Free kindergarten

Kindergarten. It seems like a given. Kindergarten helps prepare children for first grade and gives them a head start for life. Every child attends kindergarten, right? No, in Indiana, kindergarten attendance is not mandatory.

I find this kind of mind-blowing, especially after I encountered Eliza Ann Blaker, an early pioneer for free kindergarten.

Blaker wasn’t only a pioneer in her advocating free kindergarten for all children. She was a pioneer for women. Born in 1854 into a Quaker family, she was encouraged to continue her education and to follow her interests in teaching. This is in the latter half of the 1800s. And this is in spite of the fact that her father was deceased and her labor could have helped support the family. (Did I mention that Blaker was a woman?)

The fact that she was educated and then pursued her career (while married) is a bit unusual for that time period. But she went beyond unusual: she moved her family from Pennsylvania to Indiana for her career. The Blaker family moved for her career, not her husband’s.

Blaker came to Indianapolis in 1882 to set up a kindergarten for the children of the wealthy. She quickly moved on to setting up free kindergarten for all children, regardless of finances or race.

In addition to schools for the children, she trained the teachers for these kindergartens. Eventually the teacher training she initiated was folded into Butler University.

Her teaching methodology was quite different from the norm for that time. She was inspired by early childhood educational ideas developed by Friedrich Froebel.

Her guiding principles for early education sound both cutting-edge today and hark back to a medieval time. For her, children learn best through play. She encouraged children to discover the world on their own terms. As a stunning commentary on the times, she rejected the habit of beating children when they make mistakes (!).

Blaker was quite a progressive woman who came from an environment that encouraged female education and career when women were not typically allowed to have either. I am inspired by her work but saddened that almost a century after her passing kindergarten is not mandatory in Indiana (and in many other states).

Helping young children learn is the best gift we can give them for an enriching life. And what better way than through play and exploration of the world in an environment that takes into account different learning styles and encourages growth through mistakes.