Women Brought Kindergarten to America

Blog Post
Photo taken by Laura Bornfreund
March 23, 2023

Staci Macri’s classroom was buzzing when I walked in on a chilly Tuesday morning. The children were sitting around the room, engaged in writing and illustrating plans for their play. After a few minutes, it was time to play. A group of kindergartners moved to the train area and immediately began working to find materials to build a bridge that could connect the train table and the lego table. The children wanted to be able to construct a train track over a larger area. Another group of children began the operation of the classroom cookie store. Some were cooking, and others were selling, ringing up the prices, and accepting cash from customers. A child across the room used a balance scale to compare a variety of objects Macri left in the measurement area. Macri moved around the room, probing to connect math, science, and vocabulary learning to the children’s play. When it was time to transition, the children headed to the carpet. Once settled, Macri called on students to show and share what they played and learned and for classmates to offer feedback on their creations and ask their burning questions.

This is just one example of engaging teaching and learning in kindergarten. Macri, a full-day kindergarten teacher in New Hampshire, is just one of roughly 1.8 million public elementary school teachers, 89 percent of which are women, according to data from the 2017-18 school year. At kindergarten, the percentage of women is even a bit higher.

While kindergarten was founded by Friedrich Froebel, a male educator and philosopher, women played a consequential role in advancing kindergarten in the United States. In honor of Women’s History Month, and the contributions women continue to make to kindergarten education today, let’s take a look at how kindergarten took off in the U.S.

More than 160 years ago, Margarethe Schurz founded the first U.S. kindergarten in 1856. It was a German-language kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin. Schurz grew up in Germany, where she learned from Froebel, who founded the first kindergarten in 1840 in Germany. When Schurz moved to Watertown, she brought his ideas about early learning with her. Schurz engaged children in Friedrich Froebel’s approach to caring and learning in kindergarten, which included songs and play with a series of scaffolded toys that promoted curiosity and discovery.

A few years later, Schurz met Elizabeth Peabody, a teacher in Boston, Massachusetts. This meeting and discussion of Froebel’s principles spurred Peabody to set up her own kindergarten in Boston. And so, the first English-speaking kindergarten started in 1860. Peabody, along with two assistant teachers, taught children reading and writing, nature, and social skills. As her kindergarten expanded, Peabody wanted to learn more from European kindergartens. She spent a year there visiting classrooms and talking to kindergarten leaders. When she returned, she was an ardent advocate for expanding kindergarten and preparation programs for teachers. Only 20 years after Peabody opened her kindergarten in Boston, there were kindergartens in 30 states and preparation programs in big cities across the country.

One of those was the first public school kindergarten, started in 1873 by Susan Blow. The Board of Public Schools in St. Louis, Missouri, agreed to provide a room in a public school and the salary for a teacher. Blow oversaw this experimental kindergarten for 42 children and trained its teachers. Two more kindergartens were opened in 1874. After five years, Blow helped start free kindergartens in every primary school in St. Louis. These were the only free (public) kindergartens in the country until 1877, when Pauline Shaw opened two kindergartens outside of Boston at her own expense, primarily for children who were from poor families. Shaw made 14 kindergartens in Boston possible. According to the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, she was responsible for making kindergarten a part of Boston Public Schools.

Following Shaw, more women opened free kindergartens, including Sarah B. Cooper in San Francisco, who founded the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, a consortium of 50 kindergartens, Alice Putnam in Chicago, and Anna Hollowell in Philadelphia. Free kindergarten associations continued to be established in cities across the country through the late 1800s.

Today, partly thanks to these women’s contributions, kindergarten is widespread as the first universal access point to public education for all children. Still, what children’s access looks like and the quality of their kindergarten experience depends on where they live, how well what comes before and after kindergarten is aligned, and how well school administrators and teachers understand how to deliver kindergarten in the ways young children learn best.

Only 19 states and D.C. require children to attend kindergarten, and only 17 states and D.C. require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten, even though full-day kindergarten can have multiple benefits for children. In some places, there is work underway to create more seamless experiences for children and families as they move from pre-K into kindergarten and through the early grades of elementary school. This work is complex and requires local and state system-level improvements, including in curricula, assessments, and educator preparation. And, more children need access to joyful and engaging kindergarten experiences, like the ones taking place in Macri’s classroom.

Just like their kindergarten predecessors who were taught by those kindergarten pioneers, today’s children need ample opportunities to apply their learning in a meaningful way (also known as play), explore the world around them, and build relationships with their peers.

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