The man who invented the playground

Wilderspin National School, Barton-on-Humber

Wilderspin National School, Barton-on-Humber

Samuel Wilderspin (1791-1866) was the pioneer of education for children as young as two.  He recognised that the ages 2-7 were a vital period of child development, and advocated systematic schooling that was active, varied and enjoyable.  He opposed the regimented monitorial system of Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), in which the younger pupils were taught by older pupils, who in the modern parlance “cascaded” information from the schoolmaster.

Wilderspin developed a classroom-design with a stepped gallery, so that pupils could be taught directly by their teacher, as well as a flat floor with posts around which monitorial groups could gather.

He further encouraged the development of the playground – “the uncovered classroom” – with equipment for structured, active play:  he regarded play as part of learning and development, rather than something children did when they were not learning.

His principles were extended to older age-groups and spread beyond the United Kingdom.

By the time Samuel Wilderspin, with his wife and daughter, came to live in Barton-on-Humber he was already a “household name in his own lifetime”, and he became involved in establishing and designing a National School which opened in 1845.  The brick, neo-Tudor buildings have survived, as has the extensive playground for boys, girls and infants.

There was a period of neglect after the children moved to a modern building in 1978.  This rare survival has restored as a small and evocative museum of childhood and education [].

Reminiscences, for visitors of any age, are powerful within these walls because, as the ladies on reception point out, schooldays are an experience that almost everyone shares in common, regardless of their background and upbringing.

For teachers, who may wonder how four hundred pupils were crammed into these spaces, there’s a reminder that innovation is not new, and a memorial to a man who believed that education must, first and foremost, be enjoyable.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 ‘Humber Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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