A Blank Slate: The Rational Child

a young boy and girl reading a book

Orbis Sensualiam Pictus title page, an image of Johann Amos Comenius is on the left side, on the right is the title page for the book

Interior page from Orbis Sensualiam Pictus

By Johann Amos Comenius, London, 1659 (1658)

Enlightenment philosopher John Locke pictured a newborn's mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate primed for learning, and believed that a child's capacity for reason increased naturally over time. Locke argued that earnest Puritans who exhorted their four-year-olds to read the Bible failed to realize that children so young might simply not be up to the task. 

What books were suitable? In Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Pictured World), educator Johann Amos Comenius was among the first to show that illustration worked wonders to concentrate a young reader's attention.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education by John Locke interior page, black text on cream colored paper

Interior page from Some Thoughts Concerning Education

By John Locke 3rd ed., London, 1695

Endorsing this view, Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, added humor, brevity, and a reasoned appeal for good behavior to his trail-blazing checklist of children's literature dos and don'ts. 

Let the young relish—and reflect on—Aesop's fables, Locke declared; let "Learning be made...Play and Recreation." Locke's recommendations helped spawn an unprecedented demand for children's books and educational games, an opportunity that publisher-booksellers from London to New England enthusiastically seized.


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Orbis Sensualiam Pictus title page, an image of Johann Amos Comenius is on the left side, on the right is the title page for the book

Interior page of Orbis Sensualiam Pictus

By Johann Amos Comenius, London, 1659 (1658)

Orbis Sensualium Pictus

(The Pictured World)

Written by Johann Amos Comenius

1659

Some Thoughts Concerning Education by John Locke cover, black leather with a gilded design

Cover of Some Thoughts Concerning Education

By John Locke 3rd ed., London, 1695

Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Written by John Locke

1693

Facsimile of the First Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica title page, black text text on cream paper

Title page of the facsimile of the first edition of

the Enclopedia Britannica, 2005

Facsimile of the first edition of the Encylopedia Britannica

1768

A Little Pretty-Pocket Book by John Newbery title page, black text on cream colored paper

Title page of A Little Pretty-Pocket Book

By John Newbery, Isaiah Thomas, 1787 (1744)

A Little Pretty Pocket-book

Written by Isaiah Thomas

1787

Road to the Temple of Honour and Fame board game cover, marble gazebo guarded by two military men

Road to the Temple of Honour and Fame board game cover

Illustrated by John Harris, London, 1811

Road to the Temple of Honour and Fame

Illustrated by John Harris

1811

The New England Primer title page, black text on cream colored paper

Title page of The New-England Primer

Boston, 1843

The New-England Primer

1843

Aesop's Fables title page, black text on cream colored paper

Title page of Aesop's Fables

Illustrated by Ernest Griset, Boston, 1878

Aesop's Fables

Written by Aesop

Illustrated by Ernest Griset

1878

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney cover, several safari animals gather on grassland

Cover of The Lion and the Mouse

By Jerry Pinkney, Little Brown and Co., 2009

The Lion and the Mouse

Written and Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

2009

Songs of Innocence by William Blake cover, female figure sitting with two children under a large flowering tree

Cover of Songs of Innocence

By William Blake,  London, 1926 (1789)

Songs of Innocence

Written and Illustrated by William Blake

Originally Published 1896

1926

See and Say by Antonio Frasconi cover, title in bright colors on a white background

Cover of See and Say

By Antonio Frasconi, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955

See and Say

Written and Illustrated by Antonio Frasconi

1955

Visions of Childhood
A Blank Slate: The Rational Child