English educator Samuel Wilderspin (1791–1866) was an early advocate of the infant school system, which included schools aimed at four- to seven-year-olds. Wilderspin spent his life organizing infant schools across the United Kingdom and writing books on his educational philosophy. Well in advance of his contemporaries, he advocated for “structured play” and access to playgrounds with trees and flowerbeds.
Samuel Wilderspin was born March 23, 1791, in a working-class neighborhood of London, England. He was the only child of Alexander Wilderspin, a printing shop worker, and wife Ann Wilderspin. On April 10, 1791, Wilderspin was baptized at the Swedenborgian Chapel in London. He grew up in Hornsey, near an aqueduct that diverted water into the city of London and played in the grassy, nature-filled banks alongside the artificial waterway. He also spent time exploring the nearby woods, observing the animals he encountered there. These experiences had a lasting influence; when he later worked as a teacher, he would take his young student outdoors to play and to study the plants and animals.
The free-range child-rearing style of Wilderspin's parents inspired in him a love for learning. Instead of pumping him full of rote lessons, they allowed him to explore the world and were there to answer any questions. When Wilderspin inquired about something, they provided guidance to help him formulate his own ideas. Phillip McCann and Francis A. Young, in their book Samuel Wilderspin and the Infant School Movement, reprinted a passage Wilderspin once penned to describe his father's teaching style. Said the son, “My father always in the evening took great pains to explain things to me; he nurtured but never crammed; he knew when to teach and when to leave alone.” This style of teaching would follow Wilderspin into the classroom.
Because he loved learning, Wilderspin was eager to begin school, but he quickly became dismayed. According to McCann and Young, Wilderspin wrote that his early school days were full of “raps with the cane on the head, across the shoulders, and on the hand … for not learning what the teacher had forgotten to teach me.” He was so distraught that his parents pulled him from school.
Wilderspin later studied briefly in London, then entered into an apprenticeship at around age 14. Although he wrote several education books as an adult, his lack of formal education led to grammatical errors and passages that were hard to follow. Wilderspin was well-known among the British for his advocacy of infant schools because he traveled and lectured extensively on the subject. However, he failed to make an impact on the education world because he was unable to clearly communicate a unifying pedagogical theory that translated his keen insights into practice. Those who saw Wilderspin in action understood; those who read his texts did not understand his methodology.
In 1811, Wilderspin married a woman named Sarah Anne. They had at least six children, two of whom died of the measles. During the early years of his marriage, he worked as a “calenderer,” operating a calender machine. This contraption used large rollers to press out paper or fabrics by applying pressure. The year 1817 found him working as a clerk to Thomas Goyder, a rising minister within the New Church, the denomination Wilderspin attended as a child. The New Church was a Christian sect inspired by the doctrine of Swedish theologian and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, whose prophetic visions inspired his theology. Members of the New Church were known as Swedenborgians. It was here that Wilderspin got involved with education—in the form of Sunday schools.
Wilderspin joined the New Church Sunday School committee, which decided to launch a day school. The church figured that once-a-week schooling was not sufficient for a proper education and moral upbringing. As a committee member, Wilderspin began looking at day-school options and schooling practices. Through the church, he found a mentor in James Buchanan. Records indicate that Buchanan was baptized by Goyder in 1820, two years after establishing the first infant school in London. He had trained under Robert Owen, founder of Britain's first-ever infant school, which opened its doors in New Lanark in 1816. Wilderspin studied at Buchanan's school to learn more about early education.
In 1820, a wealthy silk merchant named Joseph Wilson asked Buchanan for a schoolmaster recommendation. Wilson was starting a day school at his home parish in the Spitalfields area of London and Buchanan suggested Wilderspin. Wilderspin was so excited that he accepted the job immediately. According to McCann and Young in Samuel Wilderspin and the Infant School Movement, he hurried home to tell his wife the news that they were about to inherit a mob of children. “It spoilt her dinner completely,” he later recalled. “She always thought I had some strange visionary notions; and she said she had trouble enough with one [child]!”
The Wilderspins took charge of the Quaker Street Infant School in Spitalfields in the summer of 1820. The school educated the poor, young children of working-class families. Many children this age often roamed the streets with a “child-minder” while their parents worked, and some attended “dame” schools, home-based care centers run by women who were not highly educated and focused on teaching practical life skills. The infant school movement developed as an alternative to dame schools.
