Why is the first year of school for children called kindergarten? The answer involves a nature mystic, a case of mistaken identity, and a socialism scare.
Kindergarten stands out from the other required years of education in the United States for its unique name. First grade, second grade, and third grade follow, all the way up to twelfth grade (plus some alternate names for the high school years). So why the special name for kindergarten?
The Founding of Kindergarten
The word kindergarten was coined in 1840 by German teacher and educational reformer Friedrich Fröbel, from the words Kinder (“children”) and Garten (“garden”). Like all nouns in German, the word Kindergarten is capitalized, but this styling is usually not carried over into English.
Fröbel used the word in a proposal that called for the development of early childhood education as a necessary part of widespread educational and social reform. He advocated for the unique needs of young children and opened up an experimental infant school in Prussia called the Child Nurture and Activity Institute. He later renamed it Kindergarten, reflecting his philosophy that young children should be nurtured like “plants in a garden.” Schools for young children in the 1700s and 1800s had formerly been glorified babysitters, philanthropic endeavors to care for impoverished children, or discipline in preparation for adulthood. Fröbel’s school instead focused on encouraging self-expression and learning through play, singing, gardening, and group activities, and it formed the basis for early childhood education techniques used today.
In 1851, Kindergarten schools were banned in Prussia due to a mix-up of Fröbel with his nephew Karl, who was a socialist and had published a treatise proclaiming more radical views about education. The government mistakenly attributed Karl’s “atheistic and demagogic” views to his uncle, who was sincerely religious (in the form of nature mysticism and pantheism) and dedicated to improving childhood education. The ban on Kindergarten led to a diaspora of German teachers to other countries in Europe and the United States, where they spread their teaching model to other schools. In 1856, Margaretha Meyer-Schurz opened the first German-speaking kindergarten in the U.S. A few years later, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody embraced Fröbel’s model after visiting Germany and opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in the U.S. Peabody is largely credited with popularizing the concept of kindergarten in America.
English borrowed the word kindergarten from German without translating it, but it is translated into Romance languages word for word in a way that preserves the original meaning of the Kinder + Garten roots. In French, the term is jardin d’enfants (“garden of children”), in Spanish, jardín de infancia (“garden of childhood”), and in Portuguese, jardim de infância (“garden of childhood”). A few non-Romance languages such as Hebrew do the same thing: gan yeladim means “garden of children.” A loanword that is translated this way is called a calque. Other words that use a similar translation scheme include honeymoon, Adam’s apple, and loanword itself.
These words are not very common in Romance languages anymore, nor is the term kindergarten widely used in the UK. During and after World War II, German language and culture was looked down upon in many nations, and some have claimed that these calques of Kindergarten were eclipsed by other terms devoid of German roots.
Kindergarten around the World
In many countries, children from ages three to seven attend kindergarten or the equivalent. Where the United States distinguishes between preschool and kindergarten, many other countries do not, and kindergarten is instead part of the preschool system. Children may attend the same kindergarten/preschool for two years or more before beginning their primary education.
Fröbel was one of the most influential educational reformers in the modern educational system, and the effects of his work—and his words—are still seen today. Kindergarten is a place where we can begin to explore and learn without many of the social pressures of older childhood—where we don’t have to be anyone but ourselves.
Curtis, Stanley James. “Friedrich Froebel.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Friedrich-Froebel.
Eschner, Kat. “A Little History of American Kindergartens.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 16, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/little-history-american-kindergartens-180963263/.
“kindergarten (n.).” Etymology Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=kindergarten.
“kindergarten (n.).” Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
Wikipedia. “Friedrich Fröbel.” Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Fr%C3%B6bel.
Wikipedia. “Kindergarten.” Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindergarten.
Wikipedia. “List of calques.” Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_calques.