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  • Progressive Education:Two Contemporary Views
  • Nancy Tillman Romalov (bio)
Mary H. Lewis . An Adventure With Children. Ed. with an introduction by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. and Therese M. Provenzo. New York: University Press of America, 1985.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher . Understood Betsy. With an afterword by Peggy Parish. New York: Dell Yearling Classic, 1987.

Here are two hundred or more school children, kindergarten through twelfth grade, involved in their normal school-day activities. Their school is situated on a 60-acre farm, complete with a large and comfortable estate house, two barns, several cottages and outbuildings. Standing in the middle of an orchard is a "village" of little houses that serve as the primary classrooms. Each cottage has its own shop, a loft overhead holding every conceivable sort of material a child could want; its own living room built around a fireplace, where a group of children are apt to be found reading poetry or planning the dramatization of a play. Each cottage has its own garden and woodpile. On a given day children as young as third grade are running a chicken business on a large scale and making money at it—an enterprise entailing the buying of feed, keeping of accounts, raising and tending of the chickens, and marketing of the eggs.

Across the lane lives the junior high group, which also makes use of the barn. They too are engaged in "work," taking responsibility for the care of the farm animals or calculating a week's consumption of hay. At a nearby pond, children are busy building rafts to be used in an upcoming performance of "Pinafore." Each spring, the children plan or plant a large vegetable garden that will become the summer food supply. Every fall, they gather apples from the orchard to sell at the market. In winter, they iceskate and cut wood.

Whatever the season, these children participate in all areas of school life. Boys and girls are equally involved in the planning and preparation of lunches, for instance, and in helping to decide on future plans for their school.

At the same time, traditional subjects like English, history, world geography or science are studied in close relationship to the children's work. The practical activity of cooking, for example, is directed toward [End Page 141] discovering the basic principles of both chemistry and botany; the preparation of a Thanksgiving celebration yields a history lesson. Each day is a balance of activities, from the care of animals to Latin studies, from algebra to gardening. The curriculum is continually being rethought to meet the children's needs; the possibilities are endless.

Clearly these children enjoy themselves; if happiness is a measure of success, then this school is succeeding. But what about the "real" world's definition of educational excellence? How can one judge the efficiency of a school like this? How do these children fare, or even survive, when they transfer to public schools or beyond? Moreover, doesn't such a school require an unusually large budget both to start up and to maintain?

The school just described is in any case not a fictitious one. An Adventure with Children is the memoir of Mary H. Lewis, its director from 1912 to 1924. Written in 1928, Lewis's book has recently been reissued by the University Press of America. Its reappearance can be heartily welcomed.

Lewis's memoir covers the first 12 years of the Park School, a privately-run progressive school in Buffalo, New York. During that time the school grew from a modest facility in a rented cottage accommodating 27 children (K-4) and four teachers, to a spacious open-air country school of 220 pupils (K-12) and a faculty of 27. Lewis writes of daily life there, but also of student and parent involvement in the planning, financing, building, and remodeling of structures and programs. And her account is more than a record of an important pioneering experiment in education during the Progressive Era. It also documents the work of an extraordinary leader whose vision can still inspire.

The Park School was in many ways typical of the progressive schools that flourished at the time. Inspired by the philosophy of pragmatism, infused...


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pp. 141-146
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