The Nursery School
Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) and sister Rachel McMillan (1859-1917) were social reformers in England tackling the problems of poverty as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The sisters were born in the US, but after the death of their father, they moved back to Scotland, their family's original home. As adults, Rachel and Margaret moved to England in search of work.They began to visit the homes of the poor, leading them to lives of social activism, focused on improving the lives of the "slum child." They advocated for school meals and open one of Englands first school-based health clinic. In 1911, they began the Open-Air Nursery School and Training Centre in London, which was attended to by 30 children between 18 months and 7 years old. A play-oriented, open-air environment was born out of their response to health problems they were witnessing in poor communities and was meant to be a model for other schools as well as a training center for future and current teachers.
They called their program a "nursery school", to demonstrate their care and concern with nurture as well as learning. They reocognized that many poor children in England were lacking both care and education in their most formative years. The school had its foundation in the work of Darwin, Plato, Rousseau, Froebel, and Owen (Feeney, Mravcik, Nolte, Christensen 2010). Besides providing care and education, the program was designed to identify health problems before they entered into formal schooling. The sisters focused on education via a child's 'sense of wonder' and believed teachers must know what attracts children and engages their attention. They also wished to help parents learn how to interact in a positive manner with their children.
Early Nursery Schools in the US
As kindergartens were growing and expanding quickly across the US, nursery schools gained speed in efforts to meet the needs of children younger than kindergarten-age. Inspired by the English nursery schools, they were also influenced by Freud's ideas about developmental psychology and progressive education philosophy. One of the very first nursery schools in the US was the City and Country school, opened in New York City in 1913 by Caroline Pratt. Three years later, the Bureau of Educational Experiments opened a laboratory nursery school under the direction of Harriet Johnson. Nearly a decade later, other nursery schools were popping up throughout the United States, including Patty Smith Hill's program at Columbia Universiy Teachers College in New York City, as well as the Ruggles Street Nursery School and Traning Center in Roxbury, MA, directed by Abigail Eliot. Eliot studied with Margaret McMillan and observed her London school, and returned to Boston in 1922 where she continued her education. 8 years later, she was one of the first women to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. Eliot's Ruggles Street Nursery School followed the McMillans example of providing full-day-care for working families, but did not have the same focus on the physical health of the children, rather focusing on creating an intellectually stimulating, child-centric environment and invloving parents (many of whom went on to become teachers) in the program.
In 1916, parent-cooperative nursery schools began with the creation of the University of Chicago Cooperative Nursery School. Similar to traditional nursery schools in that they provided supervised learning and socialization opportunities, they were different in that they were operated by parents and a teacher together, with parents being required to assist in the execution of the daily program. This benefited families by providing low-cost childcare, more free time, opportunities to work with young children and learn about child development, a sense of community, and of course, a way to be with their children during the day without staying home.
Meanwhile, child-study institutions with laboratory schools were being founded. Yale University's Clinic of Child Development, The Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, and the Merrill-Palmer Institute, in Detroit, Michigan. After visiting the McMillan's England Nursery School in 1921, Edna Noble White established her Merril-Palmer Institute. Interested in more than providing care for the children, Edna extended her mission by providing "motherhood training" and would later become world-famous as a center for parental and pre-parental education. During the 1920's and 1930's, college home economics departments included nursery schools to train future homemakers and to serve as research centers. Early nursery schools focused on the 'whole' child, incorporating social, emotional, and physical development, paying less attention to the intellectual and more attention to free-play, plenty of outside play, and a learning environment that was designed with children in mind.
Today's nursery schools still reflect the basic principles of earlier nursery schools. Childern are still seen as learning through interactions with people and with their environment. "The role of the school is to keep the paths of exploration open so children can develop in their own unique ways." (Feeney, Mravcik, Nolte, Christensen 2010). Daily schedules are generally large blocks of time where children are free to choose their activitiesand engage in them for long stretches of time. Classrooms are divided by area, with spaces for block construction, dramatic play, arts and crafts, sand and water tables, science centers, math centers, and language centers. The teacher's role is to facilitate an environment that fosters learning, supports the childs emotional development, social development, and provides children with the tools they need to explore and experience their environment.