Skip to main content

Kindergarten A Child-Saving Work -1882

The Kindergarten As A Child-Saving Work

By Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper

Editor’s Note: This entry was a presentation by Mrs. Cooper at the Ninth Annual National Conference of Charities and Corrections Held At Madison, Wis., Aug. 7-12, 1882. Mrs. Cooper was internationally known as a pioneer in kindergarten education. Her ideas were endorsed by American educators, and she maintained extensive correspondence with educators and prominent women including Julia Ward Howe, Frances Willard, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Peabody, and Susan B. Anthony. In addition to organizing the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, Mrs. Cooper led the founding of a teacher training institute, and in 1892 she founded and was elected first president of the International Kindergarten Union.

Somebody has said, if you would thoroughly reform a man, you must begin with his grandfather. In other words, all true education must be organic, and so thorough-bred as to become hereditary.

The subject assigned me by the committee, it seems to me, covers this’ very ground — namely, “The Kindergarten as a Child-Saving Work.” I should esteem it a very great privilege to be present with you, and listen to the discussion of themes in which I feel a profound interest, and on which the future well-being-of this great commonwealth so largely depends. How to administer charity and correction, wisely and well, so that national strength and prosperity shall be conserved and not weakened by them, is a matter that challenges the best thought of our best citizenship. How to prevent crime is the leading question.”

What do you consider the best remedy for yellow fever” asked one of the commissioners appointed to investigate and report in regard to that dreadful plague, of a leading Southern physician.”

The only sure remedy is to prevent it altogether,” was the terse response. There was good sense and wisdom in the reply.

What is to be done with “hoodlumism” and juvenile crime in our midst? asks prim old Public Opinion, as she folds her listless hands and heaves a regretful sigh. The curt response of the quick-witted Southern physician is most apposite: “The only sure remedy is to prevent it altogether.

Exactly so! But how is it to be prevented? That is the leading question. To start from the very foundation of things, we are compelled to admit, that a large proportion of the unfortunate children that go to make up the great army of criminals, are not born right. They come into the world freighted down with evil propensities and vicious tendencies. They start out handicapped in the race of life. But we must take these little waifs just as they are, and seek to make good citizens out of them. By what process of education and development are they to be made valuable members of society?

The doctrine that the hereditary defectiveness of the mass must be corrected by education and hereditary culture, is the true doctrine. Any system of education that does not contemplate these results does not deserve the name of education. What the world most needs to-day is character – genuine character. In order to do this we must get hold of the little waifs that grow up to form the criminal element just as early in life as possible. We must hunt up the children of poverty, of crime and of brutality just as soon as they can be reached – the children that flock in the tenement houses, on the narrow, dirty streets; the children who have no one to call them by dear names; children that are buffeted hither and thither, the “flotsam and jetsam on the wild, mad sea of life.” This is the element out of which criminals are made. The simple, salient fact is, we do not get hold of these little children soon enough. An unfortunate childhood is the sure prophesy of an unfortunate life. “Important lessons of virtue and well-doing in earliest childhood,” says Plato. “Give me the child,” says Lord Bacon, “and the state shall have the man.” “Let the very playthings of your children have a bearing upon the life and work of the coming man,” says Aristotle. ” It is early training that makes the master,” says the great German poet. “He that receiveth a little child in my name receiveth me,” said the Lover of little children. Let us work with the children, the little children! Such work always pays handsome dividends to the family, to the community, to the state, and to the world! The pliable period of early childhood is the time most favorable to the eradication of vicious tendencies, and to the development of the latent possibilities for good. The foundations for national prosperity and perpetuity are to be laid deep down in our infant schools. And the infant school to do its best work and to be successful, must be organized and carried forward on the Kindergarten plan. The Kindergarten has rightly been termed the ” Paradise of childhood.” It is, indeed, the gate through which many a little outcast has re-entered Eden.

The whole design of the Kindergarten system is to rear virtuous, self-governing, law-abiding citizens. The Kindergarten system, if faithfully followed, would prevent criminals. And what estimate shall be placed upon an instrumentality which saves the child from becoming a criminal, and thus not only saves the state from the care and expense incident to such reform, but also secures to the state all that which the life of a good citizen brings into it?

Said a wealthy tax-payer to me recently, as he paid me a generous subscription: “1 give you this aid most gladly. I consider it an investment for my children. I would rather give money to educate these little ones now, than to have my children taxed ten times as much by and by, to sustain prisons and penitentiaries.” This was the practical view of a practical business man- a man of wise forethought and of generous, genial impulses.

