Indianapolis Free Kindergarten

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Prominent women founded the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Society (IFK) out of concern for the urban poor. Formed in conjunction with the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, the women conducted a survey of families in need and, in 1882, organized a trial kindergarten. The society began establishing free kindergarten schools throughout Indianapolis. At its peak in the 1910s, the IFK operated sixty schools dedicated to the “education and moral training of the children of the poor between the ages of three and eight years.” Director Eliza Blaker suggested formal teacher training, which led to the founding of the Kindergarten and Primary Normal Training School. In 1905, the training school became the Teachers College of Indianapolis. In 1930, Butler University assumed the Teachers College to form its College of Education. In 1952, Indianapolis Public Schools incorporated the free kindergartens into the public school system.


After the Civil War, kindergarten training increasingly became an essential ingredient in addressing poverty.  Free kindergartens first appeared in 1877 in the northeastern United States. They proved successful and soon spread to other areas of the country. Many early kindergarten organizations later transformed into Progressive social programs "that provided comprehensive educational services to children, mothers, and families" (Beatty 1995, 99-100).  In their personal commitment to work for the common good, many influential and wealthy citizens combined their resources to support free kindergarten programs for low-income, minority, and immigrant children living in conditions of poverty in large urban areas (Yack 1974). 


Historic Roots

Many accounts of the free kindergarten movement in Indianapolis attribute its origin to Reverend Oscar C. McCulloch.  While he certainly had a role, the movement had a somewhat convoluted beginning.  McCulloch had recently moved to Indianapolis as the minister of the First Congregational Church.  An early Social Gospel minister, he brought an aggressive social service agenda to his ministry.  In 1878 he assumed presidency of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society (IBS) and in 1879 helped to found the Charity Organization Society (COS), one of the first in the United States.  The COS coordinated what it called a “circle of charities,” including the Center Township trustee’s office, the IBS, and prominent churches, asylums, and other charities in the city.  Between 1879 and 1922, the COS screened and approved all cases for assistance, then assigned cases with the circle of charities for relief and other types of assistance.  The organization embraced the IBS practice of door-to-door visitation and formalized it into friendly visiting, complete with recruiting, training, and supervision.  Amid an early wave of volunteer recruiting, McCulloch in 1881 encouraged Indianapolis women to form a local auxiliary of Social Science Association of Indiana (SSAI) to undertake “some practical work that should cover a field not already taken by the various charitable organizations of the city” (IFK Records).  Determining just what that practical work should be, however, proved a complex task. 

McCulloch suggested that women could aid children who already depended on charity or supply reading materials to public institutions.  Over the next year, the minister and the ladies debated the specifics of the work plan.  McCulloch wanted the women’s work to remain within the confines he envisioned:  no material aid to children, no overlap with existing charities, and no increase in families’ dependence on charity. The SSA women’s agenda appears to have been hotly contested.  Women began weekly visits to four to six IBS client families, witnessing poverty, children working, and child abuse.  While primary and secondary public schools existed in the city, poverty could deter some children from attending school.  At meetings when McCulloch was conspicuously absent, the SSA women decided they would use their own judgment in granting aid and addressing both child labor and child abuse. 

By 1882, the women had studied the census of working children and families receiving IBS aid and decided on their course of action: to form the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Society (IFK) (IFK Records).  Free kindergartens for urban poor had just begun to open in major American cities.  In Indianapolis, IFK women personally visited poor children in their homes and developed their own system of visiting to assess children’s needs—independent of the Benevolent Society or any other organization.  As the IFK added free kindergartens, they added visitors accordingly.  Visitors served as a conduit between IFK members and the children in two ways.  They captured and reported information about children’s circumstances, school attendance, and physical needs; they also distributed donated clothing and shoes to poor families.  IFK women raised funds to provide free hot breakfasts and lunches in their schools (Gobel 2010).  They opened one school in 1882.  By 1890, the IFK operated a remarkable seventeen kindergartens and two domestic training schools for teenaged girls (Hufford 1930). 

The IFK hired Eliza Ann Blaker, a pioneer in early childhood education, to be its first full-time superintendent.  Blaker closely followed the German kindergarten model founded by Friedrich Froebel, which used children’s love of play as its foundation.  Froebel’s theories had become popular in the United States by the late nineteenth century.  Over 1,000 free kindergartens opened during the 1880s and flourished in major cities such as Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco (Gobel 2010). 

