Five Female Education Inventors Your History Books Left Out

i stand
on the sacrifices
of a million women before me
what can i do
to make this mountain taller
so the women after me
can see farther

– legacy - rupi kaur

Twenty One Toys is built on the foundational work of countless educational toy designers that came before us. We were inspired by a recent New Yorker article to write about some of the female education inventors who made the mountain taller for us, but who might have been overlooked in your history books.

Women have always been designing for education

As in many fields, women in education have been inventing for much longer than most realize. Women have been contributing to educational design for decades, they just haven't been receiving the same recognition for it. Alexandra Lange writes that in researching for her book “The Design of Childhood” she discovered that women “were the driving professional forces behind the beginnings of modern childhood and kindergarten education.”

“As children gained their own spaces, their own toys, and their own diminutive furniture, beginning in the nineteenth century, refining, proselytizing, and testing designs meant for children was women’s work. We see their influence everywhere.”

- Alexandra Lange

It turns out that a lot of the objects and ideas that we consider to be foundational to modern education were designed and developed by women, living in times where they had much more limited agency than we do today. So in honour of a few of the women who paved the way for the creation of our the Empathy Toy, here are 5 female education inventors your history books left out:

  1. Maria Edgeworth: Writer and Educational Designer

    Born in 1768, Maria Edgeworth was a pioneering writer of fiction, but her 1798 book Practical Education had a significant influence on education theory at the time, and continues to inform the way we teach today. She wrote about the importance of providing variation without offering constant novelty in the classroom, and emphasized that teaching should be empowering work. She also “established the definition of a ‘good toy’ that we still use today: simple shapes, natural materials, something that provides a spark to the imagination.” Her perspectives on risk-taking and failure as a key part of education are very much in line with current educational models focused on preparing students for workplaces that require experimentation, iteration, and failure.

    “It is better that a child should tumble down or burn its fingers, than it should not learn the use of its limbs or its senses.”

    - Maria Edgeworth
  2. Caroline Pratt: Inventor and Toy Designer

    In 1913, Caroline Pratt designed a toy that would become almost omnipresent in preschools and kindergartens: unit blocks. If you’ve ever played with the simple wooden blocks that include rectangles, columns, pillars, triangles, and arches, you’ve played with unit blocks. Not only are they open-ended toys that allow students to practice problem-solving, collaboration, and motor skills, but the ratios of the sizes of the blocks allow for a subtle experiential way to explore math, helping them to visualize concepts like addition and multiplication. Pratt later added simple people, animals, and furniture that she called “do-with toys” which expanded opportunities for creative and dramatic play. In 1914, she opened her own school in Greenwich Village, New York City, which continues to operate today as City and Country School, and focuses on experiential learning, a child-centred approach, and real world observation.

  3. Janet Metcalf, Elizabeth Peabody, Lucy Wheelock, and Elizabeth Jennings Graham: Champions of Kindergarten

    While Friedrich Froebel invented kindergarten and designed a series of educational toys called "Froebelgaben" to support play based learning, it was women who are responsible for the wide-scale adoption of kindergarten in Canada and the U.S. Janet Metcalf was the first public school kindergarten teacher in Canada, and was recognized as “one of Ontario’s pioneer instructors in kindergarten work” in her obituary in 1935. Elizabeth Peabody opened the first English-language kindergarten in the United States in 1860, and went on to write several books based on her teaching experience and her tours of European kindergartens. The arrival of Froebel’s ideas and kindergarten in general was also met with resistance, and it was Lucy Wheelock who worked to convince people of the value of play-based education through the early 1900s. She also believed that “a child’s education could lift up an entire family from poverty”. This idea has now been proven and is used to encourage free early childhood education, especially in low-income neighbourhoods. Ensuring access to kindergarten for more children also became a goal of early civil rights activist Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who established the first kindergarten for Black children in her New York home in 1895, building on Froebel’s methods by incorporating gardening and outdoor observation. These women played a crucial role in encouraging the adoption and adaptation of kindergarten in the United States and Canada.

  4. Maria Montessori: Educator, Physician, and Toy Designer

    Maria Montessori is perhaps best known for the educational method that bears her name. Taught globally, the Montessori method is designed to be highly experiential and encourage responsibility, creativity, and exploration. To support this method, Maria Montessori also designed educational toys. Called Montessori Materials, these toys continue to be used in Montessori classrooms around the world, and includes things like the Pink Tower, Cylinder Blocks, and the Binomial Cube. Like the Froebelgaben and the Unit Blocks, most Montessori Materials are made of wood and are simple in design and are designed to be intuitive to play with.

  5. Marjory Allen: Landscape Architect and Playground Designer

    Also known as Lady Allen of Hurtwood, Marjory Allen was a driving force behind the development of Adventure Playgrounds, also known as “junk playgrounds.” Allen was inspired by a playground in Emdrup, Denmark that was designed to encourage open-ended play, and building and creating with found materials. Upon her return to England, she campaigned to build Adventure Playgrounds on old WWII bomb sites across the United Kingdom, filling them with reclaimed materials instead of more traditional playground equipment. She wanted to create spaces where “children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water, or fire and play games of adventure and make believe”, building on Edgeworth’s writing about the value of letting children take risks and on Montessori’s focus on hands-on learning and exploration. Allen would go on to design accessible Adventure Playgrounds for children with disabilities, and wrote a series of design guidelines for play spaces called “Planning for Play” in 1968. She also championed the importance of creating outdoor play spaces for children living in urban areas, pointing to a connection between outdoor play and well-being.

    “It is better to risk a broken leg than a broken spirit. A leg can always mend. A spirit may not.”

    - Marjory Allen

We’re Still Building the Mountain

These women designers and educators built up the mountain that has allowed Twenty One Toys to reach its own heights, and we’re proud to be continuing their legacies of designing and creating beautiful wooden toys, teaching important skills through play, and encouraging experimentation and risk-taking. We’ve also only scratched the surface of their incredible contributions in this piece, so if you’re looking for more information, we definitely encourage you to follow the links in the article for more information. We hope this inspires you to join us in building the mountain a little taller.

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