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Relation of the Kindergarten to Social Reform: 1888

The Relation of the Kindergarten to Social Reform

By Kate Douglas Wiggin


Editor’s Notes: (1) This was a Presentation at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of The National Conference of Charities and Correction Held In Buffalo, N.Y. July 5-11, 1888

Kate Douglas Wiggin
Kate Douglas Wiggin

(2) Kate Douglas Wiggin (September 28, 1856 – August 24, 1923) was an American educator and author of children’s stories, most notably the classic children’s novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She started the first free kindergarten in San Francisco in 1878 (the Silver Street Free Kindergarten). With her sister during the 1880s, she also established a training school for kindergarten teachers. Kate Wiggin devoted her adult life to the welfare of children in an era when children were commonly thought of as cheap labour.


Some years ago, a San Francisco kindergartner was threading her way through a dirty little alley, making friendly visits to the children of her flock. As she lingered on a certain doorstep, receiving the last confidences of some weary woman’s heart, she heard a loud but not unfriendly voice ringing from an upper window of a tenement house just round the corner. ” Clear things from under foot! ” pealed the voice, in stentorian accents. “The teacher o’ the Kids’ Guards is comin’ down the street! ”

“Eureka! ” thought the teacher, with a smile. “There’s a bit of sympathetic translation for you! At last, the German word has been put into the vernacular, and to some purpose, too! The odd, foreign syllables have been taken to the ignorant mother by the lisping child, and the kindergartens have become the ‘Kids’ Guards’/ Heaven bless the rough translation, colloquial as it is! No royal accolade could be dearer to its recipients than this quaint, new christening!”

What has the kindergarten to do with social reform? Why should its theory and practice be brought before a Conference like this?

One of our brass-buttoned guardians of the peace remarked to a gentleman on a street-corner, “If we could open more kindergartens, sir, we could almost shut up the penitentiaries, sir!” We heard the sentiment, applauded it, and promptly printed it on the cover of three thousand reports; but on calm reflection it appears like an exaggerated statement. I am not sure that a kindergarten in every ward of every city in America “would almost shut up the penitentiaries, sir! ” The most determined optimist is weighed down by the feeling that it will take more than the ardent prosecution of any one reform, however vital, to produce such a result. We appoint investigating committees, who ask more and more questions, compile more and more statistics, and get more and more confused every year. “Are our criminals native or foreign born?” that we may know whether we are worse or better than other people; ” Have they ever learned a trade?” that we may prove what we already know, that idle fingers are the devil’s tools; “Have they been educated? “-by any one of the sorry methods that take shelter under that much-abused word,that we may know whether ignorance is bliss or a blister; “Are they married or single?” that we may determine the influence of home ties; ” Have they been given to the use of liquor?” that we may heap proof on proof, mountain high, against the monster evil of intemperance; “What has been their family history? ” that we may know how heavily the law of heredity has laid its burdens upon them. Burning questions all, if we would find out the causes of crime.

To discover the why and wherefore of things is a law of human thought. The reform schools, penitentiaries, prisons, insane asylums, hospitals, and poorhouses are all filled to overflowing; and it is entirely sensible to inquire how the people came there, and to relieve, pardon, bless, cure, or reform them as far as we can. Meanwhile, as we are dismissing or blessing or burying the unfortunates from the imposing front doors of our institutions, new throngs are crowding in at the little back gates. Life is a bridge, full of gaping holes, over which we must all travel! A thousand evils of human misery and wickedness flow in a dark current beneath; and the blind, the weak, the stupid, and the reckless are continually falling through into the rushing flood. We must, it is true, organize our life-boats. It is our duty to pluck out the drowning wretches, receive their vows of penitence and gratitude, and pray for courage and resignation when they celebrate their rescue by falling in again! But we agree nowadays that we should do them much better service if we could contrive to mend more of the holes in the bridge!

