20 People Who Changed Childhood

In a special look back, CHILD salutes the innovators in the fields of education, entertainment, medicine, and more who forever altered what it means to be young in America.

Innovators 1 - 5

Walt Disney

In 1928, when Hollywood animator Walt Disney created three cartoons starring a mouse named Mickey, his plucky rodent was just another character vying for screen time with favorites like Felix the Cat. To help Mickey Mouse stand apart, Disney experimented with a new technique: synchronizing one of his cartoons with sound. Brought to life with music, the animation was a hit with audiences, launching Disney-and Mickey-into stardom. Disney went on to pioneer other ways of capturing kids' imaginations: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the country's first full-length animated feature, and Fantasia (1940) dazzled with its avant-garde storytelling techniques. Disney died in 1966, but through his Disneyland and Disney World theme parks (the latter completed after his death) and dozens of unforgettable classic films-including Dumbo, Pinocchio, and Bambi-his legacy lives on in the hearts of children around the world.

Robert Coles

As the civil rights movement polarized the nation in the 1950s and '60s, Robert Coles, M.D., then a teaching fellow at Harvard University, stepped back from the fray and listened to the voices of the children. How would the climate of social upheaval shape their lives? He canvassed the country to find out, chronicling children struggling with racial integration, children of migrant workers, children whose feelings had never been documented. The result was the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of books Children of Crisis, widely considered a masterwork. Dr. Coles, who retired as a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard Medical School and the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, has written many books revealing kids' inner lives, changing the way others in his field approach the study of children. "If you find yourself bored by children," Dr. Coles once said, "you're not really observing them."

Michael Jordan

To his millions of young fans, Michael Jordan proves that if at first you don't succeed, try again. He was cut from his high school basketball team for being too scrawny, then went on to become one of the most astonishing athletes in the history of professional sports. His highlight reel includes six NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, five NBA regular-season MVP awards, six more for NBA finals, and 32,292 career points. But it was more than Jordan's slam dunks that so influenced kids. As a point guard for the Chicago Bulls from 1984 to 1993 and the spokesman for brands like Nike and Gatorade, Jordan was revered for his easygoing charm, and children worldwide clamored to Be Like Mike. More important, Jordan promoted the value of working diligently, playing fair, and staying true to yourself-a winning formula he brought to every sweaty showdown.

Ruth Handler

Ruth Handler's lightbulb moment came one day in the early 1950s, when she noticed that her young daughter, Barbara, was playing with paper dolls fashioned like adults. Why not develop a three-dimensional version of them for little girls to act out their dreams of growing up? Buyers at the 1959 Toy Fair were dismissive of Handler's figurine-named Barbie, after her daughter-but the doll was a hit, enchanting girls across the U.S. and transforming Mattel, the company Handler co-founded with her husband, from a modest picture-frame business into the world's largest maker of toys. Under Handler, who died in 2002, Barbie morphed from a plaything to a bona fide role model, complete with a kaleidoscope of challenging careers, from doctor to figure skater, and impeccably fabulous ensembles.

J. K. Rowling

Before J.K. Rowling's bespectacled boy wizard went off to study at Hogwarts, some parents feared their kids would never enjoy reading. Once Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone hit U.S. bookstores in 1998, followed by five more installments, parents found their kids couldn't get enough of Rowling's fantasy adventure novels, some longer than 600 pages. To date more than 300 million Harry Potter books have sold worldwide; they crowded The New York Times bestseller list for so long that the newspaper created a separate children's list. "The Harry Potter books not only sparked an explosion of interest in reading," says Lisa Von Drasek, the children's librarian at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, "they inspired kids to go out and discover other great books too."

Innovators 6 - 10

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In the early 1900s, roughly 2 million children were toiling in America's factories, coal mines, and fields. Conditions were dangerous, and countless children developed illnesses and suffered grave, sometimes fatal injuries in the course of their work. Believing that young people would better serve society in school than on the assembly line, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for drastic federal reforms that would end child labor, a move that many businesses opposed. But Roosevelt browbeat Congress into passing the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established strict work regulations for minors-and let America's children return to the business of being kids.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Shigeru Miyamoto's first video game for Nintendo had a quirky storyline: An ape named Donkey Kong has kidnapped a young woman, and Mario must evade peril to rescue her. Miyamoto's character-driven world, in which players controlled the action and devised solutions, was unprecedented in the realm of video games, and when Donkey Kong appeared in U.S. arcades in 1981, kids couldn't spend their quarters fast enough. In Miyamoto's tenure at Nintendo, where he's now an executive, he developed many popular games, such as The Legend of Zelda and the Super Mario Bros. series, giving rise to the first joystick generation and shaping how millions of kids spend their downtime.

