Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1996 Issue »

    Preschool Education in America

    The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present

    Barbara Beatty
    New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995. 252 pp. $30.00.

    On any given day in Mrs. Rade's kindergarten class, twenty-five students would be found hard at work, finger painting, playing with blocks, and singing songs about the seasons. I was a member of that class, which was characterized by rhythm and regularity. My school day was predictable: snacks, naps, and playtime came at the same time each day. This was the stuff of childhood learning experiences, and reflective of the ideas that many educators held and still hold about what young children need: big pencils, a half day in school, playtime, and a schedule that recognizes the rhythm and regularity of the seasons and of life. A new book by Wellesley professor Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present, explains and illuminates the history of the development of preschool education programs — programs that have often included an emphasis on learning the seasons, playing with blocks, and working with materials to develop gross motor skills. Beatty explains that these activities were not the staples of the earliest preschool experiences. Guided by the research question, Why is there no universal access to preschool education in America? she examines the history of preschool education in the United States and elucidates the development of the kindergarten and other early childhood education innovations.

    Forever immortalized in Robert Fulgum's All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, kindergarten is regarded by many Americans as a nostalgic time and place and a common experience for many. Beatty's Preschool Education in America, while of a different genre than Fulgum's, reminds us that not all kindergarten and preschool experiences are alike. Her history is a chronicle of preschool-aged children's access to education in the United States since the early nineteenth century, starting with the advent of infant schools, schools designed for lower-class children whose parents were considered unfit to teach them at home. Beatty demonstrates that preschool education — education for children before the first grade — is a relatively recent invention that has roots in the romantic and enlightenment ideologies that are responsible for our present-day conceptualizations of childhood as a distinct and separate stage in a person's life.

    Beatty reminds the reader that the distinction of childhood as a separate period of growth and development "occurred at different times in different places, cultures, and ethnic and religious groups" (p. 1). Likewise, preschool education experiences for children in the United States varied, usually depending on a child's race, class, or region of the country. However, the diversity Beatty writes mostly about is the preschool education of children from diverse socioeconomic classes. We learn little about the education for children from diverse cultural, racial, and religious groups. One such instance is a section on kindergartens for African American children that is only two pages long. In it, Beatty reports, "Southern school systems, particularly those in rural areas, were the least likely to provide kindergartens for African-American children" (p. 108). Still, an examination of African American kindergartens, like those formed by the National Association of Colored Women (p. 109), would have been interesting and would have filled in Beatty's history a bit more.

    Beatty begins her book with a brief sketch of the "discovery" of childhood in the mid-seventeenth century by philosophers Johann Amos Comenius, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, explaining that ever since the stage of childhood was delineated by these and other philosophers and educators, education has been concerned with what is "best" educationally for children, and especially with the issue of who should educate the very young.

    The book is organized chronologically, which makes it a bit of a dry read; its centerpiece is the development and implementation of the kindergarten. Beatty's emphasis on kindergarten reflects the fact that kindergarten is the most widespread preschool institution in this country. She covers in detail the following preschool innovations: the infant and family schools of the early 1800s, which were the first attempts "at educating young children outside the home" (p. 20); the various manifestations of the kindergarten (from its founder, Friedrich Froebel, in mid-nineteenth century Germany, to the early public and private kindergartens in the United States, to the free kindergarten movement, to the eventual institution of kindergarten as a part of the monolithic public school system in the early twentieth century); the private nursery schools that developed in the 1910s, yet never received the universal support and acceptance in the United States that they received in Great Britain; to the present-day Head Start program, which Beatty calls "public preschools for the poor" (p. 192).