The kindergarten is trying to mend one of these ” holes.” It is a tiny one, only large enough for a child’s foot; but that is our bit of the world’s work,- to keep it small! If we can prevent the little people from stumbling, we may hope that the grown folks will have a surer foot and a steadier gait.

A wealthy lady announced her intention of giving $25,000 to some Home for Incurables. “Dear, dear! ” cried one of our bright kindergartners: “why don’t you give twelve and a half thousand to some Home for curables, and then your other twelve and a half will go so much further?”

In a word, solicitude for childhood is one of the signs of a growing civilization. “To cure is the voice of the past; to prevent, the divine whisper of to-day!”

What is the true relation of the kindergarten to social reform? Evidently, it can have no other relation than that which grows out of its existence as a plan of education. Education, we have all glibly agreed, lessens the prevalence of crime. That sounds very well; but, as a matter of fact, has our past system and does our present system produce just the results in this direction that we have hoped and prayed for? The truth is, people will not be made very much better by education until the plan of educating them is made better to begin with.

Froebel’s idea – the kindergarten idea – of the child and its powers, of humanity and its destiny, of the universe, of the whole problem of living, is somewhat different from that held by the vast majority of parents and teachers. It is imperfectly carried out, even in the kindergarten itself, where a conscious effort is made, and is scarcely ever attempted in the school.

His plan of education covers the entire period between the nursery and the university, and contains certain essential features which bear close relation to the gravest problems of the day. If they could be made an integral part of all our teaching in families, schools, and institutions, the burdens under which society is groaning to-day would fall more and more lightly on each succeeding generation. These essential features have often been enumerated. I am no fortunate herald of new truth. I may not even put the old wine in new bottles; but iteration is next to inspiration, and I shall give you the result of eleven years’ experience among the children and homes of the poorer classes. This experience has not been confined to teaching. One does not live among these people day after day, pleading for a welcome for unwished for babies, standing beside tiny graves, receiving pathetic confidences from wretched fathers and helpless mothers, without facing every problem of this workaday world! They cannot all be solved, even by the wisest of us: we can only seize the end of the skein nearest to our hand, and patiently endeavor to straighten the tangled threads.

The kindergarten starts out plainly with the assumption that the moral aim in education is the absolute one, and that all others are purely relative. It endeavors to be a life-school, where all the practices of complete living are made a matter of daily habit. It asserts boldly that doing right would not be such an enormously difficult matter if we practised it a little,- say a tenth as much as we practise the piano,- and it intends to give children plenty of opportunity for practice in this direction. The physical, mental, and spiritual being is consciously addressed at one and the same time. There is no “piece-work” tolerated. The child is viewed in his threefold relations, as the child of Nature, the child of Man, and the child of God; and there is to be no disregarding any one of these divinely appointed relations. It endeavors with equal solicitude to instill correct and logical habits of thought, true and generous habits of feeling, and pure and lofty habits of action; and it asserts serenely that, if information cannot be gained in the right way, it would better not be gained at all. It has no special hobby, unless you would call its eternal plea for the all-sided development of the child a hobby.

Somebody said lately that the kindergarten people had a certain stock of metaphysical statements to be aired on every occasion, and that they were over-fond of prating about the “being” of the child. It would hardly seem as if too much could be said in favor of the symmetrical growth of the child’s nature. These are not mere “silken phrases”; but, if any one dislikes them, let him take the good, honest ringing charge of Colonel Parker, ” Remember that the whole boy goes to school!”

Yes, the whole boy does go to school; but the whole boy is not educated after he gets there. A fraction of him is attended to in the evening, however, and a fraction on Sunday. He takes himself in hand on Saturdays and in vacation time, and accomplishes a good deal, notwithstanding the fact that his sight is a trifle impaired and his hearing grown a little dull, so that Dame Nature works at a disadvantage, and begins, doubtless, to dread boys who have enjoyed too much ” schooling,” since it seems to leave them in a state of coma.

