Free Kindergartens

Free Kindergartens were specifically organized "as a reaction against industrialized, urban life and its effects on young children." Its goals were to assimilate and Americanize immigrants, to prepare students for entry into public elementary school, and to provide community-outreach and mothers' programs. Kindergartens, based on the ideas of German Friedrich Froebel, assumed three forms in the U.S.: private, public, and charity (or free).


Many reform efforts of women in the nineteenth century were focused on improving the quality of people's lives (Edwards 2002). Early reformers viewed education as serving the common good and promoted it as a way to ameliorate social conditions. From its origins in Germany in the 1840s, the kindergarten movement aimed at social reform. This concept of early childhood education, based on the ideas of Friedrich Froebel, was subsequently introduced to the United States in 1856 when Margarethe Meyer Schurz established the first German-speaking kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin (Beatty 1989, 69). Throughout the late nineteenth century, kindergartens in the United States assumed three primary forms: private, public, and charity (or free ).

Private Kindergartens: The earliest English-speaking U.S. kindergartens were private programs that charged tuition and catered to middle- and upper-class white children (Lazerson 1971b, 76). Elizabeth Palmer Peabody initiated the first English-speaking kindergarten in Boston in 1860 to prepare children from higher-status families for responsible citizenship (Allen 1988; Beatty 1989; Edwards 2002; Tyack and Cuban 1995). Curricula of these early programs relied on Froebelian methods and were primarily concerned with proper socialization of the child. A few educators and social reformers of the period held the view that "[t]hose children who belonged to cultivated families . . . might not need kindergarten training" (Lazerson 1971b, 128). Despite this handful of dissenters, private kindergartens expanded quickly and thrived in the East and Midwest during the 1860s and 1870s (Tyack and Cuban 1995).

Public Kindergartens : Public kindergartens connected to large urban school districts began to emerge in the 1870s. These public kindergartens arose out of the concern for increased urban decay found in cities as a result of the rapid industrialization and immigration that occurred after the Civil War. The prevalent perception among social and educational reformers was that families, churches, and communities were failing in their duties to properly socialize children in the attitudes and values needed to become good citizens. Kindergartens were also heralded as a method for "saving slum children from corruption" by reaching students in their formative years (Spring 2001, 232). In 1873, the first United States public school kindergarten was opened in St. Louis, Missouri, under the direction of Susan Blow, who had been appointed by William Torrey Harris. The goal of this public kindergarten was to address the social concerns of urban poverty (Cavallo 1976; Peltzman 1998; Spring 2001; Tyack and Cuban 1995). The curricular objectives of public kindergartens focused on instruction in habits, morals, and virtues with instruction occurring both in the morning and afternoon.

Charity/Free Kindergartens: In addition to private and public kindergartens, charity or free kindergartens emerged during the late 1870s. Philanthropists, social reformers, and educators worked together to organize free kindergartens with several goals in mind. Free kindergartens were specifically organized "as a reaction against industrialized, urban life and its effects on young children" (Beatty 1989, 68). Thus, a strong component of free kindergarten programs was the incorporation of early forms of community-outreach programs and mothers' programs that aimed at educating families in "habits that would reform the home" (Spring 2001, 233). Unlike in public schools where kindergarten instruction occurred during both the morning and afternoon, free kindergarten teachers spent afternoons conducting mothers' meetings. In addition to addressing issues of poverty and crime, progressive social and educational reformers of the late nineteenth century saw the kindergartens as a way to assimilate and Americanize immigrants (Spring 2001; Tyack and Cuban 1995). Free kindergartens were also assigned the task of preparing students for entry into public elementary school to improve their chances of school success. Free kindergartens were viewed by many social reformers as a panacea for the ills and dangers of urban life.

Historic Roots

Initially, in the 1850s, kindergartens in the United States had been organized to serve middle- and upper-class families. At the conclusion of the Civil War, reformers began to turn their attention to the plight of the urban poor which resulted from rapid industrialization and increased immigration. Members of women's voluntary associations began making "friendly visits" to the poor in urban areas to document unsanitary and dangerous conditions. One response to the findings of these reports was the organization of free kindergartens for children living in poverty. Consequently, free kindergartens were primarily organized for the purpose of urban social reform.

Free kindergartens began to appear during the 1870s, with the first organized in 1877 by Felix Adler in New York and Pauline Agassiz Shaw in Boston (Beatty 1995). Free kindergartens for black children in the northern states were sponsored by white charity organizations and churches. In the South, because few public schools were willing to serve black students, free kindergartens were organized for African-American children through the efforts of the National Association of Colored Women and black women's clubs. In these kindergartens "racial stereotyping sometimes superseded Froebelianism," as the curriculum was more vocational in nature and emphasized manual training rather than individualistic development (Beatty 1989, 79). Silver Street Kindergarten, organized by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin in San Francisco in 1878, was the first free kindergarten established on the West Coast. Free kindergartens gained increased popularity throughout the Midwest in the 1880s and 1890s.