    The resources Beatty draws on to construct her historical overview include the writings of the founder of the kindergarten, Froebel, American kindergarten pioneer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Margaret McMillan, a nursery school developer. Her discussions of these works are complemented by her inclusion of current research on the history of early childhood education, as well as interviews with key players in the development of formal preschool education, such as Abigail Eliot, the founder of the first nursery school in the United States, and psychologist Sheldon White, who played a role in the evaluation of the Head Start program. These published sources, combined with occasional U.S. Department of Education documents, add a formality to Beatty's history, integrating the words and perspectives of key players and policymakers. The formality is complemented by the occasional colorful statement, such as the one by a Mississippi kindergartner that "there was `nothing in the least unique about having a group of totally untrained people pretending to be teachers'" (p. 195). I would have liked Beatty to include more gems like this; however, historians are dependent upon the availability, not to mention the existence, of these types of sources.

    Photographs and drawings provide visual accompaniments to Beatty's chronicle and provide the reader with a sense of the size of some preschool classes, the lessons learned, and the pedagogy of the teachers. These illustrations give the reader a window into an 1876 kindergarten classroom, with children sitting in a horseshoe shape, copying Froebelian patterns with rods, and into a 1907 Pratt Model kindergarten, in which the children are working outdoors in a garden.

    Beatty's history is groundbreaking in two regards. The first is that a kind of parallel history evolves on parental involvement in preschool programs. Many historians of education reflect modern-day notions of home and school as separate institutions, yet one cannot do this with the history of preschool education because parental involvement was integral to the success of the programs. The second groundbreaking notion is Beatty's twist on the role preschool education developments played in women's activism in the social and political arenas. Not content with traditional notions of preschool educators as maternal, Beatty proves that women's involvement in preschool education contributed to their expanded sphere outside the family.

    Beatty weaves the history of the parental role in early childhood education into her history. The reader learns of the tension that surrounded the decision to form schools for young children, a tension that revolved around the question, Who is best fit to educate the very young: parents (that is, mothers) or teachers? As Beatty explains, this tension has been evident throughout preschool education developments and remains with us today.

    In her discussion of the role of parents throughout the history of early childhood education, Beatty describes the family schools of the 1830s, "in which mothers were to take on the role of teachers" (p. 31). She reminds the reader that such schools were a product of the early nineteenth-century romantic ideal of womanhood, which supported the notion that the mother is the child's best teacher, a role for which "woman was born." Thus, the widely held belief at the time was that parents were best fit to educate their young. Later preschool education developments that Beatty discusses also usually involved a parent education component; parent education, for example, was a critical component of the early kindergarten movement. A most interesting point Beatty makes is that the half-day (double-session) kindergarten implementation that began in St. Louis in the early 1870s concerned kindergartners because it "would prevent kindergartners from conducting the home visits and mothers' classes that gave kindergartening its unique, direct connection to private family life" (p. 66).1 Beatty explains that educational administrators' decision to provide half-day or full-day preschool education has often depended upon families' needs for child care (p. 168).

    A stark contrast to kindergartners' encouragement of parental involvement is the practice of early-twentieth-century progressive educator Caroline Pratt, who "saw parents as obstacles to their children's education, not as partners" (p. 139). Though Pratt may have been an anomaly among early childhood educators, her stance represents one of the many ways parents were treated and perceived by educators who often were not parents themselves. Throughout Preschool Education in America, Beatty illuminates the concurrent development of preschool education and parent (mother) education, which the kindergarten movement popularized. She states that at various points in the development of preschool education, almost all families were targeted for parent education. Beatty describes the change over time, from the early kindergarten movement, when kindergartners "would give mothers lectures on topics such as Greek philosophy and classical literature" (p. 150), to the nursery school educators of the 1920s, who taught the educated, middle-class women who "turned to women like themselves [the educators], who, though they were not mothers, took it upon themselves to popularize modern scientific ideas about mothering" (p. 151). While not a linear progression from parent-as-subversive to parent-as-teacher, Beatty analyzes the variance in preschool educators' efforts to include parents in their children's education. The ambiguous role of parents in education is a legacy that remains with us today. Beatty's history shows us the ways preschool education integrated or alienated parents.

