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History of Psychology Centre

The Right to Play: Covid-19 and Lessons from History

10 July 2020 | by History of Psychology Centre

It is difficult to write a blog at this time without reflecting on experiences over the past few corona virus filled months.

One of the campaigns which that caught my eye just before lockdown was the DECP’s Right to Play, which launched in January 2020.

Their position paper argued that unstructured play, led by children themselves, is critical to encouraging wellbeing and development. The renowned children’s poet Michael Rosen supported the paper and featured in a series of short videos arguing for the importance of play and against the erosion of school playtime.

As Rosen said: “Play is not an extra”.

During the next few weeks not only was Michael Rosen admitted to hospital with Coronavirus (he is now home) but the regular sight during my daily permitted perambulations was of high fences and tapes around the outdoor play areas in the local parks, often with lone children and anxious parents looking disconsolately through the gaps in those fences.

One of the early exponents of play, and open air play in particular, was a psychologist called Susan Isaacs (1885-1948), amongst whose many initiatives was the Chelsea Open Air Nursery, which she founded in 1928 (and was still open until Covid caused a temporary shutdown).

Isaacs argued that children’s play was a form of self-expression that enabled them both to release their real feelings safely and to rehearse ways of dealing with a range of emotions. She also emphasised the importance of social interaction within play.

Isaac developed these theories through the observation of children whilst head of an experimental school in Cambridge called Maltings House between 1924 and 1927, just prior to the opening of her Open Air Nursery.

Maltings was the idea of Geoffrey Pyke who had been subjected to bullying at school and wanted to ensure that his own son did not suffer as he had done.

The school included plenty of garden space and equipment with which the children could explore the physical world, the ways things are made, and the manner in which they break apart! (Graham, 2008)

Isaacs was a leading member of the Nursery School Association (now known as Early Education - The British Association for Early Childhood Education) which campaigned for recognition of the benefits of early education. She was also the instigator of the British Psychological Society Committee for Research in Education from 1923 and in 1931 Chairman of the BPS Education Section.

Her interest in child and educational development was not confined to the pre-school age group – she also observed and made recommendations for older children (Isaacs, The Primary School, 1931), and her later work as Director of the newly established Department of Child Development at the Institute of Education in London included the early development of child guidance clinics. In 1936 Isaacs recommended that a dedicated playroom should be included in the clinics (Isaacs, Child Guidance. Suggestions for a Clinic Playroom, 1936).

Susan Isaacs had no children herself and had experienced a difficult childhood. Her mother died when she was six and her father, a Methodist lay preacher, remarried her mother’s nurse.

In time Susan became an agnostic, Fabian, Suffragist and left home to train as a teacher in Manchester, followed by a scholarship to Cambridge. She later became a follower of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, and was described by one obituarist as “designer of her own destiny”.

Throughout her career, Isaacs remained committed to engaging directly with the public. Her book on nursery education sold 100, 000 copies (an anniversary edition was reprinted in 2013), and she wrote for parents in popular magazines such as “Parents’ Review”, “Mind, Mother and Child”,” Home and School” and” New Era”.

In 1929 she became an agony aunt for Nursery World (Med Hist, 2017), encouraging parents and caregivers to observe and learn from children’s play, where her sympathy set her apart from other popular child care advice at the time.

For example, 'DMW', writing in about bedtime difficulties, was advised:

“Your firmness is a help to the child; that is a very desirable thing. But it needs to be combined with unstinted affection and with willingness to give the child special comfort in circumstances when she requires it.

I would not worry about not always being as patient as you might wish to be.

It is no use expecting oneself to be "perfect", and it is very difficult to deal with such states of anxiety with a child when they go on day after day, evening after evening.” (12 August, 1936).

Isaacs developed cancer in 1935 and struggled with ill health for the rest of her life, dying in 1948.

She moved to Cambridge in 1939, where she conducted the Cambridge Evacuation Survey which followed the experiences of over three hundred children who were evacuated to the area, not only surveying teachers and foster parents but also interviewing eighty of the children themselves. She noted the unhappiness of some of them particularly when placed separately from their siblings; and how progress in school work declined.

I was reminded of this study recently while standing outside in the rain at a socially distanced funeral for one of those Cambridge evacuee children.

Listening to a story being told about how that child had eventually persuaded her father to come and take her back to London, only for him to die shortly afterwards of a subsequently preventable chest condition, I reflected that these wartime experiences and interrupted education affected rest the rest of her long life, and I wonder how today’s children will look back on this period when they too were not able to play.

The DECP provided some additional video resources in May 2020 to help parents, carers and educational professionals use play to make sense of the Coronavirus changes that were happening in their lives. I think that Susan Isaacs would have approved.

For those who are interested in learning more about Susan Isaacs here are three biographies to read:

  • Dorothy Gardner “Susan Isaacs” (London: Methuen 1969)

  • Lydia Smith “To understand and to help: the life and work of Susan Isaacs” - (London: Associated University Press, 1986)

  • Philip Graham, Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children (London: Karnac, 2009)


  • Graham, P. (2008). Susan Isaacs and the Malting House School. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 34(1), 8-9.

  • Isaacs, S. (1931, June). The Primary School. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1(2), 215-218.

  • Isaacs, S. (1936). Child Guidance. Suggestions for a Clinic Playroom. London: Child Guidance Council.

  • Speaking Kleinian’: Susan Isaacs as Ursula Wise and the Inter War Popularisation of Psychoanalysis. (2017). Medical History, 61(4), 525-547


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