Nursery Schools socialize and prepare young children for further schooling; however, women created the impetus for the first nursery schools in the United States. When, in 1917, the U.S. officially entered World War I women began entering the workforce in large numbers in order to replace male soldiers. For the first time in American history, many working class women needed to leave the home for the workplace, and had no way to care for their children during that time. Thus, The Board of Education began all-day care for children as a wartime activity.
When the war ended the continuation of nursery schools depended on organizations other than the Board of Education. Greenwich House, a social settlement house, was the first of its kind to have a nursery school. Based on the well-researched English model, Greenwich House operated a Montessori class and an informal nursery school for children between the ages of two and six. The House opened the nursery school for children in 1920 in partnership with Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and Mrs. R. J. F. Schwarzenbach. Although the war had ended, many women remained in the workforce. For this reason, Greenwich House opened its nursery school only to children of working mothers.
Due to shifting population demographics, school enrollment declined in the period between 1920-1930. Individuals and childless couples moved into the Village and some families moved out. Nonetheless, Greenwich House increased its social services during this decade. Mothers and children first became involved with Greenwich House through the Baby Clinic, then the Nursery School and the Kindergarten. After graduating from the Kindergarten, many continued to participate in after-school programs such as music, theater, dance, pottery, and woodworking. Occupied until five o’clock in the evening, mothers picked up their children once their work day ended.
In addition to these recreational activities, health was of particular importance to educators at Greenwich House. Summer camps and “fresh air” field trips to more rural areas were nice getaways, but students at the Greenwich House Nursery School also participated in cardiac classes as part of their daily routines. The young students received free doctor’s checkups, and the Red Cross taught them health education focused on nutrition and exercise. When Greenwich House opened in the beginning of the twentieth century, the ninth ward had the densest population and the highest infant mortality rates in New York City. By the 1920s, health consciousness was on the rise and mortality rates were on the decline.
In order to provide solid mental and physical education for the youngsters, Greenwich House needed space. Classroom space was found inside the main house, but outdoor play areas were more difficult to come by. Originally located on Jones Street, Greenwich House created an outdoor space for Kindergarteners to play in the yard. By the time the Nursery School opened, the settlement had moved to 27 Barrow Street. Lacking a yard in its new location, Greenwich House created a playground on the roof of the house, so that students could be outside and off the street. Replete with a sandbox and other playground equipment, the roof-top gave students a place to play and do their cardiac classes all year long.
For the most part, the Nursery School and Kindergarten were for neighborhood kids. In the 1925-1926 school year, which lasted for ten months, most Kindergarten students lived in areas immediately surrounding Greenwich House. For example, multiple students lived on Barrow Street, Jones Street, Christopher Street, Cornelia Street, West 10th, Bedford Street and Carmine Street. One girl, Jean Shay, came from as far away as East 19th Street, perhaps because her mother knew of the school’s many activities and low price. Trained teachers taught the geographically homogenous, but ethnically diverse, students drama, song, block play, painting, cardiacs, and arts and crafts, including the household arts. Teachers read books such as Peter Rabbit to students and taught them how to care for classroom plants. Students received free meals and engaged in what Greenwich House Director Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch termed “work-play.” Through play and group work, students learned social, intellectual, and physical skills.
Although school and after-school activities offered at Greenwich House were inexpensive or free, the activities themselves cost a lot of money. In 1922, the Nursery School cost $4,000, the Pre-School nurse cost $1,650, the nutrition worker cost $1,800, and outdoor play leaders cost $1,500. This was in addition to teacher’s salaries and the after-school programs. In order to pay for the Nursery School, Greenwich House board members sent out a fundraising letter in 1921 to wealthy New Yorkers. Asking for a donation of $10, $25, or $100, the letter said,
Do you want to help a group of neighborhood children make a good start in life?…The children are left at Greenwich House before nine o’clock by their mothers or big sisters, are unbundled, and immediately seem to feel the pleasant space and freedom of their schoolroom. They play, work, and quarrel with equal intensity all the morning, have a lunch, a long rest, and more working – playing until five o’clock, the end of the school day.
Activities in the school are referred to as “character building” and aim to impress upon readers the importance of the nursery school, both for the children and the neighborhood at large.
Greenwich House Records TAM 139 (R-7088), Tamiment Library, New York University.
Simkhovitch, Mary Kingsbury. Neighborhood; My Story of Greenwich House. New York: Norton, 1938.
“Teachers to Consider Schooling for Babies.” New York Times (1923-Current file): XX11. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Apr 19 1925. Web. 4 Nov. 2011 <https://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/103638054?accountid=12768>.
The International Montessori Index. http://www.montessori.edu/