The best books about child development and education

Who am I?

As a primary head teacher, then literacy consultant, I wrote many books about education but at the age of 50 I changed tack. A meeting with a researcher who’d discovered an alarming decline in young children’s listening skills led to eight years’ research on the effects of modern lifestyles on children’s development. It involved many interviews with experts on diet, sleep, play, language, family life, childcare, education, screen-time, marketing influences and parenting styles – and a great deal of reading. By the time Toxic Childhood was first published in 2006 I’d realised that, in a 21st century culture, society should be paying far more attention to child development, especially in the early years. I hope to go on spreading that message until my dying breath.

I wrote...

Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It

By Sue Palmer,

Book cover of Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It

What is my book about?

What’s happening to childhood today? Why does one child in five now suffer from mental health problems or behavioural and learning difficulties? How has the rapid rise of digital media impacted children’s lives?

In this ground-breaking book, Sue Palmer presents up-to-date research on the toxic cocktail of factors affecting today’s children. She also provides sound advice on ‘detoxifying childhood’, including the vital importance of real food and real play for children’s development, why sleep is essential to learning – and how to ensure children get enough of it, childcare and education – what works best for different age groups, protecting children from aggressive marketing and excesses of celebrity culture, and the dangers (and benefits) of growing up in an unpredictable yet unavoidable digital age.

The books I picked & why

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An Experiment in Education

By Sybil Marshall,

Book cover of 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.

Children's Minds

By Margaret Donaldson,

Book cover of 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.  

The Disappearance of Childhood

By Neil Postman,

Book cover of 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!   

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

By Judith Rich Harris,

Book cover of 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.

Play is the Way

By Sue Palmer,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in child development, parenting, and childhood?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about child development, parenting, and childhood.

Child Development Explore 22 books about child development
Parenting Explore 109 books about parenting
Childhood Explore 109 books about childhood

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting--From Tots to Teens, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, and The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Children if you like this list.