Historical Foundations of Early Childhood Education 

Childcare in the United States

Prior to the Industrial revolution, most women were able to keep children close to home to help with domestic duties or the family trade or business. Children helped with farm work, or in some occasions were sent to a "dame school", a place where an older woman would gather children to teach them their three R's: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. As the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of America, so too did the needs for childcare, especially for poor working families. Since many women were forced to choose between leaving children home alone or not working and seeking charity from the community, the need for childcare rose, as people in many communities chose not to give money or food any longer. Many women were given no choice but to enter into the work force, working in work-houses, factories, or in some cases, caring for wealthier families children, sending their own children to work as indentured servants for other families, or left their children on the streets or even locked up indoors during the day.

Quaker women in Philadelphia offered a solution for some of these women and children, by founding the Society for the Relief and Employment of the Poor. A house was built by the society that would provide religious education for children while their mothers worked in another section of the house. The Boston Infant school is another early example of the convergence and application of ideas related to childcare and education in the US. Modeled after Robert Owen's British Infant Schools, philanthropist women provided care to children of working mothers. In the 1830's, several other schools opened up throughout the US. By 1850, h0wever, the idea that women should stay home with their children had permeated societies beliefs, ignoring the reasons the schools were in place to begin with. Though the schools did not last, the schools offered help to the thousands of new immigrants arriving in the United States. The New York Nursery for Children of Poor Women's mission was to provide care for the children of women forced to provide for their families. These were privately run programs that allowed new immigrants working in urban families to keep their families together. Most of the workers in these programs were untrained and worked long hours with many children, but were still a better alternative than leaving children at home or worse, on the street. The goals of these programs were focused on the general health of the children and not the intellectual development or education.

Inspired by the American Kindergarten movement, Pauline Agassiz Shaw established a day nursery with an educational focus in 1878 Boston. Many other centers followed Shaw's example, providing care for long hours with educational activities, comprehensive services, family education and training, and counseling,  although most did not service the very young children. In the 1880's, Frances Willard attempted to meet this need by establishing the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Her day nurseries were offered free of charge to poor mothers, but were not open to all racial and ethnic groups and never to children of unwed mothers. This discrimination left many mothers with no other option than to send their children to orphanages or in unsatisfactory arrangements in strangers homes. The 1890's ushered in the National Association of Colored Women, which established day nurseries serving urban African American families and children. The 1800's saw a number of experiments in childcare, enabling many women to avoid the depths of poverty by working outside of the home. Childcare was generally regarded as a last-resort measure only to be utilized in the most dire of emergencies and circumstances.

During the Great Depression, the US government operated federal childcare centers, providing relief work for teachers, custodians, cooks, nurses, and others who had lost their jobs and desperately needed employment. Unfortunately, these programs ended as soon as the Depression lifted. Similar programs re-emerged again during World War II, when many of the nation's women began working in the factories supporting the military stationed overseas. The Lanham Act of 1942-1946 provided federally funded child care centers in 41 states. Similar to the employer-sponsored childcare systems of Europe, programs like the Kaiser centers, which provided childcare for employees of the Kaiser shipyards in Portland, Oregon provided comprehensive, high quality services and care to children aged 18 months to 6 years old. Kaiser made a commitment to providing the best services possible to both children and families. Louis Meek Stolz, an Early Childhood Expert who directed the Child Development Institute and Columbia University was hired as a director, and James L Hymes Jr., a graduate of the Child Development Institute was hired as the manager of the Kaiser programs. Specially trained early-childhood teachers were hired, and the building was even specially designed by an architect to serve young children. The centers were open 24 hours a day, 364 days per year (save for Christmas), and included an infirmary, provided meals for mothers to take home, and offered other services to families who worked in the defense industry. During their short span of service, Kaiser served nearly 4,000 children.

Once the war ended and women returned home with their children, the centers closed down, but their example hold strong today. A common post-war belief that women and children belonged at home and that children of working mothers suffered from a lack of maternal care slowly began to change when the landscape of the 'typical' American family began to change around the 1950's and 60's. As families moved further away from their own extended families, divorce became more and more common, and women began finding meaningful work outside of the home, the face of childcare began to slowly change into what we now have today, a merging of both care and education.