Wheelock, Lucy (1857–1946)

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Wheelock, Lucy (1857–1946)

American proponent of kindergartens who founded what became Wheelock College . Born in Cambridge, Vermont, on February 1, 1857; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 2, 1946; second daughter and second of six children of Edwin Wheelock (a Congregational minister) and Laura (Pierce) Wheelock; attended Underhill Academy in Vermont for one year; graduated from public high school in Reading, Massachusetts, in 1874; entered Chauncy Hall School in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1876; graduated from the Kindergarten Training School in 1879.

Directed inaugural one-year training course for kindergarten teachers at Chauncy Hall School; elected member of National Education Association (1892); served as second president of International Kindergarten Union (1895–99); organized free kindergarten for poor children in Hope Chapel, Boston (1895); established Wheelock Training School (1896); expanded curriculum to include teacher training for primary grades (1899); appointed to committee on education of the National Congress of Mothers (1899), and became chair (1908); served as chair of the Committee of Nineteen (1905–09); organized and led group of American kindergarten teachers to the home of Friedrich Froebel in Germany (1911); erected first permanent building for Wheelock School (1914); chaired committees to foster cooperation among educational and parent associations (1913–18); visited eight Southern states to promote the kindergarten movement (1916); included preparation for nursery school teachers in Wheelock Training School program (1926); served on the Educational Committee of the League of Nations (1929); incorporated Wheelock School as nonprofit institution (1939); Wheelock Training School became Wheelock College (1941).

Lucy Wheelock devoted her life to advocating for kindergartens, and training teachers of the very young. Her advocacy involved her in numerous committees concerned with children's education, and her teacher training programs resulted in her founding and directing the Wheelock School in Boston, Massachusetts, which later became Wheelock College.

Wheelock was born in Cambridge, Vermont, in 1857. Her first teaching assignment was in the village school in Cambridge, where she grew up. With the intention of enrolling in Wellesley College, she entered Chauncy Hall School in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1876. Her plans changed dramatically, however, when she was introduced to the school's kindergarten. She said she felt as if "the gates of heaven were opened and I had a glimpse of the kingdom where peace and love reign." On the advice of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), the founder of Boston's first kindergarten, Wheelock enrolled in the Kindergarten Training School in Boston conducted by Ella Snelling Hatch , where Peabody was one of the lecturers. Wheelock received her diploma in 1879 and taught for ten years in the kindergarten of the Chauncy Hall School. In 1888, kindergartens were made part of the public school system in Boston, and Chauncy Hall responded by inaugurating a one-year training course for teachers that Wheelock directed. The program was a tremendous success, the initial class of six students growing to accommodate students from all over the country. In 1893, the course was lengthened to two years, and in 1896 Wheelock established the Wheelock Kindergarten Training School, independent of Chauncy Hall. As Wheelock's school continued to grow, she added training for primary grade teachers in 1899, for nursery school teachers in 1926, and in 1929 extended the kindergarten training program to three years.

The kindergarten movement engendered strong feelings among educators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Based on the philosophy and methods originally developed by German educator Friedrich Froebel, kindergartens were first opened in Germany. Enthusiastic disciples spread Froebel's ideas throughout Europe and America, instituting a new phase in public education based on the premise that children are essentially dynamic and creative, rather than merely receptive. Froebel's belief in learning through activity and play gave rise to a series of specialized toys designed to stimulate learning by well-directed play accompanied by songs and music. Wheelock's students were trained in fundamental Froebelian methods as well as other progressive techniques, and were taught to consider the kindergarten classroom as only one of the important elements in the total process of socialization.

As the kindergarten movement took hold and public schools began adding kindergartens to their systems, educators started to divide into several camps of thought regarding the future development of the kindergarten. Wheelock was in the center of the movement and of the controversies that grew out of it. From 1892, when she became a committee member of the National Education Association to plan a national organization of kindergarten teachers, she served on many committees to foster the growth of kindergartens: the International Kindergarten Union (co-founder and president, 1893–99), the committee on education of the National Congress of Mothers (chair), and the Committee of Nineteen (chair, 1905–09).

Her function on the latter committee was as mediator among the factions that had grown up among educators who differed about the role of Froebel's system as applied to contemporary kindergartens. There was a conservative majority, represented by Susan Elizabeth Blow , who felt that there should be no alteration of Froebel's original ideas; Patty Smith Hill represented a smaller, more liberal group who believed in adopting flexible routines to allow the child more freedom in the choice of activities and play materials; a small minority, which included Wheelock and Elizabeth Harrison , favored a gradual, intentional evolution of the Froebelian system. The Committee of Nineteen, appointed to study the areas of disagreement, issued a report in 1913, edited by Wheelock, entitled The Kindergarten.

Other committees she served on were intended to foster cooperation among teachers and parents. These included the committee on education of the National Congress of Mothers (later called the National Congress of Parents and Teachers) in 1899, a committee on cooperation between the National Congress of Mothers and the International Kindergarten Union in 1916, and a similar committee of the Kindergarten Union and the National Education Association from 1913 to 1918. In 1929, she was appointed to the Educational Committee of the League of Nations.

Wheelock's activities included extending the benefits of kindergarten education to the children of the poor. To this end, she helped organize a free kindergarten at Hope Chapel, sponsored by Boston's Old South Church, served on the board of directors of the Ruggles Street Neighborhood House in Roxbury and of the House of Good Will in Boston, and helped to organize a kindergarten at the South End House, a Boston social settlement, at the request of founder Robert A. Woods. In 1916, she was one of a team of speakers who traveled through eight Southern states giving speeches to promote the kindergarten movement. She published many articles in educational journals, and in 1920 co-authored Talks to Mothers with Elizabeth Colson . She also translated stories for children from German and edited several books about the kindergarten movement.

Wheelock retired as director of Wheelock School in 1939, the year it became incorporated as a nonprofit institution. At that time, it had 325 students and 23 faculty members. It became Wheelock College in 1941, five years before Lucy Wheelock's death on October 2, 1946.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts