Kindergarten: Germany’s Gift to the World

kindergarten: children in a garden with a teacher

I had never given much thought to kindergarten, but had always supposed it was a 20th century phenomenon. During my research for Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad I came across so many references to kindergarten, I had to look into its history. I was really surprised to learn it had been around for almost two hundred years and that it originated, as we know it, in Germany.

In Talas, Turkey

The kindergarten in the Talas and Cesarea ABCFM mission was started by Caroline Farnsworth Fowle and run by Fanny Burrage circa 1885. They received a big professional boost when Clara Childs Richmond arrived in 1909. Clara had just graduated from Miss Wheelock’s Kindergarten Training School in Boston and was grounded in pedagogical methods. Another big boost occurred in 1911 with the opening of a new three-story stone building specifically for the 50 kindergarten students in Cesarea. There were also 30 children in the Talas kindergarten five miles away. It had taken two years to construct, and the missionaries rhapsodised in their description:

“It is a large handsome building, perhaps the best-built in Cesarea. In the basement are play and lunchrooms for the children, where also mothers’ meetings are held. Storerooms fill the rest of this floor. Upstairs, on the main floor, on the left of the long entrance hall are the office, a class room, and the teachers’ rooms. The whole space on the right is taken up by the two kindergarten rooms, that, thrown into one, easily seated one hundred and fifty people yesterday. On Sunday, when they sit on the floor, two hundred and more attend the Sunday school. In school time folding partitions separate into two classes all but the youngest children. On the next floor is the primary room, separated by a partition across the hall, from Miss Burrage’s and Miss Richmond’s own rooms. As Miss Burrage has for years been crowded into two rooms in a native house, the prettily arranged little apartment, with three bed rooms, a sitting room, a dining room and a kitchen, with a good sized pantry adjoining, seems quite palatial. There is a balcony at one end of the hall, and a flat roof over a part of the house, from which one can enjoy the view of Mount Argaeus and of the plain stretching away in every direction to the hills beyond.”

It was well worth its $7,000 cost. By 1912 there were 82 pupils, and by 1913 there were “seven young ladies, from Sivas, Hadjin, Aintab, and Diyarbakir” there, studying to become kindergarten teachers.

The kindergartens operated by the missionaries had Christian pupils, mainly of Armenian and Greek origin, but did have Turkish Muslim students when and where it was allowed. However,  Caroline Silliman, a kindergarten teacher in the Van mission, reported on the creation of a “Moslem kindergarten” in 1913. “Dr. Raynolds called on the superintendent of Turkish schools to ask him what he would think of our opening a Moslem kindergarten as a branch of our work. He seemed to be very much pleased and said that he would help us. We could not be sure that he was sincere until we saw that he actually went ahead and interested the governor and others. The Turks formed a sort of committee among themselves to take up the matter. They offered the following suggestions: that as this was the first year we would not ask tuition, but that they, as their share, furnish the room and the fuel. We thought that was generous enough and were glad to accept it.”

Germany’s Gift to the World

In 1779, a Christian pastor, Johann Friedrich Oberlin, for whom Oberlin College in Ohio was named, established a daycare program in Strasbourg, Germany for young children whose parents worked outside the home. Princess Pauline zur Lippe did something similar in Lippe in 1802. Not long after, two “infant schools” were founded in Britain. In 1816 Robert Owen, a Welsh industrialist and social reformer, opened a preschool for children of his workers in a mill in New Lanark, Scotland. In 1819 educator Samuel Wilderspin opened a preschool in London, and wrote On the Importance of Educating the Infant Poor in 1823

From 1799-1825 Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator, founded several schools in the German and French regions of Switzerland, and wrote extensively about his pedagogical ideas. But it was one of Pestalozzi’s students, Friedrich Fröbel, who really developed the idea of the importance of play to learning, and created kindergartens. In 1817, Fröbel founded a school in Keilhau, based on some of Pestalozzi’s ideas. Over the years he came to see children as plants to be nurtured, and teachers as the gardeners to do that. By the time he established a preschool in Blankenburg in 1837, these ideas were firmly rooted. In 1840 he coined the term kindergarten: kinder ~ child and garten ~ garden. This philosophy of education through play took hold. He trained German women to become kindergarteners, and these women quickly spread the idea and training throughout Europe and eventually the world. Lucy Wheelock, founder of Wheelcock College in Boston, was ultimately one of the kindergarteners.

The Importance of Play

In my research I found many connections between play and happiness. For example, “the school girls are out on the sunny side of the house and the little kindergartens are having a lovely time playing games… [and] singing at the top of their lungs.” But my favourite report was written by Near East Relief worker Nellie Alice Cole in 1922 about opening a school in Trebizond “for rescued Armenian girls from the ages of twelve to twenty. Most of them had either never known the inside of a schoolroom, or, during the five years of wandering hardship, had well nigh forgotten what they did know.”

She described trying to teach them without the benefit of books or paper. Instead, she used the technique of play because, as she said, “When we stop to think of it, aren’t we all simply little children on stilts of varying heights? And so why should we be surprised if the same methods and the same things, with adaptations, should appeal to the wee girlie of six as well as the lassie of sixteen.”


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Kindergarten photo courtesy of US Library of Congress

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