America’s First Kindergarten

History, On the Road, Traditions
on August 12, 2007

Sitting on a stool in front of her kindergarten class, Emma Wollenberg, 6, introduces her cuddly toy horse to her classmates. “I named it something tasty: Caramel,” she says. “I like it because it’s soft.”

Emma’s classmates at Webster School in Watertown, Wis. (pop. 21,598), eagerly raise their hands to ask questions about the show-and-tell toy, but they don’t make a peep until the teacher, Sandy French, calls on them.

“How long have you had the horse?” asks Mayra Ramirez, 6.

Emma giggles. “For a very, very long time,” she says.

Then Salvador Vega, 6, asks the question nagging many of them. “Can we play with the horse?” “Yes,” Emma says, “if you ask permission first.”

For the kindergarteners, show-and-tell is a time to share toys and treasures from home, but for French, show-and-tell is a lesson in public speaking, listening, self-control and taking turns. Nearly every lesson in kindergarten—from good social skills to reading—is packaged in play, an educational tradition that began in America more than 150 years ago in Watertown.

America’s first kindergarten
Every year, French shepherds her Webster School pupils two blocks to visit a humble clapboard schoolhouse where Margarethe Meyer Schurz opened the nation’s first kindergarten in 1856.

A native of Germany, Margarethe settled in Watertown in 1855 with her husband, Carl Schurz, and soon began teaching five youngsters, including their 3-year-old daughter, Agatha, in the family home. When the noise of the children became too much for her husband, she moved her class to the one-room schoolhouse.

Margarethe learned the principles of early childhood education from Friedrich Froebel, the father of kindergarten, in Germany. Froebel, who believed that children learn best through guided play, arts and crafts, and music, coined the name kindergarten, or “children’s garden.”

As French’s pupils explore the historic schoolhouse in Watertown, they look with wonder at the kinds of toys Froebel created. The toys include a set of six colored woolen balls suspended by strings on a rod to teach children about spheres, colors and movement; dried peas and wooden sticks for counting; and wooden blocks and tiles in different sizes and shapes for building. “You know our pattern blocks?” French asks her pupils. “Don’t ours look just like this?” The kindergarteners nod excitedly.

During their tour, Linda Werth, who manages the schoolhouse for the Watertown Historical Society, shows the pupils a slate tablet like the ones used by the first kindergarten class, and the melodeon organ that Schurz brought to America.

“The kindergarteners liked to sing and do paper-cutting, paper-weaving, clay-molding and stitching,” says Werth, adding that for lunch, the children might have eaten lard and jelly sandwiches on homemade bread and wrapped the sandwiches in scraps of worn-out cloth. Hannah Dathan, 6, admires a feather pen on the teacher’s desk and bobs her head when French asks if she knows its purpose.

“That’s for writing,” Hannah says. “The teacher would have dipped it in ink and writed with it.”

The movement spreads
From the original Watertown kindergarten class, which Margarethe conducted in German, the kindergarten movement quickly spread. The first kindergarten class conducted in English took place in 1860 in Boston and the first publicly funded kindergarten opened in 1873 in St. Louis. The National Education Association has promoted kindergarten since 1872.

Today, 4 million children across the United States—98 percent of all kindergarten-age children—attend a public or private kindergarten, although attendance is compulsory in only 14 states. Age requirements vary from state to state, but children generally begin kindergarten at age 5. About 60 percent attend for a full day; 40 percent attend for a half day.

“Most people now recognize the value of early childhood education,” says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. “Kindergarteners learn problem-solving, social skills and basic academic skills.”

Though expectations vary within each school district, most kindergarteners today learn to read, count to 100, and perform simple addition and subtraction. They learn shapes, colors, and personal information, such as their addresses, telephone numbers and birthdays. They develop motor skills for using scissors, writing, skipping and bouncing a ball.

And, just as they did a century and a half ago, kindergarteners continue to learn through fun and games.

Beyond ABCs
After 30 years of teaching, French, 51, has a flair for making learning fun.

“It’s time for the guessing jar,” she announces, grabbing a large container partially filled with colored pasta. Sometimes she fills the jar with golf balls or pieces of candy.

“How many noodles are in the jar?” French asks. “Is it 10, 42, 100 or 500?” Each child studies the heap of noodles and ventures a guess.

When no one chooses the correct amount, the pupils count the noodles one-by-one, until they tally 100.

Throughout the day, French leads her pupils through a hodgepodge of serious and not-so-serious lessons, including belting out a silly song about going on a bear hunt, complete with marching and swimming movements.

After French reads a storybook, Zug the Bug, the pupils rhyme words aloud and practice writing them on the chalkboard. When the children get squirmy while practicing changing the word hug to bug, French reminds them to “polish your halos.” The kindergarteners reach above their heads, make a swirling motion and—in a snap—their attention is focused again.

By the end of the full day, the kindergarteners have visited the library, eaten lunch, played during recess, stretched out on their towels at rest time, learned about coins and interviewed a fellow classmate for the five-page books they’re writing about each other.

While kindergarteners always have learned through guided play, today’s 5- and 6-year-olds are expected to know more about reading, writing and arithmetic than ever before.

“If you don’t come in knowing the alphabet, you’re kind of at a disadvantage,” French says. Three times during the school year, she evaluates her pupils and posts their names on the classroom wall as they master reading and other skills, such as tying their shoelaces and telling time. Sometimes she gives homework assignments to help the youngsters develop good study habits.

“Kindergarten sets the pace for their whole education,” says Principal Brad Clark, 38, who attended kindergarten at Webster School.

But for most kids, the best part of kindergarten probably hasn’t changed much since Margarethe Meyer Schurz introduced the concept in America a century and a half ago.

“I like to play with my friends,” says Keiara Cudnohowski, 6.