Our scheme of education furthers mental development with considerable success. The training of the hand is now being laboriously woven into it; but, even when that is accomplished, we shall still be working with imperfect aims, for the stress laid upon heart-culture is as yet in no way commensurate with its gravity. We know, with that indolent, fruitless half-knowledge that passes for knowing, that ” out of the heart are the issues of life.” We feel, not with the white heat of absolute conviction, but placidly and indifferently, as becomes the dwellers in a world of change, that ” conduct is three-fourths of life”; but we do not crystallize this belief into action. The kindergarten does not fence off a half-hour each day for moral culture, but keeps it in view every moment of every day. Yet it is never obtrusive; for the mental faculties are being addressed at the same time, and the body strengthened for its special work.

With the methods generally practised in the family and school, I fail to see how we can expect any more delicate sense of right and wrong, any clearer realization of duty, any greater enlightenment of conscience, any higher conception of truth, than we now find in the world. I care not what view you take of humanity, whether you have Calvinistic tendencies and believe in the total depravity of infants, or whether you are a disciple of Wordsworth and apostrophize the child as a

“Mighty prophet! Seer blest,

On whom those truths do rest

Which we are toiling all our lives to find,”

if you are a fair-minded man or woman, and have had much experience with young children, you will be compelled to confess that they generally have a tolerably clear sense of right and wrong, and need only gentle guidance to choose the right when it is put before them. I say most, not all, children; for some are poor, blurred little human scrawls, blotted all over with the mistakes of other people. And how do we treat this natural sense of what is true and good, this willingness to choose good rather than evil, if it is made even the least bit comprehensible and attractive? In various ways, all equally dull, blind, and vicious. If we look at the downright ethical significance of the methods of training and discipline in many families and schools, we see that they are positively degrading. We appoint more and more ” monitors” instead of training the “inward monitor ” in each child, make truth-telling difficult instead of easy, punish trivial and grave offences about in the same way, practise open bribery by promising children a few cents a day to behave themselves, and weaken their sense of right by giving them picture cards for telling the truth and credits for doing the most obvious duty. This has been carried on until we are on the point of needing another deluge and a new start.

Is it strange that we find the moral sense blunted, the conscience unenlightened? The moral climate with which we surround the child is so hazy that the spiritual vision grows dimmer and dimmer, and small wonder! Upon this solid mass of ignorance and stupidity it is difficult to make any impression; yet I suppose there is greater joy in heaven over a cordial “thwack” at it than over most blows at existing evils.

The kindergarten attempts a rational, respectful treatment of children, leading them to do right for right’s sake, abjuring all rewards, save the pleasure of working for others and the delight that follows a good action, and all punishments save those that follow as natural penalties of broken laws,- the obvious consequences of the special bit of wrong-doing, whatever it may be. The child’s will is addressed in such a way as to draw it on, if right; to turn it willingly, if wrong. the sense of fear, personal magnetism, nay, even the child’s love for the teacher, may be used in such a way as to weaken his moral force. With every free, conscious choice of right, a human being’s moral power and strength of character increase; and the converse of this is equally true.

If the child is unruly in play, he leaves the circle and sits or stands by himself, a miserable, lonely unit until he feels again in sympathy with the community. If he destroys his work, he unites the tattered fragments as best he may and takes the moral object lesson home with him. If he has neglected his own work, he is not given the joy of working for others. If he does not work in harmony with his companions, a time is chosen when he will feel the sense of isolation that comes from not living in unity with the prevailing spirit of good will. He can have as much liberty as is consistent with the liberty of other people, but no more. If we could infuse the spirit of this kind of discipline into family and school life, making it systematic and continuous from the earliest years, there would be fewer morally ” slack-twisted ” little creatures growing up into inefficient, bloodless manhood and womanhood. It would be a good deal of trouble; but, then, life is a good deal of trouble anyway, if you come to that. We can’t expect to swallow the universe like a pill and travel on through the world “like smiling images pushed from behind.”

Virtue thrives in a bracing moral atmosphere, where good actions are taken rather as a matter of course. The attempt to instil an idea of self-government into the tiny slips of humanity that find their way into the kindergarten is most useful, and infinitely to be preferred to the most implicit blind obedience to arbitrary command. In the one case, we may hope to have, some time or other, an enlightened will and conscience struggling after the right, failing often, but rising superior to failure, because of an ever stronger joy in right and shame for wrong. In the other, we have a “good goose,” who does the right for the picture card that is set before him,- a ” trained dog ” sort of child, who will not leap through the hoop unless he sees the whip or the lump of sugar. So much for the training of the sense of right and wrong! Now for the provision which the kindergarten makes for the growth of certain practical virtues much needed in the world, but touched upon all too lightly in family and school.

The student of political economy sees clearly enough the need of greater thrift and frugality in the nation; but where and when do we propose to develop these virtues? Precious little time is given to them in the school, for their cultivation does not seem to be insisted upon as an integral part of the scheme. Here and there an inspired human being seizes on the thought that the child should really be taught how to live at some time between the ages of six and sixteen, or he may not learn so easily afterward. Accordingly, the pupils under the guidance of that particular person catch a glimpse of eternal verities between the printed lines of their geographies and grammars. The kindergarten makes the growth of every-day virtues so simple, so gradual, even so easy, that you are almost beguiled into thinking them commonplace. They seem to come in very naturally, just by the way, as it were, so that at the end of the day you have seen thought and word and deed so sweetly mingled that you marvel at the “universal dove-tailedness of things,” as Dickens puts it. They will flourish in the school, too, when the cheerful hum of labor is heard there for a little while each day. The kindergarten child has “just enough” strips for his weaving mat, —none to lose, none to destroy; just enough blocks in each of his boxes, and every one of them, he finds, is required to build each simple form suggested by teacher or companions. He cuts his square of paper into a dozen crystalshaped bits, and behold! each one of these tiny flakes is needed to make a symmetrical figure. He has been careless in following directions, and his form of folded paper does not “come out” right. It is not even, and it is not beautiful. The false step in the beginning has perpetuated itself in each succeeding one, until at the end either partial success or complete failure meets his eye. How easy to see the relation of cause to effect! “Courage! ” says the kindergartner. “Better fortune next time, for we will take greater pains.” “Can you rub out the ugly, wrong creases? ” “We will try. Alas! no! Wrong things are not so easily rubbed out, are they? ” “Use your worsted quite to the end, dear: it costs money.” ” Let us save all the crumbs from our lunch for the birds, children. Do not drop any on the floor: it will only make work for somebody else.” And so on, to the end of the busy, happy day. How easy it is in the kindergarten, how seemingly difficult everywhere else! It seems to be only books afterward; and “books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”

The most superficial observer values the industrial side of the kindergarten, because it falls directly in line with the present effort to make manual training a part of school work; but twenty or twentyfive years ago, when the subject was not so popular, kindergarten children were working away at their pretty, useful tasks,- tiny missionaries helping to show the way to a truth now fully recognized. As to the value of leading children to habits of industry as early in life as may be, that they may see the dignity and nobleness of labor, and conceive of their individual responsibilities in this world of action, that is too obvious to dwell upon at this time.

To Froebel, life, action, and knowledge were the three notes of one harmonious chord; but he did not advocate manual training merely that children might be kept busy and out of mischief, nor even that technical skill might be acquired. The price of finished kindergarten work is only a symbol of something more valuable which the child has acquired in doing it.

