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Who Was Lucy Sprague Mitchell ...

And Why Should You Know?

Have you been looking for someone who could inspire you anew, and give you a fresh outlook on your early childhood career? Lucy Sprague Mitchell (1878-1967) can be that person. Reflecting on her life, which she dedicated to children's welfare, can bring inspiration and renewed vigor to today's early childhood educators.

Lucy Sprague Mitchell used her talents as teacher, administrator, and writer to advocate for children in a way that would seem familiar to any present-day early childhood professional. Mitchell's goal throughout her career was to establish the "good life" for children. She provides the description of that life:

One keeps growing in interests, in breadth of emotions and powers of expression, in depth and extent of human relations. Growth in all one's powers, step by step, up through the early stages towards maturity, leads on to an adulthood which is not static, completed, but still retains the capacity and the eagerness to grow. (Mitchell, 1950, p. 14)

Why look to the past for a model, however? By examining the life of an education pioneer, we not only develop a sense of camaraderie, but also learn to understand how the past is connected to the present. We discover new perspectives about our own commitment when we view that commitment through the filter of someone else's life. All disciplines have their paragons of the past to emulate. As exemplified by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, early childhood educators have a past in which to take pride.

The Impact of the Time

In order to understand the life and work of Lucy Mitchell, one must consider the time in which she lived. Between 1890 and 1920, the United States experienced significant increases in industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, with an accompanying rise in poverty. Such conditions laid the groundwork for social and education reforms, including Jane Addams's settlement house in Chicago and John Dewey's Progressive Education Movement.

Addams embodied the blossoming consensus in social consciousness that education, not just charity, could alleviate the suffering of the poor. She believed that both the rich and the poor could learn from one another, and that the same education opportunities should be available to all. John Dewey, who served on the Board of Directors for Addams's Hull House, espoused an education philosophy that moved away from subject-centered rote exercises in memorization and recitation toward a cooperative, child-centered exploration of interests. Ultimately, reformers hoped that children educated in such a democratic environment would become adults who would work for the good of society as a whole (Cremin, 1961; Zilversmit, 1993).

The Formative Years--Loneliness and the World Outside

Lucy Sprague, born in Chicago on July 2, 1878, was a shy, nervous, and withdrawn child. Her early childhood experience was sometimes harsh, and even lonely despite being one of six children. Her father dominated the home with a repressive discipline style that caused Lucy to retreat inside herself. Also, her parents were away from home during a critical time in Lucy's childhood. Reflecting on her childhood, she commented that "each of us, I now know, had his particular form of tragedy. My own was extreme loneliness--loneliness within a crowd, which is, perhaps, the most poignant kind" (Mitchell, 1953, pp. 46-47).

Another factor that contributed to Lucy's loneliness was the fact that she did not attend school regularly until she was 16. Suffering from uncontrollable nervous twitches, she was placed in a variety of school settings. Eventually her parents decided to keep her at home. Lucy spent this time at home writing in her journals and reading all the books in her father's vast home library.

Her father, a Chicago businessman, was vitally interested in expanding the educational, social, cultural, and economic base of the city. He brought a vast range of people, including John Dewey and Jane Addams, into the Sprague home. While her father was interested in the economic benefit of such associations, his daughter became caught up in the social reform efforts of Dewey and Addams and soon rejected her father's upper-class status.

Although only a teenager when she met Dewey, Lucy had read all his works. And despite little experience with the underprivileged people, she began reading to find an understanding of the population with whom Jane Addams worked. She would later say that "as an adolescent, I vigorously rejected the social standards of Father and his business friends ... I was struggling to understand the world that Jane Addams stood for" (Mitchell, 1953, pp. 62, 66).

Formal Education and Career Decisions

The Sprague family moved to Southern California when Lucy was 16, due to her father's health problems. Lucy's time was consumed nursing her father. Eventually, her twitching gone, she began leaving home each week to go to boarding school. Then an old friend invited Lucy to live in Massachusetts and attend Radcliffe. Writing later about that time of her life, Lucy said that she "wanted to live a normal life. And, yes, I wanted to escape from the burdens of home ... I took my life in my hands and said I wanted to go" (Mitchell, 1953, pp. 111, 115). Lucy flourished at Radcliffe, graduating in 1900 with honors. She went on to work in university positions, eventually becoming the first dean of women students at the University of California, Berkeley.

While Lucy might have remained contentedly at the university level, she was ripe for new ideas and projects. By volunteering in Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement in San Francisco, Lucy found an opportunity to put into practice the theories she had learned from Jane Addams. Meanwhile, spending time with her 2-year-old niece helped her understand the meaning behind Dewey's Progressive Movement. Investigating the new direction in teacher education, with its focus on professional education college courses rather than normal school training, she knew that she wanted to become an educator. More specifically, she "wanted to make a scientific approach to the study of children and on that basis work out experimentally what their schools should be like" (Mitchell, 1953, p. 222).

Wesley Clair Mitchell and New York

In 1912, Lucy Sprague married Wesley Clair Mitchell, whose "strong commitment to her life goals had eventually persuaded her that marriage would not prevent her from continuing her independent work" (Sicherman & Green, 1980, p. 485). Mitchell, known as Robin, shared Lucy's passion for writing and reading, as well as for social causes.

As a student at the University of Chicago, Robin Mitchell enjoyed both a personal and professional relationship with John Dewey. The Mitchells moved to New York when Robin Mitchell accepted a position as Professor of Economics at Columbia University, where Dewey also taught. The Deweys and the Mitchells resumed their previous professional and social relationship. Lucy began taking courses with Dewey, whose teachings stressed the need to encourage each child's individuality, and to offer them opportunities for creative expression, social interaction, direct experience, discovery learning, and the validation of emotions (Cremin, 1961; Graham, 1967).

Lucy became convinced of the Progressive Movement's merits when she saw children engaged in place- and experience-based activities at Caroline Pratt's Play School in New York. She later wrote:

I kept visiting Caroline Pratt's little school that year, becoming more and more convinced that it was only through an experimental approach in such a school that I could learn what children were really like. I wanted to be a part of this experiment. (Mitchell, 1953, p. 251)

The Mitchells moved into a new home, turning over the stable and backyard to Pratt's school. At this stage, Lucy was set to concentrate on three areas of her life work that would demonstrate clearly her role as an early childhood specialist: a unique lab school, volumes of professional writing, and comprehensive work with teacher training.

The Bureau of Educational Experiments

In 1916, Lucy Sprague Mitchell had "perhaps the most astounding of all the many strokes of luck I have had in my life" (Mitchell, 1953, p. 272). Her cousin, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, had inherited some money and she wanted to subsidize a worthwhile educational endeavor. The Mitchells had a plan for such an endeavor--the Bureau of Educational Experiments.

Although the Bureau's original purpose was to conduct scientific research regarding children's growth and development, the Mitchells added a new dimension by merging the Bureau with Caroline Pratt's Play School and Harriet Johnson's Nursery School. Thus, the two schools and the Bureau supported each other in a separate but reciprocal arrangement, thereby creating a distinctive lab school that attempted "to apply active, ongoing research conducted within the school setting to measure stages of growth, both physical and mental, and to relate each aspect to the other and to school programs" (Antler, 1982, p. 576). Evaluation of the scientific measurements would affect school activities, which, in turn, would be evaluated according to the growth measurements.

The Bureau shunned the common practice of "experimenting" on and with children by manipulating variables, or of simply testing children for the sake of testing. These practices often were justified as long as they were conducted by "knowledgeable" persons (Cremin, 1961; Woodworth, 1926). The Bureau differed in that they were "not primarily interested in testing children. We are primarily interesting in observing natural behavior in situations planned for children's development" (Mitchell, in Antler, 1982, p. 575).