The prevention of crime is the duty of society. But society has no right to punish crime at one end if it does nothing to prevent it at the other end. Society’s chief concern should be to remove the causes from which crime springs. It is as much the duty to prevent crime as it is to punish crime. As has been truly said, society too often prepares the crime which the criminal commits. Parentage and society are very clumsy in their management of little children.

Nothing but virtue and intelligence can save a republic from ending in despotism, anarchy and corruption. There must be virtue and genuine character, and since virtue is secured by early training and habit, the children of our commonwealth must be trained in ways of honesty, industry and self-control. It matters not who they are and where they are, the state cannot afford to let them grow up in ignorance and crime. We have a vast number of humane institutions for the reclamation and recovery of the wayward and the erring. We have reformatory institutions, prisons, jails and houses of correction, and I bless God for every one of these agencies. But after all, these are but repair shops. Their work is secondary, not primal. It is trying to straighten the crooked tree. It is seeking to strengthen faulty foundations. How much better it is to build new structures than to repair old ones! How much more satisfactory to make new wagons than to be forever patching up the shambling, rambling old vehicles. It is far better to ‘begin at the beginning. This is the work of the Kindergarten.

The best physicians are not those who follow disease alone, but those who, as far as possible, go ahead and prevent it. They seek to teach the community the laws of health- how not to get sick. We too often start out on the principle that actuated the medical tyro, who was working might and main over a patient burning up with fever. When gently entreated to know what he was doing, he snappishly replied: ” Doing? Why, I’m trying to throw this man into a fit. I don’t know much about fevers, but I’m death on fits. Just you let me get him into a fit, and I’ll fetch him! ” It seems to me we often go on the same principle -we work harder in laying plans to redeem those who have fallen, than to save others from falling. We seem to take it for granted that a certain condition of declension must be reached before we can work to advantage. I repeat again: We do not begin soon enough with the children. It seems to me that both church and state have yet to learn the vast import of those matchless words of the Great Teacher himself, already quoted, when He said, pointing to a little child: “He that receiveth him in my name, receiveth Me.” He said it, because with omniscient vision, He saw the wonderful folded away possibilities within the little child.

Frederick Froebel, the founder of the Kindergarten system of development, had devoted nearly a whole life-time to teaching, when he began to think that there was a radical deficiency in tne manner of developing little children. He reasoned thus: We force the mind too much. We do not supply the proper conditions, and then leave it to its own free, natural unfolding. We do not begin at the beginning. Too much has to be undone in later years, that has been done wrong from the outset. Children are cramped, distorted and paralyzed in their faculties by the rigidity of the old-fashioned methods. ” We learn through doing ” — that is the basis of the Kindergarten method.

The time allotted me for this paper will not permit of my going into anything like the rationale of the Kindergarten system. I can only emphasize a few salient points. You ask, what we claim for the Kindergarten as a child-saving work? I will tell you what we claim. We claim that the Kindergarten is the best agency for setting in motion the mental and moral machinery of a little child, that it may do its own work in its own way. It is the water turned upon the wheel to set the wheel in motion. It is the rain, and dew and sun, to evoke the sleeping germ and bring it into self-activity and growth. It is teaching the little child to teach himself. It is controlling the little child that he may learn the art of self-control. The Kindergarten devotes itself more to ideas than to words, more to things than to books. It begets within the child the power of assimilating knowledge into character and competency for the highest uses of life. What comes in at the open doors of the senses is turned into practical power. Habits of observation are cultivated, and mere abstract truths are kept in the background, awaiting the time when reflection naturally begins to overhaul and assort the varied material that perception has been gathering in. What the child learns in the Kindergarten, is calculated to make him keep his eyes wide open on his way home. He is taught to think, and that is the primal thing.

The Kindergarten cultivates head, heart and hand. It is the best preparation for the arts and trades. Its gifts and occupations represent every kind of technical activity. The senses are sharpened, the hands are trained, and the body is made lithe and active. The children in the Kindergarten must work for what they get. They learn through doing. They thus develop patience, perseverance, skill and will-power. They are encouraged by every fresh achievement. What they know, they must know thoroughly and accurately. Every element of knowledge is transformed into an element of creation. The mind assimilates what it receives, just as a healthy organism assimilates its food, and is nourished thereby. In his occupations in the Kindergarten the child is required to handle, reconstruct, combine and create. Even play is utilized, and has its educative function. What is aimed at, is, to give the child ideas. We do not need fine rhetoric- valuable as that is – half as much as we need sensible, practical ideas. There is a world of truth in the famous inventor’s counsel to a young man, where he says: “Study to have ideas, my boy, study to have ideas. I have always found, if I had an idea, I could express it on a shingle with a piece of chalk, and let a draughtsman work it out handsomely and according to rule. I generally had ideas enough to keep three or four draughtsmen busy. You can always hire draughtsmen, but you cannot hire ideas. Study to have ideas, my boy! It is better to be the master of a little knowledge with the power to use it creatively, than to be the unproductive carrier of all the learning in the libraries. Study to have ideas! Life will give no end of opportunities for using them.” The aim of the Kindergarten is, to make the mind creative, to stimulate thought, to beget ideas.

