The Place of the Kindergarten in Child-Saving
by Eva Harding, M.D., Topeka, Kan., A Paper Presented at the Twenty-Seventh Annual Session of
The National Conference Of Charities And Correction: 1900
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Peabody founded America’s first English-language kindergarten in 1860. Conrad Poppenhusen, a German industrialist and philanthropist, founded the first free kindergarten in America in 1870. Susan Blow established the first publicly financed kindergarten in the United States in St. Louis, MO in 1873. 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.
Perhaps in no field of sociological effort has more intelligent and corrective progress been made, in recent years, than in the treatment of children and the recognition of prenatal influences, which have only recently been regarded as of importance. There has been a constant advance in the recognition of that period in the lives of children when they should become objects of educative and considerate direction. It may be said that, until recently all children were waifs in infancy, so little were their expanding natures understood and cared for along moral and intellectual lines. Held to a rigid accountability in religious matters, they received a spiritual food which they were unable to extract from its husk. Taught to respect rather than love their parents, love being at best but a duty, their little hungry hearts were denied the ministrations of that helpful companionship which their tender and impressionable natures crave. The stern maxim, ” Spare the rod, and spoil the child, ” was considered the correct rule by which to “train ” children, and the significance of the poet’s declaration that ” the child is father of the man ” was little understood or appreciated. Now we are beginning to realize what responsive capabilities lie in the tender years of infancy if touched by the inviting hand of sympathetic love and led in sweet and tender guidance.
The greatest advance, however, has been made in the way of caring for the waifs of humanity, in plucking little children from the environments of vicious and hopeless situations and bestowing upon them the refining and directing care of the kindergarten. We are growing up to an appreciation of the fact that the early years of life control and shape the entire future. There is a recognition of the necessity for straightening the twig lest all efforts fail to remedy the slant in the tree. To quote Victor Hugo, ” Every case of vagabondage has its root in a neglected child.”
Childhood is the vantage-ground for those who would battle against the influences of poverty, disease, and crime in the world. It has been well said, in effect, that one who circumnavigates the globe is less influenced by all the nations he sees than by the impressions created in infancy by his nurse.
It is hopeless to attempt reformation of the matured life, when there is nothing in the whole history of the individual to work on. The tender memories of youth may be renewed and strengthened and made useful in reclaiming one who has erred in after years; but that life without a tender recollection, that soul seared by contact with vicious environments in infancy, has nothing to which it may be recalled.
The kindergarten has been rightly termed the paradise of childhood. It is fairyland to the little beings. All the new, bright inventions intended to stimulate a child’s powers of observation and teach him the use of his hands are found there. It makes them good, happy, useful, and helpful. It is the one place where children can play, sing, sport, and be perfectly happy under watchful care. It is here we find the educating together of the head, heart, and hand.
The kindergarten is the best agency known of for the setting in motion of the physical, mental, and moral machinery of the little child. The gifts and occupations represent every kind of technical activity. It trains the hand and the eye. They learn through doing. It develops patience, perseverance, skill, and will-power. It keeps the body pliable and obedient. Bodily vigor, mental activity, and moral integrity are indispensable to a perfected life. All these are cherished and developed in the kindergarten.
The pliable period of early childhood is the time’ most favorable to the eradication of vicious tendencies and to the development of latent possibilities for good. Froebel’s system of infant training seems peculiarly fitted to overcome the influences of inherited vicious propensities and physical infirmities. Through its influences the child is ever led to larger and truer views of life.
At the very early age of three or four years a child can acquire habits of mental laziness and become habituated to superficial thoughts and idle vagaries, as well as other habits that will influence his whole life.
The public schools are open to the child; but, as he does not enter them before he is six or seven years old, he has then lost two or three years that mean more for his weal or woe than any other like period of his life. The individual can by his own exertions obtain a higher education if it is denied him by the state. But never can he or any one else make up for the training denied him before regular school age. Therefore, it is the plain duty of the state to provide the child, at as early an age as the child can be taken from its mother, with the training the kindergarten supplies. The officer connected with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stated to our normal instructor that he was making a thorough investigation of the police court cases, with the satisfactory result that, so far, he had failed to find one who had attended the kindergarten.
Its methods are natural, and its results magnificent. I quote from the fifteenth annual report, I894, of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association: ” Think of an army of I6,242 children from our tenements and gutters who have been given in these schools their first ideas of truth, honesty, and good will to their fellows. And what a record this is: not one of these sixteen thousand convicted in any police court of a criminal offence! Also, the testimony given by Miss Agness M. Manning, principal of the Webster Public School. She says that before the days of kindergartens her pupils from the Barbary Coast swore, fought, stole, and acted like the young savages that they were. Their training had been the precocious street education in vice. Now, since the establishment of the kindergartens, every year sees an improvement in the character of the new pupils. They have been taught the cardinal virtues. They are, to quote her words, “clean, self-respecting, eager for knowledge. It is a rare thing now to find a child that does not know it is wrong to steal. If you meet one, you may be sure he has never been in a kindergarten.”
When our Tennessee kindergarten was started, six or seven women from the Central Church were on hand, besides the teachers; and it took the combined efforts of them all to secure any semblance of an orderly procedure in the hall, swarming with children. It seemed almost as if there ought to be one woman for each child; but in a few weeks order grew out of chaos, as the children began to learn what was expected of them. Every year since has been easier, because of the presence in the school of a large number who have been there before. Other signs of improvement are noticeable. At first it was necessary for the teachers to keep on hand a good supply of soap and water and wash numbers of the children, the first thing they did with them. They also kept a number of neat little aprons to slip on the children to cover their dirty clothes. The little ones often cried, and rebelled when the time came for them to take off their aprons and go home; for they liked them, and wanted to keep them. Now it is different. The children, almost without exception, come clean and neat and nicely dressed.
There are scarcely any children in Tennesseetown of kindergarten age who are not enrolled in the kindergarten. No one can estimate the good, both direct and indirect, that has come from the efforts of the kindergartners, who have devoted themselves, heart and soul, to their work.
All the great educators, from Plato to Froebel, tell us that the child’s first instruction is the most vitally important,’that the whole character is dependent upon it, so that no subsequent care can make amends for wrong beginnings. If this be true, free, intermediate schools should be supplemented by free kindergartens. It is surely stupid, to say the least, to devote the whole attention to the superstructure, and give no thought to the foundation. The great work of winning the world to good will only be completely accomplished when the world is taken in its childhood, and kept always in’that fearless unconsciousness of evil which has been described as “rest in God.” Every agency of which human effort has control should be turned to the unremitting rescue of the children who are in the clutch of evil influences, and to the preservation and elevation unto a maturity of strength and beauty of those who have the right to demand this much at our hands.
Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction At The Twenty-Seventh Annual Session Held In The City Of Topeka, Kan., May 18-24, 1900. Program Section: Destitute And Neglected Children pp 243-246: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/n/ncosw/