The Bureau focused on interdisciplinary projects when researching children's development. Records were kept on the children's physical, psychological, and emotional experiences and development, as well as their daily activities, group projects, present living environments, and family histories. In addition, staff made verbatim recordings of the children's language use. Bureau staff added the "natural" phenomenological dimension in order to include a deeper understanding, rather than limiting themselves to compilation of rigid norms of development. They paid close attention to the affective domain--the children's descriptions of their feelings, and the described sources of those feelings (Mitchell, 1950). When commenting about institutions that relied simply on measurements and statistics, Mitchell stated:

They knew the children wiggled, but wiggling seemed unimportant because it couldn't be measured. And they knew that it [the testing] was an emotional strain for the children, but you couldn't measure that, so that was disregarded. Science ought to be obeyed, and science has measurements. Now, we cared, really, more about the wiggle and the emotional strain than we cared about the physical growth. (Mitchell, 1953, p. 460)

Putting It All Into Words

When Lucy Mitchell was just starting the Bureau, a colleague told her that she should "get into some direct work with ordinary children but don't get swamped in it. Your real job is to write epoch-making books" (Antler, 1982, p. 562). That is, in fact, what she set out to do, writing books for children and adults.

Staff at the Bureau studied children's spontaneous use of language. These studies convinced Lucy that children use language not only for communication, but also simply to enjoy its rhythm and quality of sound. She feared that adults could deprive children of this spontaneous enjoyment of language by forcing premature compliance with standard adult forms of speech (Mitchell, 1927), or by exposing them to children's stories that were too abstract:

Children do not find the unusual piquant until they are firmly acquainted with the usual. They do not find the preposterous humorous until they have intimate knowledge of ordinary behavior. They do not get the point of alien environments until they are securely oriented in their own. (Conference on Environment and Children, 1971, p. 71)

Her most significant book for children, the Here and Now Story Book, grew out of these convictions. Using ideas gleaned from the Bureau's vast records, she penned stories derived from children's actual experiences, such as stories about children involved in block building.

Traditionalists preferred stories for children to be based on either information or fantasy--styles Lucy Mitchell referred to as "spinach" or "extreme magic" (Mitchell, 1953). Consequently, the Here and Now Story Book received mixed reviews; yet, Mitchell was not deterred. As she later stated:

One of my chief reasons for publishing this book was the hope of interesting teachers and parents to listen to the language of small children with ears that heard its freshness and beauty instead of merely its immaturities. Such listening I was sure would ... inevitably change the way they replied to the children. (Mitchell, 1953, p. 287)

A Teacher of Teachers

Lucy's desire to develop and nurture the whole child led to yet another innovative effort. In 1931, she opened the Cooperative School for Student Teachers, later known as the Cooperative School for Teachers (CST). Until the 1920s, most teachers in the United States merely had high school degrees, or their training consisted mostly of strictly programmed methods (Albjerg, 1967). By contrast, the CST addressed teachers' emerging professional role by eliminating structured methods courses, and by swearing off allegiance to any particular pedagogical style. Lucy joined forces with eight experimental schools in order to create a new breed of teacher who, after study and experience with children and child development, could bring an informed, appropriate, creative, and practical attitude to each teaching situation. An excerpt from the CST's bulletin sums up her goals:

Our aim is to help students develop a scientific attitude towards their work and toward life. To us this means an attitude of eager, alert observations, a constant questioning of old procedure in the light of new observations; and use of the world as well as of books and source materials; an experimental open-mindedness; and an effort to keep as reliable records as the situation permits in order to base the future upon actual knowledge of the experiences of the past. (Mitchell in Antler, 1987, p. 309)

The student teachers would spend four days each week working with the children. On the fifth day, they evaluated, interpreted, and internalized those experiences.

Lucy knew that she needed to make a connection between her teacher training school and the public schools in order to make a definite impact. This breakthrough came in 1943; the New York public schools requested inservice training for public school teachers, who were being asked to try a more progressive form of education. Such CST techniques as group discussions, individual conferences, mentoring, and "attitude-expanding" activities were employed to help the public school teachers view curriculum as a tool to serve children's individual and developmental needs (Mitchell, 1950). The CST staff was invited into the public schools to conduct workshop training sessions, bringing acclaim to Lucy Sprague Mitchell and her projects.

More Significant Writing

In 1954, Lucy published Know Your Children in School. This book highlighted the complexity and fluidity of child development, as well as the important outside factors that influence a child's school life. Lucy was dedicated to helping teachers identify and understand the developmental stages so that they would not expect all children to be at the same point at precisely the same time. She believed teachers needed to comprehend that

at each stage children commonly show lags from an earlier stage and hints of maturity that will come to fulfillment in a later stage ... teachers are asked to know and understand each child as never before, to help each child grow in the way that is best for him. The all-round development of children has become the educational goal. (Mitchell, 1954, pp. 15, 19)

Furthermore, while teachers must look beyond the school to understand the child and help him or her to grow, parents must be ready to understand how a child's life outside of school has affected his or her life in school. The teacher and the parents must form a working partnership of respect to help ensure the "good life" for the child.

A Contemporary Inspiration

Why should early childhood education professionals take the time to learn about Lucy Mitchell? Granted, she had a certain amount of "luck"--she admitted that herself--in that she married a man who supported her work, and she had a cousin who contributed generously to her cause. Even so, if emotional and financial support creates innovative leaders, why are there not more?

In many ways, Lucy Mitchell was an ordinary wife and mother with a husband who liked to build cabinets and children who liked to ride ponies. Beyond that, she was always ready to rise to a challenge. A lesser person might have found Dewey and Addams interesting, and then forgot about them. A lesser person might have rested on his or her laurels ... but not Lucy Sprague Mitchell.

Looking back in her 1953 autobiography, she wrote: "It was a highly focused life with everything concentrated on children, each aspect of my work illuminating the others" (p. 272). Reflecting on the life of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, each of us in the field of early childhood should be inspired to look for, and prepare for, our own challenges. Look to Lucy Sprague Mitchell--and then go forward to meet those challenges.


Albjerg, P. (1967). Progressive education: From arcady to academe: A history of the Progressive Education Association 1919-1955. New York: Teachers College Press.

Antler, J. (1982). Progressive education and the scientific study of the child: An analysis of the Bureau of Educational Experiments. Progressive Education, 83(4), 559-591.

Antler, J. (1987). Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The making of a modern woman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Conference on Environment and Children. (1971). Children and the environment: Lucy Sprague Mitchell memorial conference. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Cremin, L. (1961). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Finkelstein, B. (1988). The revolt against selfishness: Women and the dilemmas of professionalism in early childhood education. In B. Spodek, O. Saracho, & D. Peters (Eds.), Professionalism and the early childhood practitioner (pp. 10-28). New York: Teachers College Press.

Graham, P. (1967). Progressive education: From arcady to academe. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mitchell, L. (1921). Here and now story book, 2-7-year-olds. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Mitchell, L. (1927). [Review of the book The language and thought of the child]. Progressive Education, 4(2), 136-139.

Mitchell, L. (1950). Our children and our schools. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Mitchell, L. (1953). Two lives. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Mitchell, L. (1954). Know your children in school. New York: Macmillan.

Sicherman, B., & Green, C. (Eds.). (1980). Notable American women: The modern period: A biographical dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Woodworth, R. (1926). Historical antecedents of the present child study movement. Progressive Education, 3(1), 3-6.

Zilversmit, A. (1993). Changing schools: Progressive education theory and practice, 1930-1960. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mary K. Smith, Westside Community Schools, Omaha Nebraska.
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Title Annotation:early childhood educator
Author:Smith, Mary K.
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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