    The second remarkable idea that Beatty introduces in her book is that preschool developments were not distinct from early women's rights activism, unlike the commonly held view of kindergarten and other early childhood educators as maternal or as substitute mothers.2 The author supports the view that the seeds of feminism were planted and nourished by preschool education advocates in the mid-nineteenth century. Beatty writes, "The campaign for public kindergartens was a women's issue and one of the most successful examples of the new social and political power women held in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (p. 201). While preschool education has been viewed traditionally to be a women's domain, and that its leaders, both male and female, have viewed women in traditional roles, Beatty adds a new perspective to current historical research on defining maternalism, feminism, and other categories that are used to delimit and define women activists of the past.3 Beatty points out that "the physical spaces in which preschool education took place extended beyond the home and expanded woman's sphere outside the family" (p. xii).

    Reading Preschool Education in America, one learns about such early activists and leaders in preschool education as Patty Smith Hill, Caroline Pratt, Abigail Eliot, and others who defied the stereotype of "motherly matron." Patty Smith Hill, progressive kindergartner of Louisville, Kentucky, studied the works of John Dewey and Francis W. Parker and then challenged the strict kindergarten pedagogy based on Froebel's theories.4 Hill taught at Columbia Teachers College and co-founded the Institute of Child Welfare Research there in 1924.5 Caroline Pratt, who founded the innovative Play School in Greenwich Village, and her life partner, Helen Marot, were a part of a Greenwich Village group of intellectuals.6 Pratt collaborated with Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Harriet Johnson in New York City in the 1910s, "where they developed a radical preschool pedagogy designed to counteract what they saw as the psychologically and politically oppressive environment of the private family" (p. 135).

    Abigail Adams Eliot founded the Ruggles Street Nursery School in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1922, based on Margaret McMillan's open air nursery in Deptford, England. In 1926, Eliot opened the Nursery Training Center at the same site in Boston. Eliot went on to earn her master's and doctoral degrees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and later lectured on and taught nursery education.7 While Hill, Pratt, and Eliot, who were active at the turn of the century, are by no means represented by Beatty as being among the many women who shaped preschool education, they are presented as women who defied the stereotype of the preschool educator-as-substitute-mother, caring for "other people's children."8

    Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, whom Beatty calls decidedly "maternalist" (p. 35), opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in the United States in 1860, wrote the Kindergarten Guide, traveled to Germany to visit kindergartens, and remained active in its development and promotion well into her eighties. Beatty writes, "Peabody's efforts to promote kindergartening as a vocation for American women created a female alternative to the masculine models of professionalism evolving at the same time" (p. 61). Peabody and the many more women in the history of preschool education pushed the boundaries of women's activism outside of the home and into the public arena, even if these organizers considered it women's work.

    The reader will find more on the rich history of early childhood education in Preschool Education of America, such as the men behind preschool development, like G. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University and child study advocate, and Arnold Gesell, a psychological theorist about whom Beatty writes, "Arnold Gesell was to the nursery school movement what William Torrey Harris, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey were to the kindergarten movement" (p. 145). Beatty also discusses the diversity of opinion among kindergartners on whether to adhere to strict Froebelian doctrine or to Americanize it (reminding the reader to refrain from such simplistic characterizations when analyzing any historical events). The difference of opinion created a schism that at the turn of the century resulted in the fracturing of kindergartners into different ideological camps. These included the strict Froebelians, those who supported the industrial curriculum of John Dewey, the freeplay curriculum advocates, and even one group that created a curriculum based upon nature and the seasons, not unlike that found in today's kindergartens.

    Beatty presents a broader scope and builds upon the work of kindergarten historian Michael Shapiro.9 Not only does Preschool Education in America chronicle the history of early childhood education, it is also clearly connected to the present: Beatty intends that her history inspire present-day educators to review and revise current preschools to reach more children and to meet the needs of working mothers. Beatty concludes her book on a note that will perhaps be disturbing to some readers by indicting those policymakers, educators, and voters who have neglected the importance of early education for children in this country. Head Start notwithstanding, what else have we done, asks Beatty, for children of all classes, cultures, and backgrounds? The author makes clear her support of universal access to preschool education, as she explains in her conclusion. She implores the reader to answer her query, "When will millions of Americans rise up and make our culture better for young children?" (p. 207).