Jonas Salk

In 1952, the U.S. was gripped by the worst polio epidemic in its history. Doctors reported more than 57,000 cases of the viral illness that year, an outbreak that killed 3,000 people and left another 21,000 paralyzed. As parents barred their children from parks and pools to prevent them from contracting the disease, Jonas Salk, M.D., a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was at work developing a vaccine from a "killed" version of the virus. Dr. Salk's research paid off in 1955, when human trials revealed that his injection was safe and effective. Polio cases then plummeted, and the fear that had seized America's families finally dissipated. Though Dr. Salk, who died in 1995, became a hero following approval of the vaccine, he refused to patent it. "Could you patent the sun?" he once asked. "There is no patent-it belongs to the people."

Joan Ganz Cooney

Could educational TV really capture a mass audience of children? Joan Ganz Cooney, who began her career as a reporter and documentary producer, believed it could. In 1968, she co-founded the Children's Television Workshop and oversaw the creation of Sesame Street, its first show, which debuted in 1969. Sesame Street's brisk pacing and diverse cast attracted a loyal audience of young viewers to public television, and the show tackled not just reading and math but difficult topics such as death and natural disasters. More than 100 Emmy Awards later, Sesame Street's lessons have touched millions and demonstrated that life can be met with strength, imagination, and laughter.

Benjamin Spock

"Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do." Benjamin Spock, M.D., penned these words in his 1946 volume The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care?and in doing so sparked a revolution in parenting that would ripple through generations. During the first half of the 1900s, childrearing experts endorsed an authoritarian approach. But Dr. Spock, trained in pediatrics at Columbia and Yale universities, encouraged parents to be flexible, show affection for their kids, and most important, have faith in their own judgment. Families and experts embraced the new thinking, and the landmark book has sold more than 50 million copies. Until he died in 1998, Dr. Spock worked tirelessly on behalf of children, spoke out on political issues, and lectured around the world.

Innovators 11 - 15

W. K. Kellogg

One evening in 1894, while working late in a sanitarium kitchen, Will Keith (W.K.) Kellogg, a former salesman who had left school at age 14, mistakenly left a batch of boiled wheat to stand overnight. He returned the next day and saw that the wheat had become flakes, a discovery that led to the invention of flaked cereal. By 1906, the Kellogg Company's light, crispy Corn Flakes began to change the way Americans start their day, shifting preferences from the lardy breakfasts of yore to lighter, grain-based morning meals. Today it's hard to imagine what family breakfasts would be like without cereal, which turned out to be not only a kid favorite but in many cases nutritious as well.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

"The Chicago Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact," Eunice Kennedy Shriver said at the 1968 Special Olympics games, the first international athletic competition for people ages 8 and up with intellectual disabilities. "The fact that exceptional children can be exceptional athletes. The fact that through sports they can realize their potential for growth." Shriver was speaking from personal experience-her sister Rosemary, who died in 2005, underwent a lobotomy at age 23 to control her mood swings, but the procedure left her mentally impaired. Rather than hide Rosemary's condition from the public, Shriver spoke about it candidly, launching a lifelong commitment to intellectually disabled children and adults. Nearly 40 years after Shriver founded the Special Olympics, the stigma associated with mental disability has in many ways been erased-and the games, now held worldwide, draw 2.25 million athletes.

Arthur Staats

In 1962, when it came to disciplining his 2-year-old daughter, Arthur Staats, Ph.D., then a professor and child psychology researcher at the University of Arizona, wasn't willing to settle for the same old strategies. "I would put her in her crib and indicate that she had to stay there until she stopped crying," he later wrote of his response to his daughter's outbursts. "If we were in a public place, I would pick her up and go outside." Dr. Staats, now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, dubbed this approach the "time-out," and after it appeared in his 1968 book, Learning, Language, and Cognition, the name stuck. Now the time-out has become a favorite approach among parents, changing the face of discipline from swift punishment to straightforward calm.

