Play in the Infants’ School

Friday 21 December 2012

There is no Raleigh School on Ocean Street anymore, and no buildings from the time survive there.

Published in 1938, ER Boyce’s book tells of how as head teacher from 1933 she led an experiment in play-centred learning in the Infants’ School, with approximately three hundred children on the roll, aged between three and seven-and-a-half.

From the preface:
In the heart of the East End of London, you will find an odd tangle of courts and alley-ways connecting long, narrow streets of shabby cottages, each housing several families. The monotony is broken by public houses and dingy shops which deal in very small quantities of groceries, cheap sweets or fish and chips. On fine evenings, these streets are scenes of lively social life. The children play and the parents gossip. In the hot weather, the babies crawl naked on the pavements. There are brawls and parties during the week-end: sometimes a piano is dragged into the street so that jollity may be enjoyed by all. The noise is often deafening; iron hoops and wireless mingle with shrill calls and whistles, the crying of babies and the laughter and shouts of women.
The children who live in this particular district have only one other playground, a small disused burial-ground, planted with trees and consisting mainly of concrete paths. They frequent a neighbouring street-market which, on Saturday evenings is picturesque in the light of flares. Many of them go regularly to the Penny Pictures; a cinema performance of cowboy and crook films. Each year there is a visit to the hop-fields. A certain number of them get an outing to Southend, many more dream of going and hear so much of it from others, that they invent stories of their own adventures at the sea.
The ordinary events of a child’s life are unknown. Birthdays are rarely kept, new toys are unusual, stockings at Christmas are seldom hung up and there is no annual holiday.
Their physical condition is extremely poor; there are three or four bonnie children in each class of forty, and these are not always fully grown. They suffer from rickets, impetigo, adenoids, rheumatism, colds, and various forms of malnutrition. The cases of underfeeding are comparatively small, but all of them live on a diet of cheap sweets and cakes, bread and margarine, fish and chips, and tinned food. The facilities for cooking are poor and the mothers are ignorant of good, simple feeding, and many of them are the wage-earners of the family and the small child is fed by the elder sister. The majority of the parents, especially the younger ones, make continual efforts to keep the children clean and tidy and have some conception of their duty to them. In spite of this, sores and cuts are always septic, hair is often verminous and many small bodies are flea bitten.

Nearby Duckett Street in 1939, found here. Copyright © Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

While aspects of the Raleigh School project are familiar to me from my children’s experience in London nursery schools, ER Boyce seems to have gone much farther than is usual today in her effort to work for a child-centred school where children experienced as much liberty as possible, and where academic learning developed out of the children’s own interests and curiosity.

The principle of activity as a means of learning guided the efforts of the staff to foster the development of each child. Whatever they could undertake without too heavy a responsibility was given into their care. Throughout this account, the reader will find references to the many ‘jobs’ which were performed by the children in the ordinary school routine. Nature Study was entirely a matter of doing; number knowledge was the result of daily experiences in and out of school. Reading and writing interests were levered from the post-office play and picture books. Knowledge of the world was gained through first-hand observation supplemented by the teachers’ answers to their questions. Experiment was encouraged and led to discussion and further investigation. Most of the information needed was given at moments where some incident had aroused the curiousity of a group. There were, of course, stories, verse readings, and group teaching during formal instruction. During these periods when the teacher was active, there were no more concentrated listeners than our children. If possible, their attention was even closer when a group of their companions were acting or when one child was speaking alone.
Besides creative activity in play; dancing, making rhymes and tunes; painting and dramatics were profoundly expressive and some children found their chief outlet in one particular line, and continued the interest all through the school.
All these activities were considered real school-life; there was no antithesis between work and play. In fact no one quite understood which was which. Bill, aged seven, was seen at 9.45 a.m. collecting tools for some woodwork, and a teacher asked him a trifle suspiciously: ‘Have you finished your work?’ ‘Can’t you see I am just going to begin?’ he replied. The adult’s notion of work was the three Rs; Bill’s was the shop he was making. Reading and writing were often chosen as play by the older children during free periods.
As much class activity evolved through children’s play rather than a pre-planned program, teachers kept extensive diaries to record events in the classroom. They also kept weekly records of individual children’s activities. I was fascinated by the parts of the book based on these records, detailing the children’s imaginative games, and the often highly organised and complex group play that evolved within the school.

Children also produced their own written records:
John was the most intelligent child we had in the school. He was able to read earlier than most of the children and could speak fluently. He wrote his first record at the age of 5¾ years and illustrated it with dashing pencil sketches.

Page 1.
I played a joke on my seeds one did not have any water one did not have any air and one did not have any warm and one did not have any sun.

Page 2 (illustrated by a drawing of a pea in a jar).
This is a pea. this one grows proper he grows alright.

Page 3 (illustration of a pea in a jar of water).
This one had not got any air he got drowned and did not grow.

Page 4 (illustration of a pea in a jar of cotton wool).
This is dry cotton wool this has not any water his coat got all wrinkled he did not grow.

Page 5 (another pea in a jar).
I put him in the cupboard in the dark he grew very long and tall (another drawing).

Page 6 (with a similar illustration).
I put him in the washhouse in the cold he did not grow it was too cold he did not grow it was too cold he will grow if you give him some water and some air but he will not grow if it is cold.

An older child, Jim, wrote about his new friend.

May 17th.
‘I have a mate called Fred P., and every play time he plays with me.’

May 29th.
‘I am going with Fred P. round to his house to play cowboys with Fred P. He comes round the corner. I jump on him.’

Nellie was able to write her plans for the afternoon free period.

‘I am going to make something for the farmhouse, I am going to make a table for downstairs and a chair for downstairs. Lilly S. is making some dolls out of raffia. I don’t know how to make dolls, I know how to make a table I think. How to make dolls is like this. We get some raffia, we make it long, put some raffia round for its head and for its arms and body and legs.’

Charlie gives some out-of-school information.

May 27th.
‘I am going to see the pictures to see Buck Jones and the serial of Bob Still and Micky Mouse. I like it because it is a laughing picture and it is funny.’

May 31st.
‘I am going to see the pictures to see Tom Tyler and Tim McCoy for a penny.’

June 8th.
‘I went to the Penny Pictures and I saw Tom Tyler and Micky Mouse and the serial of the Wolf Dog the Wolf Dog saw the crooks run away from the Wolf Dog, this wolf dog was a biter.’

Jane records on a Monday:

‘I went the hospital and our mother and our rose went to and we went to see our dad he is in hospital and we all went to see our dad and our dad gave my mother sixpence to have a drink.’

I want to return to this book in a later post and give a flavour of the descriptions of the children’s play. Hold me to it! In the meantime here are some pictures that Charlie might have gone to see with his penny.

Mickey Mouse in The Cactus Kid, 1930. Available on the DVD collection Mickey Mouse in Black and White Volume 2.

Tom Tyler in Born to Battle, 1935, downloadable at

Tim McCoy in Ghost Patrol, 1936, download at

A lobby card for the Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. serial The Wolf Dog, from the Western Clippings Serial Report.