The right to outdoor education at the beginning of the Twentieth century: reflections and practices from the pages of a Milanese journal (1911–1923)

From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of History of Education (RSE)

University of Florence
3 min readMar 8, 2023

Gabriella Seveso, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca

Luca Comerio, Università di Milano- Bicocca


At the end of the Nineteenth century and the beginning of the Twentieth, the city of Milan experienced a wave of interest in education and training and a strong drive to innovate in this field (Canadelli 2008). This was partly thanks to new theories and practices then emerg-ing in Europe and the United States, and partly thanks to popular interest in the dissemination of culture and children’s rights (Gecchele, Polenghi, Dal Toso 2017). The city was undergoing deep and radical change due to urbanization and industrialization and the introduction of new infrastructure (such as sewage, electricity, and communications networks): these changes on the one hand undeniably improved everyday standards of living and stimulated economic growth; on the other hand, however, they created problems and led to exploitation. Poor children were likely to prematurely enter the work-force and do dangerous or tiring jobs for many hours a day in unhealthy environments. In other cases, these children were abandoned or neglected by their families due to ignorance or a lack of economic resources. In still other cases, they were left alone in unhealthy homes or taken by their mothers to the fields or to opium dens from a young age (Cambi, Ulivieri 1988).

These situations of exploitation, suffering, and sometimes violence drove efforts to promote children’s rights in Milan (Mapelli, Seveso 2003; Seveso, Finco 2017). These were frequently the work of women’s associations, such as the Unione Femminile Nazionale, founded in 1899 by Ersilia Bronzini Majno and other activists, with the goal of «elevating the status of women and women’s educa-tion and defending the rights of children and mothers». Writing in the journal Unione Femminile, Bronzini Majno criticized the exploitation of children and pro-claimed their right to an education, a healthy environ-ment, healthcare, and wellbeing. For example, in 1908, participating in a National Congress on the issues of minors, she proposed a lively and interesting intro-ductory report and stressed the need to guarantee the rights of minors beyond a traditional conception based on charity and piety (Seveso 2020).

In the same period, other figures and associations were also devoting themselves to the theme of children’s rights, especially the right to improved education and the right to live in healthy spaces. These ideas also met with the growing movement for hygiene, which was spreading in Italy and which was promoted both by positivism and Masonry (Polenghi 2021). It also affected school and childhood; in this regard, Polenghi stresses: «The first task of schools was to provide a healthy environment. The hygiene movement described how a good school building should be, including in terms of the windows, heating, toilets, school desks, etc» (2021, 189).

Unfortunately, in Italy, many schools were instead built in unhealthy places and were spaces without the hygiene (Pruneri 2020). At the same time, just in these years, the first open-air schools began, with the aim of accommodating frail and tuberculosis children, thanks to the initiative of doctors, philanthropists, and sometimes also thanks to local administrations (D’Ascenzo 2018b). These schools, initially created for hygienic and sanitary purposes, became aimed at all children; as we will see later, in the first decades of the Twentieth century, the idea that all children, not only the physically or economically disadvantaged, have a specific need for care and attention — both from a physical and educational point of view –, gradually took hold (Tomarchio, Todaro 2017; D’Ascenzo 2018a).


Read Full Text:



University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy