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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Kindergarten Movement

By 1884 California was leading the nation in educational innovations with its system of pre-grammar-school schools, based on ideas developed by distinguished educator Frederick Froebel, founder of the first such program in 1837, in Germany. Froebel, who had designed a specialized curriculum for children ages three to six, named his program kindergarten.

California’s first kindergarten was established in 1863, in San Francisco. It was not, however, the first time American schoolteachers had implemented Froebel’s concepts. Seven years earlier, in Wisconsin, Mrs. Carl Schurz had founded the first American kindergarten for German-speaking children; and in 1860 Miss Elizabeth Peabody, a teacher of English and French, had opened a private kindergarten in Boston for English-speaking children.

It was this same Miss Peabody, now transplanted to San Francisco, who opened California’s first kindergarten on September 10, 1863. When interviewed by the city’s press, she was quoted as saying her program enabled children to learn to speak and read well in English and French “when their vocal organs were most plastic,” as they were gently led to learn through music, games, and pictures. Another pioneer effort to establish a private kindergarten occurred in Auburn in 1864, and in other California communities 1870-1876, but Miss Peabody’s kindergarten was the only one on the West Coast that endured for more than four years. During this time, there were only a few kindergartens in the entire United States.

Then in 1876, Miss Emma Marwedel moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast. Miss Marwedel, born in Germany and trained in Froebel’s schools, had opened a kindergarten in Washington, DC, in 1870. In Los Angeles, in December 1876, she established a kindergarten, as well as a teacher-training institution; but public response proved disappointing. She left the southland for San Francisco, and on July 23, 1878, Miss Marwedel helped to form the San Francisco Public Kindergarten Society, an association that generated enough interest and donations for her to establish the Silver Street Kindergarten, the first free charity kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains.

Created to serve families in the lower economic classes where parents of very young children were either unable or unwilling to provide their offspring with even rudimentary quality learning experiences, the Silver Street Kindergarten program included drawing, paper cutting and folding, ball exercises, gymnastics, picture books, thread games, thought games, group projects, singing, and sewing.

Enter Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper, another prominent educator in the free kindergarten movement. Mrs. Cooper was so impressed by her first visit to the Silver Street Kindergarten, where Emma Marwedel’s star teaching pupil Kate Douglas was the kindergartner (as the teachers were called), that she was inspired to establish a second charity kindergarten. She did so on October 6, 1879, gathering twelve needy young children off the streets in the heart of San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast neighborhood. From the beginning, she emphasized the importance of free childhood education for poor children of all colors and creeds.

Five years later, she reported a total of 342 students enrolled in the eight kindergarten classes offered at her Jackson Street facility. Not at all hesitant about recruiting support, Mrs. Cooper maintained extensive correspondence with educators and prominent women such as Julia Ward Howe, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, and others, describing her efforts as “child-saving work.”

In 1884 Sarah Cooper formally organized the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, supported by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and a major benefactor of education; Miranda Lux, the wife of a wealthy California landowner who involved herself in the development of schools and aid societies, especially in technical, manual and vocational education; and Jane Lathrop (Mrs. Leland) Stanford, who donated generous funds to the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, in memory of her recently deceased teenage son, Leland Stanford Jr.

In 1891, California enacted its first law enabling children as young as four to attend public kindergartens in towns where local districts offered them. Today, kindergarten is an integral part of the state’s secondary education system, helping children to prepare for grammar school. California does not require children to attend kindergarten, but under current law they must be five years old on or before September 1st if they wish to enroll for the school year that begins each fall.

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