The first steps in all the kindergarten occupations are directed or suggested by the teacher; but these dictations or suggestions are merely intended to serve as a sort of staff, by which the child can steady himself until he can walk alone. It is the creative instinct that is to be reached and vivified: everything else is secondary. By reproduction from memory of a dictated form, by taking from or adding to it, by changing its centre, corners, or sides,- by a dozen ingenious preliminary steps,- the child’s inventive faculty is developed; and he soon reaches a point in drawing, building, modelling, or what not, where his greatest delight is to put his individual ideas into visible shape. The simple request, ” Make something pretty of your own,” brings before the kindergartner a score of original combinations and designs,- either the old thoughts in different shape or something fresh and audacious which hints of genius. Instead of twenty hackneyed and slavish copies of one pattern, we have twenty free, individual productions, each the expression of the child’s inmost personal thought. This invests labor with a beauty and power, and confers upon it a dignity, to be gained in no other way. It makes every task, however lowly, a joy, because all the higher faculties are brought into action. Much so-called “busy-work,” where pupils of the ” A class” are allowed to stick a thousand pegs in a thousand holes while the “B class” is reciting arithmetic, is quite fruitless, because it has so little thought behind it.

Unless we have a care, manual training, when we have succeeded in getting it into the school, may become as mechanical and unprofitable as much of our mind training has been, and its moral value thus largely missed. The only way to prevent it is to borrow a suggestion from the kindergarten. Then, and only then, shall we have insight with power of action, knowledge with practice, practice with the stamp of individuality. Then doing will blossom into being, and ” Being is the mother of all the little doings as well as of the grown up deeds and heroic sacrifices.”

The kindergarten succeeds in getting these interesting and valuable free productions from children of four or five years only by developing, in every possible way, the sense of beauty and harmony and order. We know that people assume, somewhat at least, the color of their surroundings; and, if the sense of beauty is to grow, we must give it something to feed upon.

The kindergarten provides a room more or less attractive, quantities of pictures and objects of interest, growing plants and vines, vases of flowers, and plenty of light, air, and sunshine. A canary chirps in one corner, perhaps; and very likely there will be a cat curled up somewhere, or a forlorn dog who has followed the children into this safe shelter. It is a pretty, pleasant, domestic interior, charming and grateful to the senses. The kindergartner looks as if she were glad to be there, and the children are generally smiling. Everybody seems alive. The work, lying cosily about, is neat, artistic, and suggestive. The children pass out of their seats to the cheerful sound of music, and are presently joining in an ideal sort of game, where, in place of the mawkish sentimentality of ” Sally Walker,” of obnoxious memory, we see all sorts of healthful, poetic, childlike fancies woven into song. Rudeness is, for the most part, banished. The little human butterflies and bees and birds flit hither and thither in the circle; the make-believe trees hold up their branches, and the flowers their cups; and everybody seems merry and content. As they pass out the door, good-bys and bows and kisses are wafted backward into the room; for the manners of polite society are observed in every thing.

You draw a deep breath. This is a real kindergarten, and it is like a little piece of the millennium. “Everything is so very pretty and charming,” says the visitor. Yes, so it is. But all this color, beauty, grace, symmetry, daintiness, delicacy, and refinement, though it seems to address and develop the aesthetic side of the child’s nature, has in reality a very profound ethical significance. We have all seen the preternatural virtue of the child who wears her best dress, hat, and shoes on the same august occasion. Children are tidier and more careful in a dainty, well-kept room. They treat pretty materials more respectfully than ugly ones. They are inclined to be ashamed, at least in a slight degree, of uncleanliness, vulgarity, and brutality, when they see them in broad contrast with beauty and harmony and order. For the most part, they try ” to live up to” the place in which they find themselves. There is some connection between manners and morals. It is very elusive and, perhaps, not very deep; but it exists. Vice does not flourish alike in all conditions and localities, by any means. An ignorant negro was overheard praying, “Let me so lib dat when I die I may hab manners, dat I may know what to say when I see my heabenly Lord!” Well, I daresay we shall need good manners as well as good morals in heaven; and the constant cultivation of the one from right motives might give us an unexpected impetus toward the other.

Again, if the systematic development of the sense of beauty and order has an ethical significance, so has the happy atmosphere of the kindergarten an influence in the same direction.