Several parents complained that they did not send their children to school to play. Wilderspin tried to explain that young children—left with strangers in a strange, new place—needed to participate in community-building activities that would put them at ease. This was a lesson he had learned while teaching Sunday school to the youngest students at the New Church Sunday School. Young children did best when they were amused and when teachers dealt with their anxieties. The first few months at Spital-fields reinforced in Wilderspin the importance of engaging children in their world, and he received help from other infant-school teachers. Buchanan stopped by to help, as did Owen.
Wilderspin taught the children through hands-on lessons and activities. Students were given alphabet-engraved slates and instructed to place their pencil in the grooves to trace the shapes of the letters; numerals were hung on the walls and traced by hand. While children worked on their lessons under the supervision of Mrs. Wilderspin, her husband summoned small groups of children into his classroom and worked on age-appropriate spelling, pronunciation, and letter recognition skills. To keep it fresh, he placed letters on sticks and paraded around the room. He taught addition, subtraction and multiplication with the use of one-inch wooden cubes.
Wilderspin tried new things each day in an effort to reach his young students. According to McCann and Young, he once remarked that teaching involved “patience, attention and trouble” on the part of the teacher. Besides language arts and math, Wilderspin taught about the natural world by displaying pictures and encouraging questions. He also brought in everyday items for children to examine. For example, he would take out a piece of coal and let them ask questions, guiding the discussion toward the origin of coal and how it was used in society.
Wilderspin believed in movement and periodically led the children in arm and leg exercises. He liked short lessons and regular changes of scenery. Some of his ideas were novel for the time. For example, he installed rope swings in the classroom and asked the children to chant their multiplication tables while swaying to and fro. Wilderspin also used the swings to encourage self-discipline by teaching children to await their turn while standing in line in an orderly, patient manner.
Wilderspin also innovated the use of the playground and encouraged structured play. He believed young children should spend half of their time out of doors. Initially, he placed balls, string-pulled spinning tops, and shuttlecocks on the playground. It did not work well: The balls flew over the wall, the tops lost their strings, and timid children never gained the courage to swipe up the favored toys. Removing the toys, he provided them with a piles of large wooden bricks and inspired them to build forts and houses to explore the physics of building design. Visitors were impressed with Wilderspin's methods and applauded him for breaking new ground. By 1823, the Spitalfields school had 214 kids and had to turn students away.
In 1823, Wilderspin released his first book, On the Importance of Educating the Infant Children of the Poor from the Age of 18 Months to Seven Years. This was the first practical handbook on educating young children to be published in England. The 351-page inaugural edition included chapters on the principles of infant education, teacher qualifications and hints for running an infant school. Wilderspin updated the volume several times, tweaking the contents along the way.
In 1824, Wilderspin accepted an invitation to work for the Infant School Society helping to set up new infant schools. He was ready for a change, as his wife had recently died. Leaving Spitalfields, he spent the next several years traveling across England, Ireland, and Wales, opening schools and lecturing on his methods. Sometimes, he traveled with a child prodigy from one of his schools so he could show off how well his methods worked.
Over the course of his lifetime, Wilderspin opened about 150 schools, most of them funded by middle- and upper-class parents who believed educating the children of the working poor would benefit society by eradicating delinquency. In 1839, he established a model school in Dublin that was used to train teachers. Wilderspin's daughter, Sarah Anne, and her husband, Thomas Young, took charge of this school.
Wilderspin also continued to write, publishing Early Discipline Illustrated; or, The Infant System Progressing and Successful (1832); The Infant System, for Developing the Physical, Intellectual, and Moral Powers of All Children, from One to Seven Years of Age (1834); and A Manual, for the Religious and Moral Instruction of Young Children in the Nursery and Infant School (1845). These books included his observations, instructional rhymes and rules for teaching, and a discussion of his tiered gallery classroom design, which he developed to allow all students to see his lessons. While he was highly popular, Wilderspin was also controversial. Many of his educational theories were founded on his Swedenborgian beliefs, which were considered radical and liberal and did not sit well with the Church of England.
As McCann and Young wrote in Samuel Wilderspin and the Infant School Movement, Wilderspin's ideas paved the way for many contemporary education methodologies. “His conception of infant teaching, though it had certain negative features, was greatly in advance of his time and anticipated many of the methods associated with modern‘progressive’ education,” they noted.
Leitch, James, Practical Educationists and Their Systems of Teaching, James MacLehose, 1876.
McCann, Phillip, and Francis A. Young, Samuel Wilderspin and the Infant School Movement, Croom Helm, 1982.
Independent (London, England), January 3, 2006.
Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, January 24, 2009; August 31, 2009.
Wilderspin National School website, http://www.wilderspinschool.org.uk/ (January 5, 2017), “History of Wilderspin School.” ❑