If childhood is an invention, how did children once grow up?

‘Education’ stands for blackboards and computers, school benches and sculleries, china dolls or rag dolls, pies and puddings and a roast goose or bowls of pallid porridge. At the Institute of Education, beyond schooling, studying, and training, ‘Education’ encompasses bringing up children and growing up.

Book cover with girl with large collar and spectacles reading a newspaper.When I look at history and sociology of childhood, our literature makes me wish I were a scholar instead of a librarian! The first page I opened in a random historical overview sucked me in, back to a time when young boys went through one or two initiations: changing from an infant’s gown to breeches and graduating from those to long trousers.

Further on, you learn how the shift from larger households to nuclear family was reflected in new forms of celebration, like children’s birthdays and Christmas. In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, well-off families provided their offspring with more and more toys and books, particularly during the festive season.

Book cover with impressionist painting of five yound children on the beach.In Childhood in modern Europe (2018) – available as a printed or electronic book – Colin Heywood develops a debate of the concept of childhood and youth in the past centuries: Did those clear cuts between the stages of life exist, or were there gradual transitions and grey zones? Did most people really marry very early, girls usually in their teens, or was there a protracted tension between maturity for relationships and lack of opportunity?

With our books, you can wander through time, starting with Childhood in classical Athens or other titles at the Institute of Archaeology and the Main Library and ending up in the 21st century with Designing modern childhoods or Children and young people’s cultural worlds.

Book cover, black, with ancient Chinese drawing of adults and children.If you want to turn your mind to other parts of the world, our Comparative Education Collection might be just right: I found debates on stereotypes and hubris, exclusion and oppression; I found accounts of childhood in Germany and Ireland, Japan and China, Southern Africa and Australia, and there must be many more books and, of course, articles.

For autobiographical and fictional accounts of childhood and youth in previous generations, turn to our Education in Literature Collection; you will pass it on your way to the staircase in the middle of the Newsam Library.

If you want to do search for literature, you can start on the Library catalogue, UCL Explore. It covers plenty of online articles, too. You can move on to databases through the link at the top of the catalogue or gather search tips on our dedicated webpage and go from there.

I have compiled a few search terms for history of childhood for you:

  • To find reports on childhood, try both the term ‘childhood’ and the term ‘children’; this is essential to find all titles or subject terms or keywords.
  • To find ‘social history’ of childhood, also try ‘children – history’ and ‘children – social conditions’ (you need not type the dashes).
  • For family relations, employ the asterisk for family/families and parents/parent etc.: ‘famil*’/’parent*’.
  • In addition to ‘teenager*’, look for ‘adolescent*’, ‘youth’, ‘young adult*’, and remember that teenagers also fall under ‘children’.
  • There are ready-made search categories for ‘children in literature’, ‘children in art’ and ‘children in motion pictures’!

If you need to share impressions of former times with children, have a look at our Curriculum Resources Collection; it goes far beyond textbooks, abounding with picture books, non-fiction and fiction.

As regards the education systems in former times and different places, we have much more again to offer you. Unlike most libraries, we keep many older academic books as well as our old textbooks and collect more historical textbooks and exam papers so that you can follow the contents and ways of teaching throughout time, especially history and geography. Many old materials are in library stores, so you will have to find them first on the catalogue.

Any questions, consult the IOE LibGuides or of course a librarian: we are here to help you!

Library trolley with books on history of childhood in Europe, China, etc.

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