I have known one or two ” solid men ” and one or two predestinate spinsters who said that they didn’t believe children could accomplish anything in the kindergarten, because they had too good a time. There is something uniquely vicious about people who care nothing for children’s happiness. That sense of the solemnity of mortal conditions which has been indelibly impressed upon us by our Puritan ancestors comes soon enough, Heaven knows! Meanwhile, a happy childhood is an unspeakably precious memory. We look back upon it and refresh our tired hearts with the vision when experience has cast a shadow over the full joy of living.

The sunshiny atmosphere of the kindergarten gives little human plants such an impulse toward eager, vigorous growth. Love’s warmth surrounds them on every side, wooing their sweetest possibilities into life. Roots take a firmer grasp, buds form, and flowers bloom where under more unfriendly conditions bare stalks or pale leaves would greet the eye,-pathetic, unfulfilled promises, —souls no happier for having lived in the world, the world no happier because of their living. “Virtue kindles at the touch of joy.” The kindergarten takes this for one of its texts, and does not breed that dismal fungus of the mind “which disposes one to believe that the pursuit of knowledge must necessarily be disagreeable.”

The social phase of the kindergarten is most interesting to the student of social economics. Co-operative work is strongly emphasized; and the child is inspired both to live his own full life, and yet to feel that his life touches other lives at every point,- ” for we are members one of another.” It is not the unity of the “little birds,” in the couplet, who “agree” in their “little nests,” because “they’d fall out if they didn’t,” but a realization, in embryo, of the divine principle that no man liveth to himself.

Last, but by no means least, the admirable physical culture that goes on in the kindergarten is all in the right direction. Physiologists know as much about morality as ministers of the gospel. The vices which drag men and women into crime spring as often from unhealthy bodies as from weak wills and callous consciences. Vile fancies and sensual appetites grow stronger and more terrible when a feeble physique and low vitality offer no opposing force. Deadly vices are nourished in the weak, diseased bodies that are penned, day after day, in filthy, crowded tenements. If we could withdraw every three-year-old child from these physically enfeebling and morally brutalizing influences, and give them three or four hours a day of sunshine, fresh air, and healthy physical exercise, we should be doing humanity an inestimable service, even if we attempted nothing more. I have tried, as briefly as I might in justice to the subject, to emphasize the following points:

  1. That we must act up to our convictions with regard to the value of preventive work. If we are ever obliged to choose, let us save the children.
  1. That the relation of the kindergarten to social reform is simply that, as a plan of education, it offers us valuable suggestion in regard to the mental, moral, and physical culture of the children, which, in view of certain crying evils of the day, we should do well to follow.

The essential features of the kindergarten which bear a special relation to the subject are as follows:

  1. The symmetrical development of the child’s powers, considering him neither as all mind, all soul, nor all body, but as a creature capable of devout feeling, clear thinking, noble doing.
  1. The attempt to make so-called “moral culture ” a little less immoral; the rational method of discipline, looking to the growth of moral, self-directing power in the child,- the only proper discipline for future citizens of a free republic.
  1. The development of certain practical virtues, the lack of which is endangering the prosperity of the nation; namely, economy, thrift, temperance, self-reliance, frugality, industry, courtesy, and all the sober host,- none of them drawing-room accomplishments, and therefore in small demand
  1. The emphasis placed upon manual training, especially in its development of the child’s creative activity.
  1. The training of the sense of beauty, harmony, and order, its ethical as well as oesthetical significance.
  1. The insistence upon the moral effect of happiness; joy the favorable climate of childhood.
  1. The training of the child’s social nature, an attempt to teach the brotherhood of man as well as the Fatherhood of God.
  1. The realization that a pure body has almost as great an influence on morals as a pure mind.

I do not say that the consistent practice of these principles will bring the millennium in the twinkling of an eye, but I do affirm that they are the thought-germs of that better education which shall prepare humanity for the new earth over which shall arch the new heaven.



This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction At The Fifteenth Annual Session Held In Buffalo, N.Y. July 5-11, 1888. pp. 247 – 258.

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