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‘Donde no entra el aire y el sol entra el médico’ – Spanish saying

It wasn’t long before activists began raising their voices. Children, confined to crowded apartments, deprived of sunlight and fresh air, lacked proper space to learn and play. Reformers debated alternatives and models from neighbouring countries, while pamphlets and newspapers covered their efforts to create spaces for Spain’s children to move and grow. 

More than a century has passed since the height of Spain’s efforts to transform urban children’s health through public health measures. Decrying the status quo, educationalists and policymakers joined reformers around the world in a transnational movement for open-air schools, pedagogies of play and contact with the natural world. As one doctor argued in 1909, children’s development relied on three things: “aire, luz y movimiento”, all woefully missing in their homes and in their schools, and particularly in the poorest neighborhoods. (1)

Advocates of open-air schools argued that urban children were deprived of fresh air and light: Octavio R. Vilariño, La infancia y la naturaleza: Estudio sintético de la influencia que ejercen, en el desarrollo orgánico e intelectual del niño, las Colonias escolares, los jardines de la infancia y los campos de juego (Madrid: Librería Médica, 1930).

Less than a month has passed since the height of Spain’s COVID-19 lockdown policies, which confined children to their homes for more than forty days and elicited fierce warnings from parents, teachers and medical professionals on the potential long-term effects on children’s physical and mental health. The word ‘crisis’, as professors of fin-de-siècle Spain are wont to explain, can be a period of intense difficulty or the point when a patient either succumbs or recovers. As children re-emerge in parks and public spaces, what can historians and linguists learn from these episodes and their reception, distant in time and space?

As pedagogue Heike Freire noted in an interview with ABC in early April 2020, Spanish children had all but ‘disappeared’ from the public sphere. “Ya no pueden ir al colegio, estar en los parques, las plazas… Y el Gobierno ni siquiera los ha mencionado en el Real Decreto que establece el estado de alarma.” Invoking governmental lapses, she argued that children’s welfare must be part of the wider conversation. Public health measures must recognize the child’s unique developmental needs, inextricable from the outdoors: ‘las necesidades de los niños de estar al aire libre, de moverse, de recibir luz natural y juego’. (2)

Spain’s COVID-19 regulations responded to an urgent epidemiological necessity, namely to limit family-to-family contagion during an international pandemic and national emergency. Arguments against the policies’ reach, however, harkened back to century-old campaigns to recognize children as protected members of society. To do anything less, as Freire’s petition warned, risked committing a ‘delito de negligencia y abuso’ against them.

As inscribed in the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, social reformers declared for the first time that children had particular needs and rights. The first among these was ‘the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually’. (3)

This was a radical declaration. Cities of the early twentieth century faced dire public health crises manifest in high infant mortality and ill health. In the crowded streets of Spanish neighborhoods like Madrid’s Lavapiés, children gathered in narrow, heavily-trafficked streets and dark, stuffy homes and classrooms. Following international research, pedagogues made clear that children needed sunlight (known as heliotherapy), exercise (in varying active forms of play, exploration and calisthenics), a nourishing diet and fresh air. 

To grow and develop, children needed sun, fresh air and exercise, as well as periods of healthy rest: Manuel Reverte, ‘La colonia escolar de la Ciudad Lineal’, ABC, 27 (1931), 6-7 (p. 7).

Local governments were called upon explicitly to intervene: ‘Todos los Ayuntamientos, sin duda alguna, tienen que pensar en la creación de campos de juegos, de bosques y de jardines en armonía con las necesidades de la higiene, de la educación y del esparcimiento de sus respectivos vecinos, pues constituyendo el juego, especialmente en los niños, una necesidad fundamentalmente biológica, no puede explicarse que sean las Ordenanzas municipales las que lo prohiban. Esto no es lógico ni justo,’ argued Madrid bureaucrat Pedro Roy Herreros in a 1928 municipal competition aimed at improving school hygiene.⁠ With international researchers showing the critical importance of playgrounds, forests and gardens for children’s development, he suggested, it was shortsighted and downright unjust for local governments to stand in the way of public health reforms. 

Governments were called upon to fund colonias escolares for urban children, such as this small camp in a forested area run by a teacher named Margarita Aranda in Madrid’s Ciudad Lineal: Manuel Reverte, ‘La colonia escolar de la Ciudad Lineal’, ABC, 27 (1931), 6-7 (p. 7).

Building upon past efforts to bring urban children to marine sanatoria or mountainous colonias escolares, undertaken over the past half-century, this was a call to transform schools in simple but radical ways, knocking down walls, building gardens, letting in sunlight and creating playgrounds on disused municipal lands. Like advocates before and after, Roy Herreros relied on examples from pioneering schools in England, France, Germany and elsewhere to set the standard for Spain, while he condemned municipalities that ‘unjustly’ ignored children’s needs. As Freire would later note about COVID-19 policies, countries including France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany all explicitly mentioned children; only Spain failed to reflect the ‘características especiales’ of childhood in its policies.

Long before social distancing, one creative teacher proposed a method to teach children geography outside. With every child physically embodying a city or region, they were to disperse and make a living map across a field: Juan Pomareda Soler, La escuela al aire libre y los paseos escolares: programas y guía práctica de la educación de los niños en el campo (Madrid: Pedro Nuñez, 1902)

The resonance of these two movements lies in common cause made by concerned parents, teachers and doctors in pursuit of a holistic pedagogical ideal. Today’s parents and teachers take to Twitter and, but those of the early twentieth century too fought their battles in the public sphere. Employing a common language of health, growth and vitality, reformers called upon governments to take children’s entire ‘material and spiritual’ needs into account.

Dr Anna Kathryn Kendrick is Clinical Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of Global Awards at NYU Shanghai, and the author of Humanizing Childhood in Early Twentieth-Century Spain(Cambridge: Legenda, 2020)

1) Germán Penedo, ‘La escuela en el campo’, La Correspondencia de España, 8 May 1909, p. 1.

 2) Ana I. Martínez, ‘“Los niños necesitan salir a la calle por salud así que tenemos que ser capaces de elaborar otras medidas porque esto se va a prolongar más de un mes”’, ABC, 1 April 2020.

3) Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924, adopted Sept. 26, 1924, League of Nations O.J. Spec. Supp. 21, at 43 (1924).