Evaline Holliday became Indianapolis Free Kindergarten president in 1899 and led the IFK for the next twenty-one years, by far the longest-tenured president in the agency’s history (IFK Society, 26).  As president, Evaline reported in 1903 that the agency’s volunteers made literally thousands of kindergarten and home visits annually (Blaker Records).  By 1911, the IFK had secured an annual state tax appropriation to support its schools.  With that appropriation, the Indiana General Assembly became the first state to appropriate public taxes for kindergartens at a time when public-private partnerships were just emerging (IFK Records).  When European immigrants moved to Indianapolis as the city industrialized, many families could not provide for basic needs.  In the 1910s, large numbers of children of immigrant families enrolled in the IFK’s thirty free kindergartens.  In three schools, foreign children represented the majority of students.  At those kindergartens, teachers and volunteers worked “almost daily” with the mothers and older members of those families (IFK Records). 

The IFK tailored the kindergartens to the needs of urban children and communities. Kindergarten students received the necessities of life such as clothing, shoes, baths, breakfast, and lunch.  Kindergartens in the poorest areas were organized to provide year-round programs. Classes for mothers focused on childcare, and placed heavy emphasis on the role of the parent in the development of the child.  Classes for fathers were offered as well. Saturday classes were held for older children in the family and offered instruction in domestic skills, as well as opportunities to participate in a variety of academic and interest clubs. By assuming these social functions, members of the society noted that "in every district where the Free Kindergartens are placed, they have become social centers for the neighborhoods" (IFK Records).  An original member of the society recalled, "For almost twenty years, the money for the support of the kindergarten was derived by personal and private solicitation, by teas, etc." (Hufford 1930).  A 1907 newsletter noted that to maintain the kindergartens, the society appealed "to the large-hearted friends of little children for financial aid in carrying forward its most important work for better homes and better morals" (IFK Records).  Society membership dues supported the programs and demonstration kindergartens were held at the Indiana State Fair to inform the public about the work of the Society and to solicit private donations. The society raised funds in several other ways, including the annual Free Kindergarten Ball, which became a premier social event, staged its annual Play Fest children’s concert, and published The Kindergarten Monthly.

Blaker built upon the Froebelian system by involving the entire family in early childhood education and by training kindergarten teachers.  In 1902 the IFK amended its constitution to allow it to “adopted other such measures as shall be deemed advisable for the purpose of bettering the homes and lives” of children (Gobel 2010).  It implemented programs for the entire family with a special concentration on mothers.  Teachers visited homes, met with mothers, and brought mothers into the kindergarten buildings for instruction and entertainment (Gobel 2010).  By rounding out children’s education with mothers’ instruction and teacher training, the IFK earned national recognition as a leader in the free kindergarten movement.

Finding qualified kindergarten teachers remained a challenge during the early decades of IFK operations. Superintendent Eliza Blaker suggested formal teacher training, which led to the founding of the Kindergarten and Primary Normal Training School.  In 1905, the training school became the Teachers College of Indianapolis.  The number of IFK free kindergartens peaked at sixty in 1914, a testament to the organization’s holistic approach to elementary education.  It taught kindergarten children, to be sure, but also offered homemaking classes for mothers, and clubs and classes for older children.  The continuous affiliation between the kindergartens and training school assured consistency in admission criteria for children, as well as in curriculum and extracurricular activities (Gobel 2010, 106-107).

Eliza Blaker believed in an “equal education for all; therefore, race, color, or creed could not bar anyone from admittance to her school.  No one was ever turned away" (Roberts 1982, 1).  The purpose of the kindergarten from Blaker's perspective was "preparation for school life, usefulness in the home, and formation of character and good citizenship" (IFK Records). By 1907, the kindergartens had enrolled 49,252 students and operated thirty-three kindergartens (including those for Italian, Slavonic, and Austro-Hungarian students).  The kindergartens were located in a variety of places including leased houses, community churches, and institutions such as the Children's Guardian Home.

Most free kindergartens were absorbed into public school systems soon after their formation.  For example, Chicago incorporated its free kindergartens in 1892, Washington D.C. did so in 1892, and the entire state of California by 1915.  The Indianapolis Public School system did not subsume free kindergartens until 1952, and the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Society disbanded (Gobel 2010).  



Kindergarten programs in the United States were originally established as a "voluntary supplement to upper- and middle-class child rearing rather than a remedial intrusion into lower-class family life" (Beatty 1995, 52). By the 1880s, kindergartens began to transform into Progressive Era social reform programs that were "promoted as an antidote to the harm that city life was supposedly doing to young children" (Beatty 1989, 66). Moreover, kindergartens came to be viewed as "a primary educational method of dealing with the problems of urban poverty" (Spring 2001, 232), which increased as a result of rapid industrialization and increased immigration. Thus, "child gardening was taken up as a form of urban social reform and racial 'uplifting'" (Beatty 1989, 76). Consequently, free kindergarten programs financially supplemented the cost of cities' responses to urban poverty by providing critical welfare services to families in need.

In an era when women primarily operated within the private sphere, becoming involved in the organization of free kindergarten programs allowed them to enlarge their arena of influence to the public domain and "gain access to power" (McCarthy 1990, ix; Beatty 1995). Women's involvement in free kindergarten societies and children's aid organizations was not only a search for identity, but also represented a realistic response to the conditions of poverty (Berg 1978).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Scholars have charted a hierarchical pattern over time in multiple philanthropic arenas (especially religion, education, social services, health, and the arts) with a male elite holding power and a massive female staff and volunteers doing the day-to-day work (Odendahl 1994).  In the nineteenth century, even if women served in mixed-gender organizations or ran auxiliaries of men’s associations, they did not wield power equal to their male counterparts (Lebsock 1984).  As late as the early twentieth century, women tended to concern themselves with issues of women and children and use their domestic skills to their greatest advantage.  The predominant view, historically and today, is that women express social creativity through philanthropy when excluded from power in government and business.  In so doing, women found creative and productive outlets, in what Kathleen McCarthy calls “parallel power structures,” that did not threaten whatever gender boundaries prevailed during their lifetimes (McCarthy 1990). 

Historians have charted the types of activities women undertook within these “parallel power structures.”  It is a commonplace that women pioneered the social settlement movement in the late 1880s.  Because the settlement philosophy emphasized community organization, mutual aid, and social action, leaders championed a plethora of reforms in subsequent decades:  child labor legislation, housing and sanitation reform, immigrant welfare, temperance, women’s suffrage, and labor mediation.  Women’s systematic, collective efforts to keep cities as clean as their own homes, under the rubric of “municipal housekeeping,” allowed for women’s authority into public spaces without threatening the traditional women’s sphere.  Throughout the nineteenth century the majority of women’s philanthropy cared for women and children.  By the turn of the century, child welfare, sometimes known as “child saving,” was the exclusive domain of female reformers.  Many of these voluntary associations concentrated on "child saving" to benefit children living in poverty (Cahan 1989). Poverty was viewed by philanthropists, social reformers, and educators as a condition that could be prevented and reversed through the instruction of young children in proper habits, morals, and citizenship responsibilities.  Consequently, these voluntary associations financially supported early childhood education programs before public funds were allocated for kindergartens and provided women with the opportunity to play a crucial economic role in organizations and communities.


Key Related Ideas

American kindergarten movement : After the Civil War, kindergarten training was viewed as an essential ingredient in ameliorating conditions of poverty and in developing an American identity in immigrants. To this purpose, public schools were formed to also aid these populations. Likewise, individuals and groups of wealthy people (usually women) began free kindergartens in urban areas to help children living under these conditions. Many early free kindergarten organizations later transformed into Progressive social programs "that provided comprehensive educational services to children, mothers, and families" (Beatty 1995, 99-100).

Americanization : A process of inculcating in immigrant or indigenous (i.e., Native Americans) populations the behaviors and attitudes seen as acceptable to

Americanization (continued) -the dominant society. In the late 1800s to late-1900s, the dominant culture would clearly be defined as Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Often this process meant eliminating or devaluing the behaviors and attitudes of the immigrants' native cultures.

Charity/free kindergartens : Free kindergartens first appeared in 1877 in the northeastern United States and proved so successful that they spread to other areas of the country. These kindergartens were formed by influential and wealthy citizens who combined their resources. The programs were intended to provide positive socializing influences and help meet basic needs for low-income, minority, and immigrant children living in conditions of poverty in large urban areas and to Americanize immigrants (Tyack 1974). Often, these free kindergartens were opened in areas where public schools were not available but, over time, many were incorporated into the public school systems.

Social reform : The ideas and action whose goal is to make available the benefits of a democratic, capitalist country to all citizens, rather than the few. These benefits include equal pay, equal access to health care and education, equal treatment of individuals regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. Among the most sweeping social reforms are child labor laws, woman suffrage, education reform , and abolition (or the Civil Rights movement). In current day America, health care reform and gay rights are among the most prominent reform issues. These movements are all concerned with enacting social change for the betterment of all citizens of society, particularly the disenfranchised, impoverished, minority, or immigrant populations.

Urban education : Educational opportunities (usually free) for children and adults who live in urban areas and, most often, belong to impoverished, minority or immigrant populations.

Women's voluntary associations or women's volunteer organizations: Women have formed voluntary associations in America since its inception, using them as an alternative to conventional positions of influence and power, in order to congregate, to share common interests, to gain valuable experiences and knowledge, and to address social ills or inequities they witnessed within their communities. Largely because the patriarchal and/or religious rules on which many of today's societies have been built have inhibited the ability of women and other minority groups to fully participate at all levels. Wealthy, educated men have controlled most political and economic positions of power in the societies of western civilization. Yet, the nonprofit sector has proven to be an effective vehicle for women in providing them with a relative seat of power. ( Shimmel, Deb. "Women's Use of the Nonprofit Sector as an Alternative Power Source." /papers/concepts/womensuse.html.)


Important People Related to the Topic

Eliza Ann Blaker (1854-1926): A pioneer in early childhood education and the first full-time superintendent of the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten.  Blaker graduated from Philadelphia’s Centennial Training School for Kindergartners, then joined the IFK in 1884 and served as superintendent for the rest of her life.  She began the Teacher's College of Indianapolis, which later became the elementary education department of Butler University's College of Education.  Blaker also belonged to numerous community organizations and received an honorary doctorate degree from Hanover College. 

Anna Bryan (1858-1901): Director of Free Kindergartens in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning in 1887.

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852): A German educator, also known as the “Father of the Kindergarten,” founded a school for four- to six-year old children in 1837.  Froebel believed that children should grow according to their own nature and potential, as do plants and animals.  Froebel's idea led to the metaphor “child’s garden,” or kindergarten.  His philosophies of pre-school development involved free self-activity, creativity, social participation, and motor expression.  German immigrants founded the first U.S. kindergarten in 1856.  

Robert Owen (1771-1858):  A Scottish industrialist and social reformer who founded the first nursery school in New Harmony, Indiana – and in the U.S. – in 1826.  Owen and his family had purchased a small southern Indiana town on the Wabash River in 1825.  Owen named the town New Harmony as an experimental utopian society.  The utopian community did not succeed, but New Harmony became known for many social contributions.  Residents, including many of Owen’s descendents, established a first free library, a civic drama club, and a public school system open to men and women.

Alice Putnam (1841-1919): Organized the Chicago Free Kindergarten Club in 1883.

Lucy Wheelock (1857-1946): Established kindergarten training schools in the late nineteenth century, including what later became Wheelock College.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

Association of Junior Leagues International is an organization that supports community-based Junior Leagues and assists them with training. The organization's women members work to better their communities and its programs cover a wide range of issues, including: education, child care, youth services, health, child welfare, family support services, community development, and culture (Association of Junior Leagues). Information on Junior League of Indianapolis is available at .

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.

Teachers' College of Indianapolis (later, the Elementary Education Department at Butler University ): Eliza Blaker established a teacher training institution, the Indiana Kindergarten and Primary Normal Training School which became the Teacher's College of Indianapolis. The Teachers’ College received state accreditation after four-year courses were added and granted its first Bachelor of Pedagogy degree in 1917.  During the 1910s, Butler University was also training high school teachers and the two training programs maintained a reciprocal relationship.  The Teachers' College served as a model for teacher training institutions and attracted national and international interest.  After Blaker's death in 1926, the school became the elementary department of Butler University's School of Education.  


Related Web Sites

Butler University Archives: The Eliza Blaker Collection includes photographs and speeches relating to the life and work of Eliza Blaker along with historical records of the Teachers College of Indianapolis and the Butler University College of Education:

Indiana Historical Society:  The Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Society manuscript collection spans the years 1881-1950. It includes the history of the society, biographies of the superintendents, and reports of the many benefits held by the society.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

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This paper was developed by a Lecturer and a student of Philanthropic Studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  It is offered by Learning To Give and Indiana University at Indianapolis.