The moral and religious influence of the Kindergarten can scarcely be overestimated. The Kindergarten does not attribute every mistake of a child to total depravity. To be perpetually telling a little child, even a very naughty child, that there is no good thing in him, that he is vile and corrupt, is one of the very best ways of making a rascal out of him, if he has any spirit in him, and of making a little hypocrite of him if he is mean-spirited and weak. And this holds equally true of all children, whether they come from the palatial homes of the rich, or the wretched homes of the poor. There is more ignorance than depravity when a little child goes wrong. He must stumble and fall many times before he learns to walk uprightly, either physically or spiritually. He must learn to climb the stairs of moral difficulty as he learned to climb the household stairs. As we patiently wait for the body to unfold and do its best, wisely guiding it all the while, so should we patiently wait for the soul unfolding. All education is a growth, not a creation. And to all growth belongs the element of time. A child goes to the Kindergarten as an apprentice goes into a shop, to learn something. He knows little. He has everything to find out. His mind is the tool-chest. His faculties are the implements. Suppose he does make mistakes? His mistakes are not depravity. We are none of us born with the “trade of conduct” learned. What are the mistakes of a child? It is the little carpenter at work with the hammer and nails, trying his best to drive the nail, but hitting his thumb instead of the nail. Poor little fellow! He has the worst of it. See that irrepressible boy! The basilar faculties in him are tremendous. You ought to thank God for them. They are the drive-wheels which, rightly used, will make him a leader and a commander among men. Train that boy in and through these faculties. All the faculties have mates. Over against combativeness stands benevolence. If the former is likely to get on the rampage, touch up the latter. If courage is likely to mount into rashness, touch up fear a little. The primal idea of all government should be to teach a child to govern himself at the earliest possible period. And to learn how to govern himself a child must be indulged in self-government. The true teacher will be aiming all the time at the child’s enfranchisement — not in making him an unwilling slave. The law of kindness bodied forth in eye and lip and hand, will make a royal government. The rafters of love will make a home of law. And this is the principle on which the Kindergarten governs its pupils. Hence, it may be termed a child-saving institution.

Above all, the true Kindergarten aims at the cultivation of the heart and soul in the right direction, and leads them to the Creator of all life, and to personal union with Him. The law of duty is recognized by the little ones as the law of love. It is the aim of the Kindergarten to lead the little ones to their Heavenly Friend. They are taught to love Him. They are taught to love one another, to help one another, to be kind to one another, to care for one another. No one can love God who does not love his fellows. The child in the Kindergarten is not only told to be good, but he is actually helped to be good. The very foundations on which true character rests are laid in the Kindergarten. Habits of virtue, truth, purity and usefulness, are here inculcated; and what is character but crystalized habit?

One of the most distinguished writers on the great law of heredity, says: “It is certain that lunatics and criminals are as much manufactured articles as are steam engines and calico printing presses. They are neither accidents nor anomalies in the universe, hut they come by law, and testify to causality; and it is the business of science to find out what the causes are and by what laws they work.” And this is especially the vocation of just such beneficent gatherings as the one that convenes to-day.

A republic that expects to survive, and to increase in power and greatness, must see to it that she does not carry within her the seeds of her own dissolution. It remains forever true of nations as of individuals, that ignorance and crime breed dissolution and death.

As factors in society, what are we all doing to prevent crime? We may be very eloquent in pleading that punishment may be quick, sharp and decisive. We may be very vigilant in seeking to recover the criminal from ways of evil by wise and suitable punishment. But all this will not avail. As has been truly said, “Crime cannot be hindered by punishment. It will always find some shape and outlet unpunishable and unclosed. Crime can only be truly hindered by letting no man grow up a criminal; by taking away the will to commit sin, not by mere punishment of its commission. Crime, small and great, can only be truly stayed by education. Not the education of the intellect only, which is in some men wasted, and for others mischievous, but the education of the heart, which is alike good and necessary for all.” We want that sort of education in earliest childhood years which has in it the element of real character-building. Such is the education which the Kindergarten gives. The heart, as well as the head, comes in for its full quota of training. The Kindergarten regards right action to be quite as important as rare scholarship. It works for both, knowing that ignorance and lack of character in the masses will never breed wisdom, so long as ignorance and lack of character in the individual breed folly.

