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A Little History of American Kindergartens

Songs, blocks and snack time (and don’t forget a nap)

The original kindergarten concept had children playing with a series of toys that were supposed to be given to them in a specific order to help them learn. (Max Pixel)
smithsonian.com

Songs. Blocks. Snack time. Today it’s a staple of childhood for most Americans.

But kindergarten has only been a part of the American experience for a little over 150 years. That’s thanks in large part to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, born on this day in 1804, who opened the first English-language kindergarten in the United States and popularized the concept among English-speaking Americans.

Kindergarten itself is a German invention, and the first kindergartens opened in the United States were by German immigrants. They adopted the ideas of educational theorist Friedrich Froebel, who opened the first kindergarten in the world in 1837 in Blankenburg, Germany.

Froebel and his followers believed that children should be in school from a young age. At the time, it was usual to not educate young children and to take the view that they were “defective or miniature adults” whose behavior needed to be corrected by discipline, writes scholar Stephani Richards-Wilson. But Froebel thought children were “inherently good-natured,” she writes, and that they should be encouraged to learn about the world around them “through creative, imaginative, and spontaneous play.”

Froebel had a whole theory for how that play should be shaped and encouraged, she writes. The kindergarten day was supposed to start with songs and then continue with play with a series of toys. His lessons were designed for children from 3–6 who weren’t yet ready for traditional schoolwork, she writes. Because these children were so young, he thought that women should be the ones to teach them, arguing that early education was an extension of mothering.

Some of Froebel’s followers opened the first kindergartens in America, which were German-language schools. But the idea stayed on the fringe until around the time Peabody got interested in it. She had already been teaching for decades when she first learned about kindergartens in an 1856 article about Froebel’s methods, writes Patricia Cantor for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She was immediately drawn to the idea, because it suited the educational philosophy she was already working with, Cantor writes:

In an age when schools relied heavily on memorization and drill, Peabody encouraged children to bring in their favorite texts to read aloud, taught math using manipulatives, created spelling and grammar games, engaged children in physical activity and conversed with them about philosophical questions.

A few years later, in 1860, Peabody opened her own kindergarten. She and another reformer, her sister Mary Mann, began writing in English on the originally German invention, and eventually her sister took over that first kindergarten while Peabody went to Europe to learn more about the “infant gardens,” as they were sometimes called.

After training with Froebel and others, Peabody returned to the United States and became a spokesperson for the burgeoning kindergarten movement. Women found that launching schools gave them authority and the ability to advocate for education. The first public-school kindergarten opened in the 1870s in St. Louis, and by 1880, writes Cantor, “there were more than 400 kindergartens in 30 states and [kindergarten teacher] training schools in every major U.S. city.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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