The best books about child development and education

The Books I Picked & Why

An Experiment in Education

By Sybil Marshall

An Experiment in Education

Why this book?

At a hippy party in 1967, I found this book lying on a table and picked it up. I’d soon forgotten the party raging around me because I was totally riveted by Sybil Marshall’s story. She was a primary teacher sent to run a little country school during the Second World War. The children had been terribly neglected and at first seemed uneducable, so Sybil decided to re-motivate them through music, art, and drama. By the end of the evening, I’d decided to leave university and train as a primary teacher.


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Children's Minds

By Margaret Donaldson

Children's Minds

Why this book?

I read Children’s Minds during the school summer holidays in 1979 and vividly remember sitting in the sunshine in Edinburgh’s Meadows, in floods of tears over Margaret Donaldson’s call to arms in her closing pages. Children’s Minds is a wonderful introduction to the science of child development (indeed, it profoundly affected the course of that science, particularly in terms of the development of thought and language). It’s wise, perceptive and a great read.  


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The Disappearance of Childhood

By Neil Postman

The Disappearance of Childhood

Why this book?

Postman was a hugely erudite and witty writer. When I discovered this book in the 1990s, I was immediately convinced by his argument that our modern conception of ‘childhood’ is connected with the invention of the printing press … and with human progress over succeeding centuries. I was just as convinced by his concern that the recent explosion of screen-based culture would have profound effects on childhood and, indeed, on the quality of human thought. I’m therefore deeply honoured that Toxic Childhood is now on an ‘A’ Level Sociology syllabus alongside The Disappearance of Childhood – can’t believe that we’re sitting on the same shelf!   


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The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

By Judith Rich Harris

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Why this book?

In recent years, my work is increasingly concerned with the interface between child development and evolutionary biology. The Nurture Assumption is a challenging book that’s attracted praise and vilification in equal measure. Judith Rich Harris argues that ‘parenting’ is less influential in children’s emotional and social development than is currently assumed and I think that’s well worth thinking about. The love and care of adults are obviously of immense importance, but children bring their own strengths into the world, not least their inborn drive to learn through play.


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Play is the Way

By Sue Palmer

Play is the Way

Why this book?

In 2020, as Chair of the Upstart Scotland campaign, I was invited to edit a collection of essays by experts from a wide range of disciplines. All were arguing for a more enlightened and coherent approach to the care and education of children between three and seven years of age. The 19th century approach to education in the UK and USA is completely out of kilter with children’s needs in a 21st-century world and we need radical change, starting at the beginning. This is when developmental foundations are laid that will underpin children’s lifelong learning, health and well-being. All teachers need to know about early child development and helping pull together so much wisdom and humanity into one readable little book was a great privilege and an absolutely joyous experience.


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