A scene from an early kindergarten in New York City, 1879. © .

The kindergarten was developed in the nineteenth century by FRIEDRICH FROEBEL, a German reformer and educator. He built upon the ideas of JOHANN HEINRICH PESTALOZZI, a Swiss follower of JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU's belief in the inherent goodness of children. During the 1830s and 1840s, Froebel made a case for the importance of music, nature study, stories, and play as well as symbolic ideas like children sitting together in the kindergarten circle. He advocated the use of "gifts" (or materials, largely geometric) and "occupations" (or crafts), which the teacher taught the children to manipulate. In 1837 Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany. He also established a training school for women, whom he saw as the ideal educators of young children. Because of Froebel's unorthodox ideas, the Prussian government banned the kindergarten in 1851, but the kindergarten idea spread not only to other European countries but also to North America, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. After 1860, the kindergarten also returned to Germany, where today it serves children aged three to six.

Johannes and Bertha Ronge, who left Germany after the revolutions of 1848, took Froebel's ideas to England and founded a kindergarten in London in 1851. Women helped to set up private kindergartens for middle-class Britons between 1850 and 1870. By 1890 the kindergarten had been incorporated into some publicly funded British schools but did not achieve universal success, and between 1900 and World War I, reformers turned their attention to private kindergartens ("free kindergartens") for the poor, which charged little or no tuition. Ultimately, the kindergarten supplemented and transformed but did not replace other modes of early childhood education in Britain. There was a similar development in France, when the salles d'asiles of the 1830s were replaced by the first infant schools fifty years later. The French opted for an eclectic method, where schoolwork was combined with kindergarten activities. This also characterizes the present-day écoles maternelles.

Kindergarten in the United States

The kindergarten was much more influential in the United States and in the northern part of Europe. In the United States Margarethe Schurz founded the first kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1856. Her German-language kindergarten impressed Elizabeth Peabody, who opened the first American English-language kindergarten in Boston in 1860. The National Education Association began a kindergarten department in 1874, and teachers founded the International Kindergarten Union in 1892.

Before 1890, the kindergarten was most prevalent in private institutions, including free kindergarten associations, social settlements, charities, parochial schools, and orphanages. These half-day, free kindergartens were often funded by philanthropists to educate the three- to six-year-old children of working-class parents, many of them immigrants, who crowded the cities. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the kindergarten did not teach academic skills like reading and writing but instead sought to educate the whole child, a goal that encompassed a large range of social welfare and educational activities from helping to clothe, feed, and clean children to teaching urban children about nature study. Training schools specifically for kindergarten teachers (then called kindergartners) were organized separately from normal schools for elementary school teachers.

St. Louis was the first American public school system to adopt the kindergarten, in 1873, under Susan Blow. After 1890, the kindergarten entered school systems in larger numbers; often, boards of education began housing and funding previously existing free kindergartens. By 1900 public-school kindergarten students outnumbered private-school kindergarten students by almost two to one, with 225,000 children, or about 6 percent of the kindergarten-aged population, attending kindergarten.

By World War I, the major American urban school systems all had kindergartens. In 1920 about 510,000 children, or about 11 percent of the kindergarten-aged population, attended kindergarten, with public-school students outnumbering private-school students by almost nineteen to one. Once publicly funded, the kindergarten was open primarily to five year olds only, and people argued that it should be concerned with academic and social preparation for the first grade. Teachers now taught two sessions a day rather than one, leaving them little time for home visits and mothers' meetings, important elements of the earlier American kindergarten.

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, kindergarten teachers differed on how strictly to follow Froebel's teaching plan. Some teachers were particularly influenced by the American psychologist G. STANLEY HALL and the emerging CHILD STUDY movement. Hall praised Froebel's work but believed in the importance of "free play," an idea that influenced kindergarten teachers Patty Smith Hill and Alice Temple. The American philosopher and educator JOHN DEWEY, too, argued that Froebel's work was valuable, but he criticized the abstract nature of the Froebelian system. Beginning in the 1910s, the American kindergarten was influenced also by the ideas of the Italian physician and educator MARIA MONTESSORI, who stressed developing the child's initiative. Although Froebel's influence remained present in the existence of the kindergarten circle and other aspects of the program, by the 1930s the kindergarten in the United States was very different than that envisioned by Froebel.

The Modern Kindergarten

Kindergarten enrollments in the United States fell from 1930 to 1940, as many school districts cut back their funding (though other school districts simultaneously adopted the kindergarten). Public kindergarten enrollments then grew almost 150 percent from 1940 to almost 1.5 million children in 1954. Class sizes ranged from twenty to forty-nine students, and some states passed laws to lower the enrollment (to twenty-four per class in New Jersey, for example). Kindergartens also increased the age requirement of the kindergarten, accepting children whose fifth birthdays fell on or before November.

In 1965 between about 50 percent and 85 percent of five-year-olds attended kindergarten, more than 2 million of them in public schools in over forty states, most of which made state funds available for that purpose. The HEAD START program, begun in 1965, both served as a substitute for kindergarten for some five-year-olds and helped promote further kindergarten establishment.

By the 1980s kindergartens in the United States had moved away from child-centered education to academic preparation for first grade. Between 82 percent and 95 percent of five-year-olds attended kindergarten. In 1986 Mississippi became the last state to offer public kindergartens. As of the 1980s, ten states required children to attend kindergarten, and most states required teacher certification in elementary education, fewer in kindergarten or early childhood education. Today, about four million children in the United States attend kindergarten, over three million of those in public schools.

In Germany and Scandinavia the kindergarten for children between the ages of three and seven has developed from an institution caring for children of poor parents and single mothers to an integrated part of the life of nearly all children. This shift began in the 1970s after many mothers entered the paid labor market. There is a variety of kindergartens in Europe–private, public, and, especially in Germany, religious institutions. Kindergartens are separate from the school system, although recently there have been efforts to bring them into a closer relationship. In many communities the kindergartens are integrated with day-care centers for very young children as well as with after school activities for older children.

See also: Child Care; Nursery Schools.


Beatty, Barbara. 1995. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Borchorst, Anette 2002. "Danish Child Care Policy: Continuity Rather than Radical Change." In Child Care Policy at the Crossroads: Gender and Welfare State Restructuring, ed. Sonya Michel and Rianne Mahon. New York: Routledge.

Ross, Elizabeth Dale. 1976. The Kindergarten Crusade: The Establishment of Preschool Education in the United States. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Shapiro, Michael Steven. 1983. Child's Garden: The Kindergarten Movement from Froebel to Dewey. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Spodek, Bernard, Olivia N. Saracho, and Michael D. Davis. 1991. Foundations of Early Childhood Education: Teaching Three-, Four-, and Five-Year-Old Children. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wollons, Roberta, ed. 2000. Kindergartens and Cultures: The Global Diffusion of an Idea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.