Nursery Schools

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Nursery Schools

The history of nursery schools is intimately related to the history of mass schooling. Provision of nursery schools and other institutions for the education and care of young children (generally under the age of six) came relatively late in the development of school systems. Not until it was accepted that early childhood was a highly significant stage in human development and one during which the contours of the later stages were formed was there much interest in making formal arrangements for the education of the young. Just how young was dependent on the age set for starting school, which varied from country to country, as school systems developed with the coming of industrialization and urbanization. Schools for children under the compulsory age for school attendance were motivated by a combination of a desire for moral regulation, social control, and child saving. Demand for the provision of care for young children increased as women, many of whom were mothers, were increasingly drawn into the labor market.

The Early Infant Schools and Kindergartens

In England, the first country in the world to undergo the industrial revolution, large numbers of working-class children below the age set for school attendance and as young as one year old were being sent to school. This was either a school organized for older children or an infant school, the first of which was opened by the utopian socialist reformer Robert Owen (17711858) in Scotland in 1816. The infant schools that followed were promoted by infant school societies. They lacked a uniform purpose, curriculum or pedagogy, but preparation for the subjects taught in elementary schools came to predominate. A similar process took place in other industrializing countries, such as France, where the first preschools had been opened by Jean-Frédéric Oberlin (17401826). There, schools for young children were called salles d'asile, literally, "rooms of the asylum," or refuges for working-class children.

The realization that young children in infant schools needed specialized treatment adapted to their age did not take hold until the ideas and practices of Johann HeinrichPestalozzi (17451827) attracted the attention of a small number of educational reformers in England. Schools run on Pestalozzian lines attempted to recognize the specific requirements of young children rather than treating them as being no different than older pupils. In 1836, the Pestalozzian Home and Colonial Infant School Society began training teachers for infant schools in its college in London. Not only did this school emphasize the need to educate young children differently but it also introduced the idea that the care and education of children in their early years was a skilled task, which should not be left to anyone prepared to work for the very low wages that were commonly paid to the "motherly" girls who looked after young children. This was made difficult when forms of various child care, from wet nurses to dame schools, abounded and teachers received no training.

Further impetus for the idea that the education of young children should be different from that provided for older ones was provided by the international spread of the kindergarten and the theories of its founder, Friedrich Froebel (17821852). The first kindergarten in England was opened in 1851 and was followed by the opening of one in the United States in 1856. While the kindergarten was a school, Froebel's educational vision encompassed both home and kindergarten. The school and the home were meant to be complementary in their organization of the play materials and activities by means of which young children from their first year on could become educated. But the conditions of the existing schools that were provided for the laboring poor in England created many obstacles to the adoption of the kindergarten. Among these were large classes, untrained teachers, and the pressure of examinations in the higher grades, which percolated down to the lower ones. Similarly, when the kindergarten entered the public school system in the United States, much that was distinctive was lost due to the bureaucratic nature of the school system and particularly the need to prepare children for the more formal approaches of the elementary schools.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the free kindergarten movement in the United States, and similar initiatives in England and other countries, began to stress the role of the kindergarten in the rescue of the children of the urban poor. More social workers than teachers, the women who organized the free kindergartens gradually rejected Froebel's formal system, with its detailed directions on how to use his apparatus or "gifts" and "occupations," in favor of a wider conception of play combined with domestic tasks. Legitimation for this new approach came from the theories of the psychologist G. Stanley Hall (18441924) and the philosopher John Dewey (18591952).

The Nursery School

In England, Margaret McMillan (18601931), a Christian Socialist, went further and substituted sense training and a focus on the health of the young child for the Froebelian emphasis on play and self-activity. Margaret McMillan is regarded as the originator of the nursery school concept, although when state support became available for nursery schools after 1918 the majority of the recognized nursery schools were former free kindergartens. Together with her sister Rachel, Margaret McMillan opened an open-air nursery school in a deprived part of London in 1913. At the same time, in Italy, Maria Montessori (18701952), was working along similar lines to produce her educational method aimed at the rescue of the children of the urban poor through an emphasis on health and sense training by means of her specially devised apparatuses, such as solid insets, sandpaper letters, and blocks that could be made into a long stair. The high rates of infant mortality and disease both provided a major stimulus to the advocates of the nursery school.

In the United States, the first nursery schools for children under five were privately financed and often sponsored by and affiliated to universities. They were characterized by their use of child study and psychological theories about children and their families, such as those of Sigmund Freud (18561958) and later Jean Piaget (18961980). As such, they formed part of a broader development of the professionalizing field of child welfare. Unlike the ones in the United Kingdom, they catered mainly to upper- and middle-class children whose mothers were not undertaking paid labor. In the 1920s, the cooperative nursery school that involved parents in its running was developed in the United States. This marked a departure from the European model of the nursery school, which previously had been dominant.

The adoption of the nursery school by public education systems throughout most of the twentieth century was constrained by their cost and by the view that the best place for most children below school age was with their mothers in their homes. Exceptions to this were made for the children of the urban poor and in times of national emergency as in the Great Depression and World War II, but provision of nursery schooling trailed behind that of day-care centers and other forms of child-minding that lacked the educational rationale of nursery schools.

In the United States in the 1960s, War on Poverty programs such as Project Head Start and the Ypsilanti, Michigan, Perry Preschool Project stimulated the growth of nursery schools as a means to combat social inequalities. In recent decades, public and private provision of preschools has increased dramatically in many countries, as the number of women entering the labor market has steadily grown. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the general trend is for the nursery school, which provides a play-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum, to be eclipsed by classes and institutions designed solely to prepare children for school.

A broad pattern may be observed in the history of nursery schools. When they were privately funded they were able to adopt play methods more widely than when they were publicly funded, but there were too few of them to meet the demand. Public funding of nursery schools, on the other hand, while it enabled more children to attend them, has almost always led to their subordination to the demands of the schools for older children.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of.


Beatty, Barbara. 1995. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Clark, Linda L. 2000. The Rise of Professional Women in France: Gender and Public Administration since 1830. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Deasey, Denison. 1978. Education under Six. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lascarides, V. Celia, and Blythe F. Hinitz. 2000. History of Early Childhood Education. New York: Falmer Press.

McMillan, Margaret. 1919. The Nursery School. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Read, Katherine H., and June Patterson. 1980. The Nursery School and Kindergarten: Human Relationships and Learning, 7th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Spodek, Bernard, and Olivia N. Saracho. 1994. Right from the Start: Teaching Children Ages Three to Eight. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Steedman, Caroline. 1990. Childhood, Culture, and Class in Britain: Margaret Mcmillan, 18601931. London: Virago.

Whitbread, Nanette. 1972. The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant and Nursery Education in Britain, 18001970. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

internet resource

European Primary School Association. "A History of Preschool Education in Europe." Available at <>.

Kevin J. Brehony