The Fascinating History of Kindergartens

There was an early pre-school opened in Strasbourg in 1779, but it was Friedrich Fröbel who first established a “childrens’ garden” in 1840.

An iconic Kiwi institution

By Roger Childs

Friedrich Fröbel

Generations of New Zealanders will have memories of their time at kindy.

Kindergartens revolutionised education around the world as the movement spread from Germany.

Fröbel’s experiment in the 1840s was in fact too revolutionary for the times, as the autocratic European rulers were paranoid about the contagion of liberal ideas.

New Zealand first free institution was the Dunedin Free Kindergarten which was set up in 1889.

Some other centres already offered private pre-school education, however gradually the concept of kindergartens on the Fröbel model spread around the nation.

Women who were involved in other reform movements in the late 19th century such as temperance and suffrage, were often at the forefront of kindergarten development.

The Fröbel model

The four cornerstones of the farsighted German’s kindergarten are still key elements today.

  • growing gardens
  • using building blocks
  • crafts
  • movement, song and dance.

In New Zealand the promoters of kindergartens had to work very hard over the years to sell the idea, get government funding and become accepted.

The evolution of the movement in New Zealand

The earliest women teachers tended to be the product of private schools and most of the early kinder attending were from better off families.

However later state school educated women were involved and from the 1960s, men.

Before the state started to provide adequate funding, local communities were involved in a range of creative money raising ventures from cake stalls outside shops to cookbooks and major fairs.

It brought people across the socio-economic spectrum together in a common cause, and the actual opening of a kindergarten was a major community event.

Some of the early architecture was similar to primary schools, but gradually the designers though more about the needs of pre-school children in their plans!

Agitating for the cause

Laura Ingram on the left was a great battler for the cause

Getting recognition and adequate funding was a long and exhausting battle. The full range of strategies were used

  • delegations to parliament
  • submissions to committees
  • petitions
  • picketing and placards.

A number of women from around the nation were busy agitating for free kindergartens and would not take No for an answer.

One of the stalwarts was Laura Ingram from Motueka. She established a kindergarten in the town and to promote the cause even dressed up as Winston Churchill on a roof top!

Laura was president of the New Zealand Kindergarten Association from 1966 to 1977 and during this time 152 new “schools” were set up. When the association approached government for $10,000 and only got $2000, she went to the prime minister and received the full amount!

Read the book!

Growing a kindergarten movement in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Authors Helen May and Kerry Bethell have both taught early years education and are widely published.

They spoke recently at a Ministry of Culture and Heritage session at the National Library.

The book is illustrated with photographs and cartoons from every decade.

It is published by NZCER Press and is available at all good book shops.





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