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Some Thoughts on the Early History of Kindergarten

April 24, 2020


No matter your age, you can probably remember your kindgergarten teacher’s name.

The institution of kindergarten in American public schools has a long history. Kindergarten was founded by German philosopher, educator and father Freidrich Froebel in the 1840’s in Germany.  The first English-language American kindergarten was founded by Elizabeth B. Peabody in 1860 in Boston. In 1884 the National Education Association gave kindergarten its official seal of approval, and by 1914 most schools across the United States offered kindergarten classes on a non-compulsory basis.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Peabody, writing in the August 12, 1873 edition of The Kindergarten Messenger, stated that “The object of the Kindergarten is to form and open the mind of childhood, rather than to fill it.  It is called kindergarten by Froebel, for a somewhat whimsical but perfectly just reason, that it treats the little child as the wise gardener treats the plant…”

Twenty-two years later, The New York Times featured an article about a two-year certification course in kindergarten education offered at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The program also included courses for mothers and free lectures, and mentions the interest of fathers in attending classes.  Froebel’s model of education was fundamentally reshaping the relationship between private and public by seeking active participation and engagement from families.  Kindergarten was available not only for families who could afford the tuition but also for low income families, like the newly arrived immigrants living in the tenements on the Lower East Side, through charitable organizations and fraternities.

This photograph, taken by Jacob A. Riis in 1897, shows the tenement kindergarten classroom of the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons.

King’s Daughters Tenement Chapter, kindergarten games, by Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis, King’s Daughters Tenement Chapter, Kindergarten Games, 1897; Image Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Founded in New York City in 1886 by Margaret Bottome, the Order is one of the Protestant Christian social reform organizations of the 19th century still in existence today, offering spiritual, financial and educational resources to its communities across the world.  Newly arrived families with small children could enroll their children in kindergarten classes, preparing them for elementary school, and enabling them to learn English as well as their native language.

Did your kindergarten experience look like the one Riis captured in 1897?  Tell us about your or your children and grandchildren’s experiences in kindergarten here on our blog and on Facebook!  Happy back to school!

— Updated by Jamie Salen

–Posted by Hilary Whitham


For more information, check out the following:

Amy Taylor Allen’s, “’Let Us Live with Our Children’: Kindergarten Movements in Germany and the United States, 1840-1914” in the History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1988).

International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons website