Margaret Naumburg

Margaret Naumburg (1890–1983), US educator, author and founder of dynamically oriented art therapy, and a pupil of F. M. Alexander.


While a student at Barnard College, Naumburg shared rooms with Evelyn Dewey (daughter of John Dewey). Naumburg studied with John Dewey at Columbia University and did further studies at the London School of Economics and Oxford. She studied the Montessori Method with Maria Montessori in Rome in 1913. Here she met Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb.

In 1914 Naumburg opened the Children’s School which was later renamed the Walden School in New York City. She invited Irene Tasker to teach at the school, which Tasker did for some time 1916–17.[1] [2]

Naumburg’s educational philosophy was influenced by Dewey, Montessori, progressive educational ideas, but she became increasingly interested in psycho-analysis, especially by Jungian psychotherapy. Her inclusion of ‘free expression’ in her school was based on her belief that allowing the unconscious free expression was a way to understand yourself. The school’s emphasis was on ‘the development of children’s capacities’, not the ‘accumulation of knowledge’.

Several notable individuals taught at the Walden School including the writer Lewis Mumford and the historian Hendrik van Loon, both of whom had lessons with F. M. Alexander.

Naumburg married the writer Waldo Frank in 1916. He also had lessons with F. M. Alexander. They divorced in 1924.

In the 1930s Naumburg dedicated her work to art therapy. She developed her own method of art therapy by teaching free art expression, and was the founder of art therapy as a stand-alone therapy. She wrote about her methods in articles and books, of which five are: Studies of the ‘Free’ Expression of Behavior Problem Children as a Means of Diagnosis and Therapy (1947), Schizophrenic Art (1950), Psychoneurotic Art (1953), Dynamically Oriented Art Therapy (1966), and An Introduction to Art Therapy (1950, 1973).[3] [4]

Connection with Alexander

After her Montessori training in Rome Naumburg returned home to New York via London where she had a course of lessons with F. M. Alexander. Naumburg encouraged Alexander to come to New York city in 1914, and recommended and introduced many people to him. Alexander soon had a flourishing practice in New York.[5] Naumburg had Irene Tasker teaching at her school 1916–17. However, the arrangement came to end, probably for several reasons. One of which was that Alexander criticised the ‘free expression’ method in the 1918 edition of MSI.[6] Alexander had at that time worked at Naumburg’s school for at least two years.[7]

(Jeroen Staring argues that Alexander’s criticism of ‘free expression’ in MSI was not based on Margaret Naumburg’s school, but on Caroline Pratt’s Play School.[8])

In Naumburg’s The Child and the World (1928) the influence of Alexander’s teaching and principles is evident in several places. Naumburg also provides familiar examples from the teaching of the Technique to illustrate the lack of coordination in many people. The examples include standing on one leg and a version of hands of the back of the chair. Below are some quotes from the book, which in this chapter takes the form a fictional dialogue between a Professor of English (Prof.) and the ‘Director’ (Dir., presumably of the Walden School, i.e. Naumburg herself).

Prof: What you are getting at is that we are all of us really acting inadequately most of the time, and haven’t sufficient knowledge of our own mechanisms to recognise the danger signals?

Dir: Yes, just so.[9]

On the use and functioning unity of the whole organism:

Dir: . . . But I do know from a rather varied experience with children and adults that eye-strain, like back-strain, abdominal strain, foot-strain, and throat-strain, is not such an isolated phenomenon as our medical specialists would have us believe. All these are symptoms of a lack of psycho-physical co­ordination throughout the body. And these maladjustments are not merely local and physical ailments. They include mental and emotional as well as physiological adjustments. It’s a long story. Well, to begin with, your eye focus could not be normal, since you carry your head at an oblique angle. Your chin consequently thrusts forward in such a way as to contract the muscles at the back of your neck, and this contributes to the voice-strain from which you suffer. Your eyes cannot focus satisfactorily because they are not in alignment with the objects they wish to see. They must constantly readjust to the backward tilting position of the head. In straining to do so, the normal freedom of your eye muscle movement is contracted. We know that chickens can be egg-bound. Do we realize that man can be muscle-bound? That we may lack the complete use of the muscles that give us correct sight just as we lack the co­ordinated use of legs, arms, and torso? We are too ready, with the help of scientific specialists, to accept the incapacities of our organism as hopelessly determined. In most cases the trouble is not in the failure of eyes to see, or throats to articulate, but in our inability to adjust eye– and other body–muscles to their full use.

Prof: Do you mean to say that you could tell by watching my movements that I have trouble with my speaking voice?

Dir: Yes.

Prof: At certain times my voice gives out completely. Just when I want to give my most important lectures, of course.

Dir: And you have tried all the throat specialists?

Prof: Oh, yes.

Dir: But they don’t cure it?

Prof: No. I rest as they advise, and then of course some of the hoarseness clears up. Their treatments are no more than a partial and temporary help. But I don’t see how you could tell that I have this difficulty with my speaking voice. It’s in perfectly good shape at present.

