A History of Play: Early Childhood Education in Tasmania

Firstly, a confession. I have struggled to write this blog, to gather references and to find a quiet space to write an intelligent, interesting, engaging and informative piece on the history of early childhood education in Tasmania. My first effort was informative, but it seemed to lack something, and I wasn’t happy with it.  

Then, one day, I had an epiphany while walking after work. I feel an immense pride in the public education system in Tasmania. I send both my boys to public schools on the Eastern Shore in Southern Tasmania. My father was a well-loved, enthusiastic and dedicated Physics and Maths teacher in both public and private schools in Northern Tasmania. I still recall him enthusiastically telling me, “Tasmania has the best public education system in Australia.” When I studied at University, I was constantly meeting his past students whose choices were in some way inspired by his teaching methods.

This is how education began in Tasmania – with inspired, talented people dedicated to improving the lives of Tasmanian children.  

While researching this blog, I discovered one such person, Joseph Benson Mather, who was determined to provide an education to Tasmania’s poorest children. I and my colleagues went on to find dozens of stories of devoted parents, dedicated teachers, and generous communities who believed that young Tasmanian children deserved high quality early childhood education. Together, they laid the groundwork for early childhood education in Tasmania today, where amazing teachers encourage little children to learn through play, to be curious, and to love school.

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Teaching in Tasmania: three teachers’ lives, 1868-1945

We can only imagine what it must have been like to be the first teacher in Tasmania. Jane Noel was a Sydney schoolmistress who began a private school in a hut in a lane off the lower end of Collins Street in Hobart Town in 1806. What follows is a brief look at the lives of three of Jane’s successors between 1868 and 1945.  It is also a research journey, investigating the sometimes dark nooks and crannies of the collections of the Tasmanian State Library and Archives.  What you think you will find on these journeys is sometimes very different than what you begin looking for, but it is always illuminating.

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From “Dangerously Foul Air” to Free School Milk: A Brief History of Public Health in Tasmanian Public Schools, 1900-1975

Schools with no toilets and no sinks to wash your hands. Sick children labelled as “mentally deficient” because of their swollen adenoids and tonsils. Adolescents with a full set of dentures, little children cleaning their teeth with the corner of a sooty towel. A generation of teenagers with curved spines and poor eyesight from bending over their school desks in poorly lit and freezing cold classrooms. This was the picture of public health in Tasmanian schools in 1906. Over the next 75 years, schools found themselves on the front lines of the battle against contagious disease, poor nutrition and poor health. Over time, Tasmanian public schools became a crucial part of the Tasmanian public health system, and transformed the lives of thousands of Tasmanian children. Read on to find out more about this fascinating story.

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Reading, Writing & Arithmetic: The Public School Curriculum 150 Years Ago

What would you have learned at a Tasmanian public school in 1869? Mostly, just reading, writing and arithmetic, from a teacher not much older than yourself, in a class of 40-60 students, and in a textbook that your grandfather might have read in Ireland thirty years earlier. The texts might have been boring and out of date, but the reasons why are fascinating. That’s because the public school curriculum in 1869 was deliberately designed to be bland and uninteresting, in order to avoid social conflict. What follows is the story of a journey – from the idea that education needed to reform and contain children, to the radical idea that children in public schools should be inspired to learn, and to become curious and informed citizens. Read on to discover more!

For an audio introduction to this story, check out our interview with ABC Radio!

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