Perceiving kindergartens as "an instrument of reform" (Lazerson 1971b, 126), advocates firmly believed in the power of the kindergarten to ameliorate conditions of poverty and Americanize immigrants. As such, social reformers and educators organized free kindergartens for five specific purposes: 1) to socialize low-income students, 2) to educate low-income families, 3) to protect students from the nefarious influences of urban street life, 4) to acculturate immigrants, and 5) to prepare students living in poverty for the elementary school experience. Thus, free kindergartens served children of the urban poor, immigrants, and working class families.

As with private kindergartens, teachers in free kindergartens based their methods on the educational philosophy of Friedrich Froebel. Froebel's philosophy emphasized social reform through the proper socialization of the child and promoted the kindergarten as "an extension of ideal motherhood" (Ibid., 116). To create conditions conducive to proper socialization, children were exposed to predetermined and highly structured play activities involving Froebel's gifts , which were geometric learning materials that led students to discover "the harmony and symmetry of life" (Ibid., 117).

Vying for control of the kindergarten curriculum in the 1800s was G. Stanley Hall and the child study movement. Hall was a strong proponent of kindergarten programs and concluded from a study he conducted in 1880 that children who had attended free kindergartens did substantially better in primary grades than children who had not (Ibid., 119). Yet, through his research, Hall began to believe that strict adherence to Froebelian activities might be harmful to young students by resulting in increased stress and fatigue (Beatty 1989). Hall advocated the use of cooperative learning activities as a replacement for the mechanical directed play inherent in Froebelian methods.

Both Froebel and Hall envisioned kindergarten teaching as an appropriate occupation for women, seeing it as an extension of their "innate maternal instinct" (Allen 1988, 44). In the closing years of the nineteenth century, kindergartens began to infuse child study and psychology into their programs as opposed to relying solely on Froebel's methodology. Froebel devotees and progressive educators alike agreed on the value of kindergarten as a vehicle for urban reform and, for both groups, moral education was at the core of the curriculum (Cavallo 1976, 148).

Typically, kindergarten teachers-or "kindergartners," as they were called-were young white Protestant middle-class females. They were educated in Froebelian methods and child development in small specialized private training schools that emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to the growing demand for kindergarten teachers. Many of these programs were exclusively attended, staffed, and administered by women. Institutions differed on the amount and coursework necessary to earn a degree. Sympathy, understanding, and a playful personality were considered desirable traits in teacher candidates (Beatty 1989). Student teachers were required to participate in community-based service-learning experiences-such as home visits-to facilitate the development of more personal relationships with children and their families. In addition, students learned how to conduct mothers' classes and organize new kindergarten programs. Many teacher-training institutes also became community centers that offered various outreach programs and services for neighborhood children and families.

Children attended kindergarten in the morning to facilitate the frequent home visits kindergartners were required to make. Afternoons were spent conducting mothers' meetings, which were a staple of the free kindergarten program. The overarching goal of these meetings was to educate mothers in the areas of domesticity, childrearing, and citizenship. This was in contrast to the schedule of public kindergarten teachers, who were required to teach both in the morning and afternoon, leaving little time for creating strong home/school connections.

Most kindergartners witnessed the realities of urban life daily and viewed themselves as missionaries performing tasks to benefit the common good (Ibid.). With missionary zeal, these early kindergarten teachers believed in reaching out to the families of children and to the community. As such, free kindergartens became a reflection of Anglo-Saxon Protestant attitudes and values.

Often students arrived at kindergarten without having had their physical needs met. As a result, kindergartners were required to attend to students' physical needs in addition to their educational needs. Free urban kindergartens provided breakfast and lunch. They bathed children and made sure they were clothed properly (Ibid.). Many kindergartens offered limited health care services as well. Kindergarten facilities were often located in the basements of churches or schools, although a conscious effort was made to maintain welcoming, clean, and cheerful classrooms for urban kindergarten students. Consequently, free kindergartens were commonly described as places of hope in low-income communities.

The free kindergartens proved to be a popular Progressive social and educational reform effort throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The success of charity kindergartens led to a greater demand for them, which made it difficult to rely completely on philanthropic resources for financial support. As a result, many reformers and educators lobbied to make them part of the public school systems of cities. By 1914, most large urban districts had absorbed kindergarten programs into their systems.


The nineteenth century was characterized by rapid changes in society and marked by tremendous growth in the populations of large cities. These factors created conditions in urban areas that many cities were unable to address financially. Free kindergartens, supported by philanthropic individuals and organizations, helped to fill the gaps in social services offered by cities to improve the lives of the urban poor. In this regard, they played a vital role in providing a link between the community and low-income families while providing valuable social services. By absorbing these costs, free kindergartens lessened the financial burden of social welfare services in many urban areas.

