From the Pages of Young Children: A Life and Career of Contributions to NAEYC and Beyond
In recognition and celebration of NAEYC’s upcoming 100th anniversary, we are featuring a selection of articles from the Young Children archive, which is accessible to NAEYC members at NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/yc/archive (select the link on this page for the digital archive). In this edition, we are featuring the work of Elizabeth (Betty) Jones, who passed away in late 2022. Jones was a strong advocate for thoughtful planning and observation, for engaging learning environments, and for fostering active learning and play. Her deep understanding of and interactions with young children helped to form the foundation of her vision for emergent curriculum. In fact, Jones wrote the book Emergent Curriculum with John Nimmo, which was published by NAEYC in 1994. She also wrote numerous articles in Young Children, including a Viewpoint piece in the May 2003 issue, “Playing to Get Smart,” which offers insights about play and a variety of strategies for teachers as they effectively nurture children’s play. Betty Jones had a lifetime of impact as a teacher and action researcher. In the profile that follows, Jerry Aldridge (coeditor of Young Children’s Our Proud Heritage column) draws from information written by Betty herself and her family to highlight major events in her life and career and her contributions to the field and to NAEYC—the thinking and practices that continue to inspire current and future early educators.
Many early childhood teachers have dedicated their lives and careers to the education of young children and shared their work with NAEYC. One of these is Betty Jones, who was an instructor of young children, a college faculty member, an action researcher, and an inspiration to adult learners for more than 60 years. This profile highlights her career and contributions to early education and to NAEYC.
Betty Jones was born in San Francisco in 1930 and grew up in the East Bay as an only child. During her college years at the University of the Pacific, she explored a variety of subjects, without a career goal. During her senior year, she discovered and became curious about young children and started observing their behavior. This started a career of observing preschoolers, their environments, and the adults who care for them and teaching those adults at Pacific Oaks College. Betty became a teacher and action researcher.
After completing her graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, Betty accepted a job at Pacific Oaks Friends School in Pasadena, California, where she began teaching in a classroom of 4-year-old children. Betty’s mentor, Evangeline Burgess, the director of the school, became her friend and collaborator. The preschool began a teacher education program known as Pacific Oaks College, where Betty became the music specialist. Her duties included teaching children, taking notes on their play, and teaching teacher education candidates. Evangeline, who was on the publications committee of NAEYC, proposed that Betty create a book based on her observations and reflections of children’s informal play with instruments, singing, and movement. What is Music for Young Children? was originally published in 1958—the first of many books and articles documenting her observations of young children and human development across the lifespan.
During the 1960s, Betty collaborated with Elizabeth (Liz) Prescott. The War on Poverty had become a national movement, and Head Start was launched. The US Children’s Bureau identified a need for data to evaluate group care in meeting the developmental needs of young children. Pacific Oaks received a grant to explore the effectiveness of group care. Elizabeth joined the Pacific Oaks faculty as the research director, while Betty became a project associate. The grant was funded for the next 12 years. Their work together was disseminated through publications and presentations that extended through the 1990s. While much of this research focused on child care, other research involved observations of child and teacher behaviors in varied physical environments. In 1984, Pacific Oaks College published a coauthored book entitled Dimensions of Teacher-Learning Environments (1984), using the observation tools created through the grant research and including extensive anecdotes collected in the process. The book was aimed at a broad audience of teachers in preschool and primary school settings.
Throughout Betty’s career and professional life, she asked the question, “How does one develop a life in order to explore genuine questions, collect stories, play with theories, and participate in the social construction of knowledge?” She explored ideas and shared them in workshops and speeches at early childhood conferences and in articles and books. She was one of the originators of the term emergent curriculum, using the term for the first time in the introduction she wrote for the 1970 NAEYC publication Curriculum Is What Happens: Planning Is the Key, edited by Laura Dittman. Betty explained, “My life has been emergent, rather than preplanned.”
As a leader in early childhood education, Betty Jones made numerous contributions to our field. A few highlighted examples include
- a leader in the research of musical development in young children, presenting and publishing her findings, including a book published by NAEYC
- a pioneer in action research, developing ways to observe, record, and utilize children’s play and work in early learning environments and sharing this with teachers and teacher candidates
- a leader in researching the effectiveness of group care to meet the needs of young children
- an originator of the term emergent curriculum and how it develops with young children in environments that support them
- a life-long active member and participant in NAEYC, sharing her work and research at conferences and publishing her research in Young Children
Betty retired from Pacific Oaks College in 2010 at the age of 80. In the Burgess lecture she gave at her retirement, she described her life’s work as an early childhood educator. Her speech was published in the July 2011 issue of Young Children as “Play across the Life Cycle: From Initiative to Integrity to Transcendence” (which can be accessed by NAEYC members at NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/yc/archive). We are honored to recognize Betty Jones for the history she helped create and disseminate, and we encourage early childhood educators to consider how they connect with the ideas and practice of Betty Jones as they nurture playful learning, engage in observation and documentation, and collaborate with and mentor others in the field.
Photograph credit: Larry Garf