    Beatty offers much to be discovered in the pages of this comprehensive collection of the development of preschool education in America. One critical element is missing, however, and it is Beatty who brings this omission to the reader's attention. Due to the paucity of first-hand accounts of children's experiences, Beatty's chronicle, like other histories of childhood education, leaves out the critical, central voices: those of the children. As Beatty explains, "Though adults often complain about their noisiness, young children are the most silent and silenced of historical actors" (p. xiii).

    1 Throughout this book review the term "kindergartner" is used to describe a person who organized kindergartens as it was used in the literature of the day.

    2 The terms "maternal" and "maternalism" describe a particular ideology about women's role as mothers and how this role determines their status, value systems, and service to society.

    3 A recent work that discusses maternalism is Molly Ladd-Taylor, Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

    4 Froebel's pedagogy is characterized by strict adherence to the materials and activities that Froebel called "gifts" and "occupations," designed according to his belief in "natural laws" (p. 42). Beatty treats this topic thoroughly and at length in this book. According to her, later kindergarten educators considered the paper cuttings and other Froebelian activities to be too difficult for five-year-olds, who lack fine motor skills.

    5 M. Charlotte Jammer, "Patty Smith Hill," in Notable American Women, ed. Edward T. James and Janet Wilson James, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971), pp. 194–195.

    6 Joyce Antler, Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The Making of a Modern Woman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 237–239.

    7 "America's First Nursery Schools: An Interview with Abigail Adams Eliot," in Beginnings, Vol. 1 of Living History Interviews, ed. James L. Hymes Jr. (Carmel, CA: Hacienda Press, 1978), pp. 7–9.

    8 Beatty uses this phrase to head chapter five: "Educating `Other People's Children.'" It appears to be a term used at the turn of the twentieth century by kindergarten educators who wanted to emphasize the need for kindergartens to become public.

    9 Michael Shapiro, Child's Garden: The Kindergarten Movement From Froebel to Dewey (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983). Other works that treat a similar topic include the histories on the nature of childhood in the United States, most notably those of N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes, eds., Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985) and Robert Bremmer, Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).

  2. Fall 1996 Issue


    (Li)Ability Grouping
    The New Susceptibility of School Tracking Systems to Legal Challenges
    By Kevin G. Welner and Jeannie Oakes
    Cultural Constellations and Childhood Identities
    On Greek Gods, Cartoon Heroes, and the Social Lives of Schoolchildren
    By Anne Haas Dyson
    Teacher-Researcher Collaboration from Two Perspectives
    By Polly Ulichny and Wendy Schoener
    Troubling Clarity: The Politics of Accessible Language
    By Patti Lather
    "How Come There Are No Brothers on That List?"
    Hearing the Hard Questions All Children Ask
    Kathe Jervis
    Multiple Discourses, Multiple Identities
    Investment and Agency in Second-Language Learning among Chinese Adolescent Immigrant Students
    By Sandra Lee McKay and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong
    Dominance Concealed through Diversity
    Implications of Inadequate Perspectives on Cultural Pluralism
    By Dwight Boyd

    Book Notes

    The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film
    by Frank Javier Garcia Berumen

    Contending with Modernity
    By Philip Gleason

    Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis
    By Eben A. Weitzman and Matthew B. Miles

    The Male Survivor
    By Matthew Parynik Mendel

    In Over Our Heads
    By Robert Kegan

    Technology Education in the Classroom
    By Senta A. Raizen, Peter Sellwood, Ronald D. Todd, and Margaret Vickers

    By Louisa Cook Moats

    A Sense of Self
    By Susannah Sheffer

    An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America
    By Vaughn Davis Bornet

    The Deluxe Transitive Vampire
    By Karen Elizabeth Gordon

    Inside the Writing Portfolio
    By Carol Brennan Jenkins

    Edited by Emily Cousins and Melissa Rodgers

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.