Geraldine Laybourne

When Geraldine Laybourne joined Nickelodeon as the network's program manager in 1980, the cable channel was suffering as a business and failing to engage its young viewers. As she ascended the ranks, becoming Nickelodeon's president in 1989, Laybourne turned the network into the most widely watched kids' channel in the country. With Laybourne in charge, Nickelodeon rolled out an array of intelligent, original programs-Double Dare and You Can't Do That on Television were early triumphs; later innovations included Nick Jr., a block of programs for preschoolers, and Saturday Night Nick, a group of shows for preteens. Laybourne left the network in 1996, but not before she established an enduring standard for children's programming.

Steve Jobs

In 1979, soon after he co-founded a California computer company called Apple, Steve Jobs had an idea. "I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it," he once said. "It will change their lives." Schools were slow to invest in new computers back then, so Jobs decided to donate his equipment. Ten thousand free Apple computers ultimately made their way into California classrooms, setting the stage for a nationwide shift in how children learn and interact with technology. Jobs's innovative approach has been the hallmark of his entire career-his other ventures, such as Pixar Animation Studios, ramped up the quality of kids' entertainment, while Apple's subsequent advances, including the iPod, iMac, and iTunes music library, brought style and self-expression to the digital revolution.

Innovators 16 - 20

Edith Green and Birch Bayh

In 1971, when few high school girls played sports and just 18% of female high school graduates finished college-because many colleges discouraged or didn't admit women-Edith Green, a Democratic congresswoman from Oregon, decided to draft legislation that would help end gender discrimination. Under the provisions of Green's bill, known as Title IX, colleges that failed to provide equal opportunities for women in academics and sports would lose their federal funding, a controversial idea. After Birch Bayh, a Democratic senator from Indiana, signed on in 1972, the bill passed. Though Title IX was drafted for older students, it helped younger ones too-women couldn't thrive in college classes and sports programs unless girls had a grounding in chemistry and kickball. Today, thanks to Bayh and Green (who died in 1987), more than 33% of high school girls play sports, and most students earning master's degrees are female.

The Beatles

On January 24, 1964, the #1 single on Billboard's Top 40 chart was Bobby Vinton's ballad "There! I've Said It Again." A week later, Vinton's hit was history, and the raucous smash "I Want to Hold Your Hand," by four lads from Liverpool, England, assumed its place at the top. The Beatles washed up on Yankee shores in February, for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and American kids never looked back. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison enjoyed a long list of hits, but they did much more than sell records and spark garage bands; they inspired young people of the '60s and beyond to redefine popular culture and chart their own path. "My role in society is to try and express what we all feel," Lennon said in a 1980 interview. "Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all."

Everett Franklin Lindquist

If academic competition was as spirited as athletic competition, students might show more enthusiasm in the classroom. In 1929, that was the thinking of Everett Franklin Lindquist, Ph.D., a rising professor of education at the University of Iowa. Dr. Lindquist created the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), an exam designed to measure children's achievement in areas such as vocabulary, science, and math. Twenty-eight years after his death, Dr. Lindquist's approach to testing is a routine part of primary education, and the ITBS is still taken by students nationwide. Ironically, Dr. Lindquist opposed "teaching to the test," a stance many education experts say is now being ignored.

Joan Barnes

In 1975, Joan Barnes was a San Francisco-area mom looking for a place where her young daughter could play freely, develop her cognitive skills, and build relationships with other children. When Barnes found her choices lacking, she created the place herself, naming it Gymboree and opening for business in 1976. Barnes's classes were a hit with local families: For just a few dollars per session, little ones could roam in a safe place designed just for them while their parents mingled. Before long, Barnes branched out, overseeing the establishment of more than 530 Gymboree centers nationwide. She left the company in 1990, but her philosophy spawned a revolution in early childhood, causing kids to develop friendships outside their families at a very young age-and to begin showing up at kindergarten with the equivalent of a Rolodex.

Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, was already a successful cartoonist when he received an interesting assignment from a book publisher in 1957: Create an illustrated vocabulary primer using 220 simple words. Though Dr. Seuss had made a few forays into kids' books, this one, called The Cat in the Hat, marked a turning point in his career. Brimming with playful rhymes and whimsical drawings, the book, which tells the story of two siblings and the dapper cat who fills their day with adventure, resonated with children in an unexpected way. Dr. Seuss became an icon, ultimately earning a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honor Awards, and a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (plus accolades for his film and TV work). When he died in 1991, more than 200 million copies of Dr. Seuss's 40-plus books had found their way into children's hearts, and generations had been awakened to the joys of reading.

Robert Strauss, a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated and the Philadelphia Daily News, has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters

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