Elinor Goldschmied : Pioneer of Treasure Baskets, Heuristic Play and the Key Person System

Elinor Goldschmied has died, aged 98. She was born in rural Gloucestershire and went on to study mental health at the London School of Economics. During the war, she worked with refugee and evacuated children, and after the war helped to transform the day nurseries and orphanages of Milan, Italy.

In the UK, her last full-time job was as principal education social worker for the Inner London Education Authority, but arguably her greatest contributions to early years practice came after her retirement when she continued to work as a consultant to childcare services in England, Scotland, Italy and Spain.

Sonia Jackson, professor of social care and education at the Institute of Education, London, co-wrote, with Goldschmied, the famous People Under Three: Young children in daycare (Routledge). She said, “I had the great privilege of working with Elinor Goldschmied over many years. Her great achievement was to make abstract concepts and scientific knowledge accessible to those who work with babies and young children in everyday settings. Above all, she saw infants and toddlers as individual people whose experiences and feelings are just as important as ours.”

Jennie Lindon, early years consultant and child psychologist, said, “Elinor Goldschmied made a huge contribution to thoughtful, child-focused practice. Her approach always placed babies and young children at the centre of any experience. The now familiar key person concept emerged from her focus on the importance of a genuine personal relationship with individual children and their parents.”

This short paragraph in Nursery World Magazine has brought about so many different memories for me. I had the privilege of meeting Elinor Goldschmied in the 1980s when I invited her into the College where I was working as a lecturer in Professional Child Care Practice. She was a very small woman with a huge personality. Within minutes, she had the most cynical of my students eating out of her hand. The twinkle in her eye and her non-judgemental and accepting manner were her trademark. I spoke with her for a long time, much longer than we both had anticipated, but she had so much enthusiasm and drive that I and countless others over the years wanted to remain near her so that we too could be recipients of her wise words and inspirational attitude.

Playing and Taking Risks

Everywhere I go, to visit nursery groups or speak to child care professionals, I find a way to bring her name and her approach into the talk. The advent of heuristic play* is such a logical thing to do, yet so many people fall short of the mark. How difficult can it be to fill a basket with everyday objects which have no synthetic materials in them or on them? Clearly for a large number of people, it is impossible. Elinor believed that children should be able to have access to any type of natural material even if its shape led adults to gasp out loud.

I remember watching with a group of students a video of her allowing a baby of six months to select a metallic egg whisk from the basket which he promptly stuck in his mouth. There was no danger. His mother and Elinor were vigilant. What they offered instead, was the time, safety and space to explore an object using the tools at his disposal. He was six months old. He explored mainly by using his mouth and tongue as a sensory detector. He had acquired the ability to grasp and bring objects to his mouth and therefore, his eyes and nose and ears. He discovered the unique taste of metal. He discovered the feel of cold, virtually unyielding substance formed in a particular shape to be used for a specific function.

He explored the properties of the whisk until he had had enough; then he put it down and picked up a heavy glass ball. Again there were gasps from the audience. It was evident that no one had considered that, provided adults kept a watchful eye on proceedings, there was no danger. Their understanding of children’s development at six months had been forgotten. They seemed to assume that the child would throw the ball and either kill himself or any other child who happened to be passing.

Nothing like this could have happened. No child at this age can throw – objects are released from their hands when something else catches their attention. The height from a sitting baby’s hands to a padded floor is very short so there was no danger even if he had wanted to do such a bizarre thing.

We live in a world where risk is considerably reduced to the extent that parents keep their children indoors and everyday adventures are not acceptable. If we all take on board what an exciting world we live in and how it is important for children to feel safe and capable within that world, everyone will have a real opportunity to achieve their potential whatever that may be.

Real Inclusion and Equality

Elinor understood the importance of accepting every child as a unique and gifted individual. She didn’t waste time trying to categorise or label children as having special needs, additional needs or anything else. They were all children and we were all the people tasked with the responsibility to encourage and raise good citizens.

She understood that learning to negotiate and compromise are positive skills to allow children to develop so that friendships grow and become strong in the nursery years so that the process of maturation and finally reaching adulthood becomes less arduous and isolating. If a child has one particular adult with whom they can develop a positive relationship during their time away from family, such as in the nursery, then their stay is less traumatic and their play and learned behaviours become more positive. From this, the idea of a key person has evolved and is currently promoted by the Early Years Foundation Stage in the United Kingdom.

I cannot finish this article without mention of Sonia Jackson, who has been another leading person in the work towards a greater understanding of small children and their needs. I used to read her husband Brian’s articles avidly and was very saddened by his untimely death during a fun run in the early 1980s. I recall reading an article by Sonia before Brian’s death, where her children had made it clear that Dad was who they laughed with and Mum was who dished out discipline and love. It was thought-provoking and challenging. She wrote with honesty and insight. I am sure she will miss Elinor very much, not least because they were friends as well as colleagues.

*Infants at Work – Goldschmied

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