Dir: Well, I could tell just as clearly from the way you misuse your neck, shoulder, and throat muscles that your voice as well as your eyes are not under your control. I could tell by your original response that you were politely skeptical of my diagnosis that strain was wrong muscle-tension and not organic defect.

Prof: That’s true. I thought you were perhaps assuming too much. But the way you spotted the strain in my voice forces me to stop and reconsider. I suddenly realize how attached I am also to habitual methods of treating bodily symptoms as isolated conditions of disease instead of as manifestations of maladjustment throughout the organism.

Dir: Even though you had previously agreed, in theory, that the mechanism ought to be dealt with as a whole?

Prof: Yes. But I still don’t see how you arrive at any concrete technique for that purpose.

Dir: But no one can consider any of the techniques available for basic readjustments of physical, emotional, or mental mechanisms with serious attention until he is convinced of the failure of other methods to deal with fundamental human orientation. I mean that one can’t be concerned with such methods until one has run up a blind alley in one’s own work or life. Arrived at the point of despair, one may then seek out new techniques that are off the beaten track.[10]

The following is a version of hands of the back of the chair.

Dir: Just so. Not theory, but self-practice is all that counts in this approach. And to convince you a step further, won’t you stand, very still, just where you now are? Place your hands on the rim of that chair in front of you.

Prof: Yes, and what do you want me to do now?

Dir: I shall want you presently to raise the chair from the ground with your two hands. But make no move to that end at present. Only note, without shifting any part of your body, the general position of your legs, arms, head, back, and so forth. Just observe the amount of tension with which your arms and hands are grasping that chair preparatory to lifting it.

Prof: Yes, I’ve done so.

Dir: And now will you drop your arms to your sides again and just let me place your two arms for you on the back of the chair. No, don’t tense them. Leave them for me to pick up for you, so to speak. So now they are placed for you without tension.

Prof: Yes, and now . . .

Dir: Your hands are resting lightly against the top rim of the chair. Will you now try the experiment of pressing your fingers against the chair top with just the minimum of contraction necessary to lift it off the ground? (Professor attempts to follow directions.) No. Stop a moment; relax your fingers again. Were you aware that as you tensed your fingers to lift the chair you stiffened your right knee and jerked your shoulders slightly?

Prof: No. Really?

Dir: Now just try to think of relaxing your right knee and your shoulders in order to contract your fingers to lift the chair. That time you did it perfectly.

Prof: I see now. In that simple act of lifting that chair I was bringing to bear a false preconception of the amount of effort needed to raise its weight.

Dir: Yes. You were contracted and set for the effort before you met the resistant obstacle. And instead of using just the degree of muscular effort demanded by the task of raising the chair, you had probably expended ten times that energy in preparing for the act itself. Your emphasis was on the end instead of the means – the intermediate steps by which it could be attained without strain or effort.

Prof: Yes. It’s typical of what we’re all of us constantly doing.

Dir: Worse than that. We are misdirecting energy in two ways at once. There is anxiety lest we fail in the effort to meet a given situation; and there is also the wrong use of our muscles for the demands of a required activity.

Prof: Yes, I unconsciously hunched my shoulders and stiffened my knee as if that would help me to lift the chair.

Dir: Exactly. Actually those movements threw you off your natural balance and made the attempt more difficult. But you felt as though you were helping yourself along, that way.[11]

A footnote in these pages refer the reader to Alexander’s MSI and CCC, and it shows that Naumburg continued to regard the Technique as important for the development of children and adults.

There are no other writings on Alexander by Naumburg. McCormack in his thesis quotes a sentence from a letter by Naumburg which demonstrates that he was in correspondence with her about Alexander.[12]

An online biography of Margaret Naumburg is featured on the website of University of Pennsylvania, which has a collection of her papers.[13]

Margaret Naumburg *14 May 1890 – †26 February 1983.

See also Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Irene Tasker.


[1] ‘Connecting Links’ (1967) by Irene Tasker (The Sheildrake Press, 1978), pp. 13-14.
[2] A Neglected Influence – Frederick Matthias Alexander and John Dewey by Eric David McCormack (Mouritz, 2014), pp. 42–43.
[5] Frederick Matthias Alexander – A Family History by Jackie Evans (Phillimore & Co., 2001), pp. 154, 159.
[6] Man's Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 76.
[7] Prospectus ‘Montessori and Primary Class’ (1916), reproduced in Irene Tasker – Her Life and Work with the Alexander Technique by Regina Stratil (Mouritz, 2020), pp. 304–07.
[8] ‘Frederick Matthias Alexander and the Bureau of Educational Experiments’ by Jeroen Staring in Case Studies Journal vol. 4, issue 9, September 2015, pp. 1-18.
[9] The Child and the World by Margaret Naumburg (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1928), pp. 258–59.
[10] The Child and the World by Margaret Naumburg (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1928), pp. 260–62.
[11] The Child and the World by Margaret Naumburg (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1928), pp. 263–65.
[12] A Neglected Influence – Frederick Matthias Alexander and John Dewey by Eric David McCormack (Mouritz, 2014), p. 48, footnote 33.
[13] [Old website:], Retrieved 24 January 2019