The Kindergarten work in San Francisco is growing rapidly and healthfully. Its manifest results, in the charity field of its operations, awaken a lively interest among the wealthy taxpayers of the city. They give liberally for its support. The past’year has been one of signal blessing. The intelligent interest and warm-hearted sympathy evinced from the first by thoughtful men of affairs, and philanthropic citizens generally, in this great reformatory and educational work, has steadily increased, until now there are thirteen charity Kindergartens, with an enrollment of about eight hundred children from three to six years of age. Among the most generous supporters of this work are Mrs. Charles Crocker and Mrs. Leland Stanford, who have made the subject one of careful study, and who recognize in it foundation-work looking to the permanent good of this great commonwealth. Several of these charity Kindergartens are largely supported by these noble-hearted ladies. Four of these Kindergartens were organized by my own bible class, and could I be present with you to-day I much fear I should encroach upon the time of the Conference by relating many incidents connected with our work on the Barbary Coast, which is the “Five Points” of San Francisco. The marked improvement among the little ones is so manifest to the wholesale dealers on the water front, that they give us liberal subscriptions voluntarily, characterizing it as the best charity work’ done in the city.

One thing is certain, the state begins too late, when it permits these children to enter the public school at six years of age., It is locking the stable door after the horse is stolen. It is trying to make a safe and trusty animal out of one who has understood the art of running away. We repeat it again, primal work is the most important of all; it is foundation work. If the line be out of plumb at the beginning, woe be to the edifice. The higher the walls climb the more conspicuous will be the foundation blunder – the more perilous the building. In view of this fact, it seems to me, the most valuable period of childhood for formative purposes, is yet unclaimed by the state. The richest soil lies unpre-empted and uncultivated. But it does not lie idle. The more is the pity. Brambles take the place of flowers; noxious weeds the place of delicious fruitage. Would that the educational guardians of this country could provide a vicarious motherhood, through the Kindergarten, for those teachless little ones, whose homes lack this divine nurturing. By thus brooding over the void of unformed manhood and womanhood, they would bring order out of chaos, light out of darkness, happiness out of misery, and virtue out of vice; for bring more of happiness into childhood, and you shall bring more of virtue; for ” virtue kindles at the touch of joy.” If the state does not attend to this work, then Christian philanthropy must do it. Where is the sense of teaching a little child to pray: ” Lead us not into temptation,” if we do nothing under the sun to keep the child out of the way of temptation?

The labors of the U. S. Commissioner, Gen. John Eaton, have been invaluable in this direction. It seems to me that no bureau of the government has so important a vocation as this. I wish his strong pleadings for national infant schools could be heeded! Only such schools as these, moulding and shaping character by careful training and habit, will ever build up a vigorous, healthful, virtuous, national life. Only such schools as these will make poor-houses, insane asylums, penitentiaries, prisons, jails, and houses of correction unnecessary.

Does it cost too much? Nay, not so. Even a portion of the money which is expended’on these penal and reformatory institutions, if devoted to Kindergarten work, would make these corrective institutions unnecessary in a few years. It is an omen for good, that a memorial for a free national training school and model Kindergarten, signed by the highest educational authority from fourteen states, has been presented to congress. The first memorial was presented by our lamented President, James A. Garfield, some three years since. I feel sure that, sooner or later, this system of developing the faculties of a little child, will be accepted as the true method. It is Nature’s own method, and who follows Nature never can go wrong.

I want to say, in closing, that if the civil authorities do not attend to the little neglected children of the streets, then, surely, Christian philanthrophy should do it. Christianity, thank God, is coming to be more and more practical in its aspect and work. We are coming to feel, more and more, that a religion which has everything for a future world, but nothing for this world, a religion that neglects this present life, is a mother who neglects her infant, with the expectation that manhood will set everything right. A genuine religion concerns itself much about the little ones – the helpless little ones who have been hurled prematurely against the life-wrenching problems of existence. Perhaps we shall find at last, in the day of final disclosure, that the deepest and most far-reaching influence we ever exerted, was the influence that we exerted over the little neglected children of the street. Perhaps we shall find it to be the very best work we ever accomplished. At all events, dear friends, it is well to live well. And he lives the longest who lives the best. He is great who confers most of blessing on mankind.

Source: Cooper, S. B. (1882). The kindergarten as a child-saving work. Proceedings of The Ninth Annual National Conference of Charities and Corrections. Madison, WI: Midland Publishing.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Cooper, S. B. (1882). The kindergarten as a child-saving work. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from


Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.