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Reviewing a Guide to Child Development from 1959

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

My grandmother, Anne Hruby, trained as an early childhood educator in the late 1950’s (or “nursery school teacher” as they then referred to the position.) Recently, she mailed me some of her course materials. (Yes, I am impressed that she kept track of them all these years!) They contained songs and fingerplays, many that have withstood the test of time, such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “I Put My Little Foot In”/”The Hokey Pokey,” and some that have not, such as this little ditty titled “Squirrels in a Tree:”

Five little squirrels sat upon a tree

This one said, “What do I see?”

This one said, “I smell a gun.”

This one said, “Oh, let’s run.”

This one said, “Let’s hide in the shade.”

This one said, “I’m not afraid.” (point to each finger in turn)

Bang! Went the gun, (clap hands suddenly)

This one said, “My how the little squirrels did run.” (put hands quickly behind back)

Suffice to say, eyebrows would raise if a teacher incorporated this fingerplay in a classroom today.

The playdough (clay) and finger paint recipes from my grandmother's coursework

Recipes for clay and finger paint followed. I use a nearly identical recipe for playdough, and I may put this finger paint concoction to the test. As someone who spends more time than most scrubbing paint out of my work clothes, I can appreciate any finger paint recipe that incorporates soap.

The bulk of the curriculum was a guide to child development titled “What to Expect.” Personally, I felt most intrigued by this section. I like to believe that I remain current on the latest research in early childhood development and education. How similar–or different–are our current practices as compared to sixty years ago? Have we become wiser, informed by advancements in fields such as neuroscience, or have we lost our way in the tangle of competing priorities?

First Impressions

We had to peer past some dated language; right off the bat, my grandmother noted that every sentence begins with "he," and there was nary a "she" in sight. That said, I felt surprised at how accurately the guide described children at every age. I loved how the 1959 manual presented an almost poetic description of this child. At first, he is chaotic, comically so. Children, which “What to Expect” frequently calls “busybodies,” pass through the “run-about age” and “pre-cooperative stage.” At around the age of three, however, I noted a shift. The previously inept child begins to integrate his abilities, with room for growth, of course.

Excerpts from “What to Expect”

Here is a sampling of what the course manual noted about each age and stage.

Of the 18-month-old child:

The child has very little sense of direction, he runs into objects. He is not able to gauge distances.

“Now” is the only meaning of time he knows.

He lugs, tugs, dumps, pushes, pulls, pounds.

This is a changing period in toilet habits, so accidents may occur. The majority of children at this age are wet after naps and in the morning.

He may look at books upside down.

He may have a special toy or blanket to which he is attached. He may be unable to sleep without it.

I have to say, this all checks out. Onto the next stage!

Of the 2-year-old child:

The child prefers solitary play. He seldom plays cooperatively.

His senses of distance and vision are better. He doesn’t run into objects as much as he did at eighteen months.

He is not ready to participate in group.

He cannot share–He must learn ‘It’s mine’ first. He learns this by holding and hoarding…Keeping and sharing are not separate virtues; and [one] precedes the other.

I love the insight about sharing. In my experience, children at this age prefer parallel play and have difficulty navigating the sharing of materials. It feels so hopeful to think that a strong sense of ownership and loud protestations of “mine!” are simply paving the way for later cooperative play. Onward!

Of the 2.5-year-old child:

He is still dependent during the dressing process, but he may ask his mother to leave the room to assert his self-dependence, then call her back and accept her help. The same action may be repeated at meal time. He wants to feed himself and he wants to help.

Ah, yes. The pervasive assumption that mother will be the one dressing the young child. (Though, if we are honest with ourselves, such assumptions still permeate, but I will save that for a different blog.) However, let us appreciate the sweet nugget in there: the tension between children simultaneously craving independence and safety. Thus launches one of the many great contradictions of life.

Of the 3-year-old child:

Listens when reasoned with.

Likes to follow the same route when he goes for a walk.

Throws a ball without losing his balance.

Mildly affectionate.

Helpful in little household tasks.

Beginning of ability to share.

Beginning to take turns.

He likes to listen to a favorite story over and over again.

He swings, climbs, rolls, and slides with joy. He walks with ease and feels power in the control of his body, so he may try stunts on the bars, or go down the slide in every conceivable way.

Can confirm. To the next year!

On the 4-year-old child:

He bubbles with mental activity, shown in an indiscriminate use of words and in flights…of fancy.

He tells tales, he grabs, he tattles, he threatens, he alibis, he calls names, but his attractive traits compensate for this bravado.

He is much interested in becoming five years old. He talks about it a lot.

Birthday parties are a favorite topic of conversation.

He becomes defiant; saying, “I’ll sock you.” I’m mad.” He is feeling his power and trying it out.

Incessantly asks “why” and “how”. He loves to listen to explanations.

He loves to be read to.

Yes, yes, and yes. And for the final year!

On the 5-year-old child:

He is comfortable with himself and his environment.

He has climbed the developmental ladder and reached a plateau, what is, he has stopped struggling up for a while. When a child starts to school this resting period is over.

His interests are enlarging. Home is not enough.

He is beginning to distinguish between truth and falsehood or pretending.

He is not ready for penmanship.

He is not ready for the mechanics of reading because he lacks the physical development of eyes and attention span which reading takes.

How Does this Compare to Modern Developmental Guides?

For comparison, I dug out my “Early Childhood Indicators of Progress” (ECIP), a 91-page document that details how children should develop 60+ capacities, from academics to “wonderment” and “diligence,” between the ages of zero and five.

It struck me that modern standards emphasize what children can do (or allegedly can do) at each age. Every standard is stated positively: “Can identify and describe basic information from the text” or “When upset, can recover in a reasonable amount of time.” Of course, the final and crowning column is labeled “Kindergarten Readiness.” (For those curious, a kindergarten-ready child archives wonderment proficiency if he “Independently seeks out new experiences, objects, or materials for own enjoyment” and diligence aptitude if she “Creates a plan to achieve a goal and follows through to completion.”) While I understand the motivation behind stating what children can do as opposed to what they cannot do, sometimes we all need reminders that something is just outside of a young child’s developmental capabilities. An 18-month-old will run into walls, a two-year-old will struggle to share, and a five-year-old might not read yet.

The ECIPs also include many more academically-focused standards. Whereas “What to Expect” admonishes against teaching writing and reading to the five-year-old child, kindergarten children these days must read D-level books and independently write multiple genres (including poetry). Related to academics, I disagree with the “What to Expect” on a few points; the claim that the eyes are not developed enough for reading has been disproven, and children’s attention spans often depend on their interest levels. I do concur that the 5-year-old’s hand is typically not ready for extensive handwriting. Additionally, I find our current, universal expectation that all children will read and write at the end of kindergarten ludicrous and damaging. Everyone learns at their own pace; we are, after all, humans and not widgets. To call a child “behind” after a single year of school injures their self image and likely hampers any future academic progress.


I had previously believed that children in the 1950’s faced rigid expectations. However, the “What to Expect” offers children grace on their journey from chaotic busybodies to reasonably capable, social beings. “What to Expect” had a developmental focus, was not too lengthy, and presented a less judgmental view of the child than I had anticipated. The child it described was recognizable to me. I have seen the toddler lugging, tugging, dumping, pushing, and pulling; I have heard the 2-year-old yell, “It’s mine!”; I have read the same book five hundred times to a three-year-old; I have witnessed four-year-olds jetting down a slide every which way; and I have observed incredible growth and change that happens over those five years. Though much has changed since 1959, it seems children, essentially, do not.


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