The Social History of Childhood

The details
Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 18 December 2020
12 December 2019


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA L520 Childhood Studies,
BA L521 Childhood Studies (Including Year Abroad),
BA L522 Childhood Studies (Including Placement Year),
BA L523 Childhood Studies (Including Foundation Year)

Module description

In this module students will learn to reflect critically on the ways in which the experience and interpretation of childhood has shifted historically, and on the ways in which different versions of childhood have been argued for in different contexts and at different times.

The social history of the lives of children is hard to gather into one place, fragmented as it is between many different factors: the history of the family, the history of religion, of education, medicine, rights and legislation, of classes and cultures, states and nations, gender and sexuality. But the social history of 'childhood', is a little easier to trace, tied as it is to various attempts – particularly from the eighteenth century onwards – to construct childhood as a special zone, cordoned off from the world of adults, with its own rules and conditions.

Throughout the last two hundred years 'childhood' has been the object of intense social concern and debate, as something to be managed, safeguarded, shaped, idealised or demonised, developed, promoted or commercialised as the case may be. This module supplies an important background context to the themes introduced in year 1 and also links to issues of the 'representation' of children explored in 'Where the Wild Things Are: Literature, Childhood, Psychoanalysis' this year.

Focusing on British social history (in order to make the most of local resources, and to contextualise contemporary practice in Britain) we will cover some key stages in the development of modern social policies about children – the Factory Act (1833), the 1870 Elementary Education Act (1870), the Children's Charter (1889) – but we will do so in the context of particular debates and arguments about children's lives and experience. In this sense, the social history of childhood is very much about the history of conversations by adults and professionals about children. However, throughout the module the Moodle site for the course will be used to post vignettes from oral history and photographs alongside excerpts from key documents, and other materials so that we also get an understanding of the changing social experience of childhood in its various social dimensions. This angle on the experience of childhood will be supplemented by a field trip to the Museum of Childhood and The Ragged School Museum.

Module aims

• To give students a broad historical overview of developments in the experience and understanding of childhood in Britain since the eighteenth century.
• To examine the lives of children in different social contexts in Britain over the same historical period.
• To introduce students to key debates in social history over the construction of modern ideas of childhood.
• To give students historical contexts through which to understand the development of modern educational and social policy around children.
• To use the historical record as a way of comparing different social experiences of childhood.
• To use the historical material as a springboard for critical reflection on, and evaluation of, the shifting meaning of childhood.

Module learning outcomes

• Students will gain an overview of key developments and phases in the social understanding of childhood in Britain in the last 200 years.
• Students will gain a sense of the varieties of childhood experiences in different social contexts in Britain in the last two centuries.
• Students will be informed about key debates over the way ‘childhood’ has emerged as a social construct in modern history.
• Students will gain knowledge of formative moments in educational and social policy towards children, and the supporting historical context for this.
• Students will have learnt to compare the experience of childhood in different social and historical contexts.

Module information

No additional information available.

Learning and teaching methods

9 x one-hour lectures 9 x one-hour seminars 1 x field trip 1 x 2-hr revision seminar


  • Gill, Stephen. (1991) William Wordsworth,The Prelude, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Blake, William. (1970) Songs of innocence and of experience, London: Oxford U.P.
  • Cunningham, H. (1991) 'Savages', in The children of the poor: representations of childhood since the seventeenth century, Oxford: Blackwell., pp.101-122
  • Apted, Michael. (c2011) 7-49 up, [London]: Network.
  • Cunningham, H. (1991) 'Waifs and Strays', in The children of the poor: representations of childhood since the seventeenth century, Oxford: Blackwell., pp.133-142
  • Shapira, Michal. (2013) The war inside: psychoanalysis, total war and the making of the democratic self in postwar Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davin, Anna. (1996) 'State, Child and Parent', in Growing up poor: home, school and street in London, 1870-1914, London: Rivers Oram Press., pp.208-217
  • Margaret May. (1973) 'Innocence and Experience: The Evolution of the Concept of Juvenile Delinquency in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Original text', in Victorian Studies: Indiana University Press. vol. 17, pp.7-29
  • Walvin, James. (1982) A child's world: a social history of English childhood, 1800-1914, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
  • Cunningham, H. (1991) 'The Response to Child Labour 1780-1850', in The children of the poor: representations of childhood since the seventeenth century, Oxford: Blackwell., pp.50-83
  • Cunningham, H. (1991) 'The Nation's Children', in The children of the poor: representations of childhood since the seventeenth century, Oxford: Blackwell., pp.201-217
  • Fletcher, Anthony. (c2008) Growing up in England: the experience of childhood, 1600-1914, New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.
  • Thom, Deborah. (1992) 'Wishes, anxieties, play, and gestures?: Child guidance in inter-war England', in In the name of the child: health and welfare, 1880-1940, London: Routledge., pp.200-219

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Field Trip Review    25% 
Coursework   Essay    75% 
Exam  60 minutes during Summer (Main Period) (Main) 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
70% 30%


Coursework Exam
70% 30%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Ms Jessica Clark, email: 01206 874969 Room 5A.202 Undergraduate student administrator: 01206 874969 Room 5A.202



External examiner

Dr Claudia Lapping
Available via Moodle
Of 26 hours, 18 (69.2%) hours available to students:
8 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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