As Mary Hilton and Pam Hirsch have stated, "To examine the established history of education is still to find narrative which consistently foregrounds the ideas and activities of men" (2000, 1). It is a sad truth that the educational achievements of men have been well documented but missing from those accounts are the accomplishments and contributions of women educators. Historically, women played an important role in the development and organization of U.S. kindergartens in the nineteenth century. Women used the volunteerism and social activism inherent in the American kindergarten movement to expand "their sphere of influence" to the public arena (Beatty 1995). Unearthing the historical development of kindergartens highlights the contributions of women educators, social reformers, and philanthropists.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Throughout the late nineteenth century, many wealthy women were drawn to rescuing children from poverty (or "child saving," as it was called; Cahan 1989). Free kindergartens became a preferred cause among educators, social reformers, and philanthropists as they came to be seen as a cure for the ills of urban life (Tyack and Cuban 1995). Elite and influential women joined women's associations, clubs, reform groups, and churches that sponsored kindergarten programs throughout the nation's cities (Beatty 1989). The popularity of the free kindergartens grew at a rapid pace and by the late 1880s, programs required more resources and funding than private philanthropy could provide. As a result, free kindergartens began to look to the public for support and lobbied to be included in the public school systems. Consequently, after the turn of the century, kindergarten programs turned from the philanthropic sector to the public arena for support (Lazerson 1971b, 127).

Key Related Ideas

Ethics: A process of decision-making that is considerate of codes of conduct and moral judgments of a group, religion, or culture.

Fundraising: The process by which groups and individuals collect money to support an organization or program. For more information, see "Philanthropic Fundraising" and "Special Event Fundraising" papers at

Nonprofit organizations: A group formed for the "purpose of serving the public or mutual benefit other than the pursuit or accumulation of profits for owners and investors" (Luckert "Definition and Examples").

Servant leadership: A leadership theory, popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf, that centers leaders serving their organization by listening to and understanding issues before responding with answers and solutions.

Stewardship: The act of carrying responsibility for an organization or program with a sense of its history and a commitment to preserving its mission, purposes, or resources for future generations.

Strategic planning: A process by which organizations and programs create a vision, purpose, and goals from which all future decisions about the organization or program are made.

Volunteer motivation: The process by which individuals who give their time to an organization are recognized and rewarded for their efforts; this encouragement is given in hopes that the individual will to continue and/or expand their involvement.

Important People Related to the Topic

Jane Addams (1860-1935): A pioneer social worker who opened the first free settlement kindergarten in connection with Hull House. Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931, for her work at Hull House in Chicago, which provided educational and domestic training for women and immigrants.

Eliza Ann Blaker (1854-1926): An effective teacher and lobbyist for educational and social causes in Indianapolis, Indiana, for forty-four years. Blaker established the Teacher's College of Indianapolis (now, known as the elementary education department of Butler University's College of Education) and founded and became superintendent of a number of charity/free kindergartens in Indianapolis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Susan Blow (1843-1916): Appointed in 1873 by William Torrey Harris to supervise the organization of the first public kindergartens in St. Louis, Missouri.

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852): A German educator who believed that every child is born with their optimal educational ability but that they must be loved and given the proper stimulation to develop optimally. Froebel's philosophies of preschool development involved free self-activity, creativity, social participation, and motor expression. He is credited as being the founder of the kindergarten concept.

Patty Smith Hill (1868-1946): A progressive kindergarten innovator and professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Dr. Maria Montessori (1875-1955): A successful Italian doctor and professor of anthropology, Montessori became intrigued with how children learn. She left teaching to study children. She developed the Montessori Method to provide a nurturing approach to the education of special needs children. It gained respect in the educational field and was adopted for use with all children. Her method involved recognition that all children can learn and eagerly search their environments for stimulation. Her belief was that children teach themselves by manipulating objects. In the Montessori Method, children interact with those activities in which they have the greatest interest until mastery when they move on to other activities. Montessori started a movement in early childhood education that has established thousands of schools worldwide.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894): A Froebel devotee who opened the first English speaking kindergarten in the United States in 1860.

Margarethe Meyer Schurz (1833-1876): In 1856, Schurz opened the first German-speaking kindergarten in the United States in Watertown, Wisconsin.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Society : In 1881, Indianapolis, Indiana, a handful of members of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society decided to focus its efforts on the care of poor children. The group surveyed 600 of the city's poorest families. The members renamed the society the Children's Aid Society (1882-1952) to reflect the new direction of its work. It possessed seventy-five members, including many of the community's most prominent women. Believing in the potential of kindergarten to ameliorate conditions of poverty, the committee decided to organize a trial kindergarten in the summer of 1882. It formed the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten Society and began establishing free kindergarten schools throughout Indianapolis. A number of these kindergartens were incorporated into the Indianapolis Public Schools system at a later date.

Related Web Sites

Froebel Foundation Web site , at , contains a bibliography of four hundred reference books on the development of the kindergarten concept and biographies of key players in the movement, including founder Friedrich Froebel.

Froebel Web site, at , is an online resource devoted to the development of kindergarten. The site includes biographies of women and men who were influential in the movement and who were influences by Froebel.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

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This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.