Child Life specialist and early childhood educator
Emma Plank was a leading figure in the field of Child Life—a discipline concerned with the needs of pediatric patients and their families—and significantly influenced the child healthcare profession on both sides of the Atlantic through her teaching and prolific writing. Her career had its roots in Austria where she was the director of the first Vienna Montessori School. Following occupation by the National Socialists in 1938, she was forced to leave behind her family and friends, her students and colleagues. At thirty-three, she and her husband, a lawyer, had to flee and start their lives over in a place they’d never been, using a language they didn’t know well. As refugees, they emigrated to the United States just as World War II was beginning. Over the next four decades, Plank would regain her professional footing, first in San Francisco and later in Cleveland, Ohio. She went on to share her insights in the first textbook about the emerging field of Child Life studies. Later in life, Plank would become a co-founder and then president of the Association for the Care of Children’s Health (ACCH) and share a lifetimes’ worth of professional experience with students and practitioners in both the United States and Europe.
Professional Development in Interwar Europe
During her childhood, Plank was introduced to the social reform circles of the early twentieth century. She was born in Vienna in 1905 to assimilated Jewish parents, Emil Spira, a civil servant, and Doris Langbein, a seamstress. Her full name was Emma Karoline Spira but she often used her childhood nickname, “Nuschi.” Her younger brother, Leopold Spira (1913-1997), was a socialist, activist, and writer who volunteered in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. In her youth, Plank traveled among several European countries. Her parents were also able to send her to a summer camp in the mountains that had been established by Eugenie Schwarzwald, a renowned educational reformer, social worker, and arts salon figure.
Plank’s education was steeped in the Montessori tradition and the psychological theories of interwar Vienna. As a teenager, Plank developed a strong interest in caring for children, and in 1922 at the age of sixteen she became one of five girls selected to volunteer for and live at the first Vienna Montessori School. The “Haus der Kinder,” as it was known, was founded by Plank’s mentor, Lili Roubiczek Peller (1898-1966). While at the school, Plankbenefitedfrom Dr. Montessori’s visits and from Anna Freud’s biweekly seminars on the application of psychoanalytic theory to the education of young children. Plank completed Montessori courses in 1924 (Amsterdam) and in 1927 (Berlin) and earned a diploma from the International Montessori Training Program, a certificate for teachers from the Psychoanalytic Institute, and a certificate from the Austrian Federal Teachers College.
Emigration and Interrupted Careers
Following the Anschluss, Plank and her husband went first to England where they volunteered to work with Basque child refugees from Spain. In 1938, they emigrated to San Francisco, where Emma Plank found work in Oakland as an attendant at an orphanage. She crossed paths with Josephine Whitney Duveneck, a humanitarian, environmental activist and refugee advocate who ran the private, progressive Presidio Hill School. After discovering that Plank was an experienced Montessori educator, Duveneck invited her to teach at the school, later making her its principal. Concurrently, Plank earned a Master’s degree in Child Development from Mills College in 1947. Her husband served in the U.S. military and was decorated for his service in the Battle of the Bulge. He completed a Master’s degree in Social Work, worked for the Veterans Administration, and was an avid science fiction essayist and author of a book about George Orwell’s 1984.
From 1948 to 1950, Emma returned to postwar Europe at the invitation of the Vienna Head of Special Projects of the American Friends Service Committee. The Committee’s goals were for her to establish a progressive kindergarten like the original Haus der Kinder and to teach kindergarten teachers. After returning to San Francisco in 1950, she was invited by Anny Katan, a psychoanalyst from Vienna, to come to Cleveland to assist Katan in directing the new Hanna Perkins School that served preschool children with emotional and behavioral problems. Plank also knew Katan as the mother of a child who had attended Plank’s Montessori School. The Planks decided to re-locate to enable her to take on this intriguing position.
In the early 1950s, another invitation led Plank into the pediatric wards of what was originally known as City Hospital of Cleveland. Dr. Frederick Robbins, Nobel Laureate and recently appointed head of the Department of Pediatrics and Contagious Disease at the hospital, sought out Plank to ask whether she would be interested in developing a child-oriented, psychosocial program for the many young, long-term patients with polio or tuberculosis. She enthusiastically accepted the offer, wrote a successful grant proposal, and for seventeen years, from 1955 to 1972, directed the Child Life and Education Program at what was by then referred to as the Metrohealth Medical Center.
Later Career and International Impact
Her work in the field soon drew national attention. In 1962, Plank published what is considered the first textbook for the emerging profession of Child Life, entitled Working with Children in Hospitals: A Guide for the Professional Team. The book was written with assistance from Marlene A. Ritchie, a nurse and educator who joined the team early on. This text provided insights into contemporary theories of child development, the impact of hospitalization on children and families, the role of play, playrooms, medical preparation in coping with stress, methods of creative self-expression, and the necessity of team collaboration. It incorporated photos, children’s drawings, vignettes, body outlines, and an illustrated story for child readers and parents that mapped out what to expect in a hospital visit. By 1971, the revised and expanded second edition was published and translated into German, French, Spanish, and Japanese. Around the same time, perhaps because her work uniquely combined Montessori and child psychoanalytic training, Plank was awarded the Montessori 100th Anniversary Gold Medal.
Plank actively helped shape the growing Child Life profession. In 1965, she was invited to Boston as one of forty prestigious leaders in child healthcare from across the country, to formulate a proposal for the creation of an interdisciplinary, national organization that would become known as the Association for the Care of Children in Hospitals (ACCH), subsequently renamed the Association for the Care of Children’s Health. Plank went on to be elected one of its first presidents. One of its hallmarks was the inclusion of parents as members at a time when family-centered care was just becoming a prominent philosophy and practice. During her clinical work in Cleveland, she was appointed to the faculty of Case Western Reserve University, where she enjoyed teaching before retiring as a Professor Emeritus of Child Development. Over the course of her career, she was awarded the Medal of the City of Vienna and, in addition to her book, she published over 30 articles and edited nineteen of Lili Peller’s papers (On Development and Education of Young Children, 1978).
After her husband’s death in 1983, Plank left the United States and returned to Vienna, to be close to family and friends. While living in Vienna, German pediatricians invited her to consult with them about her Child Life program, and she worked with a group of former Viennese students to promote Montessori methods (M. Ritchie, personal communication).
In 1988, Plank returned to the United States to receive an honorary degree, Doctor of Education, from Wheelock College in Boston, as part of the College’s Centennial and in recognition of Plank’s profound influence on the College’s Child Life academic major and its unique “Hospitalized Child in London” summer program. Emma Nuschi Plank died in Vienna in 1990. The Child Life Council honored her legacy by establishing the Emma Plank Keynote Address at its annual conference and now offers travel grants to increase the participation of Child Life specialists from around the world. A third edition of her book was reissued in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of her founding of the Child Life and Education Program.
Plank’s work spanned the twentieth century and influenced practices in pediatric care both in the United States and abroad. In Europe, the European Association for Children in Hospital (EACH)—an organization similar to the ACCH—has been established and aims to advance the quality of psychosocial care for children who are ill and their families. Plank’s influence stemmed not only from her leadership talents in humanizing inpatient and outpatient environments, but also from her deep grounding in child development and child psychology. Her humble yet forceful interpersonal manner also contributed to her impact, a glimpse of which one can be seen in interview material (Interview with Carlyn Yanda 1984). Plank was ultimately an untiring advocate for the well-being of children, not only physically, but also cognitively, socially, and emotionally.