Geoffrey Pyke. Children were given greater freedom to express themselves, asking questions, sharing opinions and showing their feelings whilst following their own interests with  few routines. Teachers were seen as observers of the children and were regarded as research workers. Isaacs argued that children needed to develop the skills to think clearly and exercise independent judgement through their play whilst recognising their need for order, security and guidance.

This environment encouraged the children to explore and learn for themselves. There were no fixed lessons or a curriculum, just free play and lots of self-selection. The children were allowed to use equipment such as typewriters, woodwork tools, gramophones and Bunsen burners. She saw play as a perpetual form of experiment where 'at any moment, a new line of enquiry or argument might flash out, a new step in understanding be taken' (1930).


Isaacs was a meticulous observer of children and accompanied her observations with psychoanalytic commentary, which has been influential on early years education. As Dorothy Gardener, a pupil of Isaacs (1969:58/9) points out: '(A) very important aspect of the intellectual part of the educational problem was to foster in every possible way the child’s joy of discovery.  Here again, they were studied individually, and when one of them put out an intellectual feeler an attempt was made to ensure that the feeler met the kind of situation which would encourage it to go on.'

Isaacs had a fervent belief in the place of nursery education. She felt that attending a nursery should be a natural part of a child’s early life: 'Experience has shown that it can be looked upon as a normal institution in the social life of any civilised community' (Isaacs, 1952, 31). Isaacs saw the nursery as a place that should mirror the family through love and warmth, as well as offering new and exciting opportunities and resources that might not be available at home.  

Isaacs was clear that 'the nursery school is an extension of the function of the home, not a substitute for it” (ibid, p.31). Above all, the nursery provided social experiences and companionship that Isaacs believed were vital to a child’s development.

Children were given the space to set up games and, where appropriate, to sustain them over long periods to promote concentration and persistence. The children were expected to take responsibility for the environment, including planning the lunches, setting the table and washing up.  As Isaacs explained, ‘children learn to exercise responsibility by having it’ (Isaacs, 1971, p.102).



Isaacs considered children’s cognitive and emotional development to be interdependent.  She realised that these emotional needs were best met if the children engaged with nature and the community around them.  She took them out to observe a building site, transport, the river and people working locally.

Isaacs was keen to give children ‘hands on‘ experience with animals as pets as well as wildlife, lifecycles of plants through gardening and nature study. The children were encouraged to dissect a pet after it had died, to explore the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.  

Isaacs illustrates in The Children We Teach (1932, 115-117) via a negative example of ‘mangled primroses’ how it is easy to de-motivate children from nature if formally taught.  She states: 'the everyday experiences of our children offer us the only direct way into their hearts and minds'. Like Froebel, Isaacs saw the whole child and similarly, she emphasised experience of nature, family and community leading to their understanding via rich experiences starting from and enhancing children’s interests.

In London 1933-1943 she became the first Head of the Child Development Department (now UCL Institute of Education), where her student teachers studied an advanced course in developmental psychology. They also went on placements to Chelsea Open Air Nursery School after her collaboration with American benefactress Nathalie Davies who asked her to direct the school and use it as a centre for research. Here too she established a rich, exciting and well-resourced environment indoors and out with adults maximising the children’s fascinations, independence and thinking.

Despite having cancer, she toured Australia and New Zealand in 1937 speaking to full audiences about the child’s vital needs of love and security. Later she carried out a survey of the effects of evacuation on children in Cambridge in 1943. She was awarded a CBE in 1948 and later died on 12 October, aged 63.

Her main messages for today’s practitioner are:

  • Observe children following their own interests in real contexts and experiences indoors and out.
  • Play is a child’s research
  • Provide children with experiences of real and active learning alongside secure, warm relationships.
  • See yourself as a learner and learn from your observations of the children.
  • Be curious, question and encourage children to do likewise.


Sue Allingham is an early years consultant and a trustee of Early Education.  Kathryn Solly is an Associate of Early Education and an early years consultant.  Susan Isaacs’ book The Educational Value of the Nursery School is available at www.early-education.org.uk/books



Bruce, T. (1987) Early Childhood Education. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Davies, N. (1939) Ten Years History of the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School. London: COAN Booklet.

Drummond, M.J. (2000) ‘Susan Isaacs: Pioneering Work in Understanding Children’s Lives.’ In Hilton, M. & Hirsch, P. Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress, 1790-1930.

Gardener, D. (1969) Susan Isaacs, The First Biography. London: Methuen.

Graham, P. (2009) A Biography of Susan Isaacs. A life freeing the minds of children. London: Karnac Books.

Isaacs, S. (1929) The Nursery Years. London: Routledge.

Isaacs, S. (1930) Intellectual Growth in Young Children. London: Routledge.

Isaacs, S. (1933) Social Development in Young Children, London: AmsPrinc.

Isaacs, S. (1948) Troubles of Children and Parents. London: Methuen.

Isaacs, S. (1949) Childhood and After. Oxford: International Universities.

Isaacs, S. (1954) The Educational Value of the Nursery School.

London: BAECE- Early Education.

Smith, Lydia A.H. (1985) To Understand and to Help: the Life and Work of Susan Isaacs. (1885-1948), Associated University Press, USA.

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