America’s First Kindergarten

We’ve all been to kindergarten and well remember what it was like to step inside a classroom for the very first time. How grown up you were. How scared you were. How much fun it was. Paint and glue and play dough – oh, my!

The idea of kindergarten originated in Germany in 1837 when Friedrich Frobel founded a care and play institute for preschool children. He first used the term “kindergarten” in 1840. It literally means children’s garden.

Margarethe Meyer Schurz, a German native, emigrated to the United States with her husband and eventually settled in Watertown, Wisconsin, where her husband had relatives. He was busy with his political career, and she was bored at home, so she began teaching young children in their residence in 1856. She had personally learned about kindergarten from Friedrich Frobel.The first class consisted of five children, two of them from the Shurz family and the other three from the local community.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, her husband disliked the noise and the commotion the children brought into the home. The kindergarten eventually moved to a new building. The home was destroyed by fire in 1912. The little building where the kindergarten first moved to housed many different businesses through the years. In 1956, it was in danger of being demolished when women from Watertown Historical Society stepped in and saved it. The building was moved to the state historical park at the Octagon House.

The Shurz family moved to Milwaukee in the 1857, and the kindergarten continued off-and-on in Watertown until the turn-of-the-century when it was incorporated into the public schools.

Mrs. Shurz would be surprised today to see how her little concept of kindergarten in America has blossomed. 5K is now mandatory for children, and there is even 4K and 3K. But the basic concept of kindergarten has not changed in the past 160 years. Both Friedrich Frobel and  Mrs. Shurz had the same idea — to give children the best start in life they possibly could. And the small village of Watertown, Wisconsin, played a big part in that.

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