Children Pull Cart Major Street   Joining the celebration of culture for those under five at Theatre Direct’s Wee Festival, we visit the roots of kindergarten in Toronto at market square.

kindergarten 3kindergarten

Kindergarten detail

The attitude of a kindergarten teacher to the child is that of a gardener to a plant. Kindergarten is the German word for “a garden of children.” The name was chosen by Froebel because he recognized the analogy between growth in nature and the interests and tendencies in children. It means nurture rather than instruction; it fixes as its aim the complete unfolding of each individual to is highest possibility of flowering and fruitage.

Maude Paterson, “Kindergarten vs. Montessori” The Globe, March 22, 1913 p. 10

student teachers Toronto Normal School Kindergarten 1898 Toronto Normal School Kindergarten 1898

German botanist turned educator Friederich Froebel observed that very young children spend most of their time trying to figure-out the world by experimenting with whatever is around them. They are drawn to beauty and absorb the world through all of the senses. In 1840 he coined the word “kindergarten” for a system that used these instincts as the basis of learning.

James L. Hughes James L. Hughes

In the late 1860s, as head of Toronto’s teacher training institute, James Laughlin Hughes traveled to St. Louis to investigate that city’s education system. There, he was exposed to the kindergarten and became a convert. In 1881, seven years after being promoted to Public Schools Superintendent, he made Toronto the second North American city to have a kindergarten as part of the official program of studies.

open letter to The Century May 1893 The Kindergarten in Canada

Traditional education stressed rules and repetition; kindergarten replaced this top-down model with a child-centred approach. The classroom was designed to support open-ended activities in which each student could work independently as well as take part in group play. The hallmarks of a kindergarten classroom anywhere in the world were small tables and chairs that could be pushed to the corners, an upright piano, birds in a cage, fish in a bowl, fresh flowers and pictures on the wall.

Kindergarten in Tazmania 1911 Tasmanian kindergarten 1911

the Arts in Kindergarten

Froebel studied how mothers use voice and gestures in connecting with their children through lullabies, rhymes and games. He made storytelling, singing and dancing a feature of the kindergarten. In the same spirit Hughes championed the importance of art, music and nature study in all primary grades. Through his numerous books he outlined how these could enhance the learning of “core” subjects. Maude Paterson (1867-c1941), a Toronto kindergarten teacher for 45 years, was promoted by Hughes to be “directress” of the program in 1910. Although its whimsy and morality seem cloying and heavy-handed by today’s tastes, her 1911 anthology A Child’s Garden of Stories,  was a popular story-time resource for local kindergarten teachers.

021   A Child’s Garden of Stories 1918

Maypole dance Globe Sat. June 14, 1913 p.1  the Globe, June 14, 1913

Maple Sugar Game Star March 28, 1914 p. 4 “The Maple Sugar Game” Toronto Daily Star March 28, 1914 p. 4

The Importance of Kindergarten for City Children

Hughes’ educational reforms were fed by a widespread anxiety about the effect of cities and modern life on children:

The tendency to leave the farm and the forest for the supposed advantages of urban life is one of the alarming social movements of the age. The children are the greatest losers of this change. The child brought up in the country close to the glories of Nature has the opportunity to obtain a much richer mental and moral foundation than the child who lives in the city. If allowed its freedom among the flower, the trees, the birds, the insects, and the ever-changing growth of Nature in its varied forms of living and transforming or evolving organisms, the country child needs little guidance in gaining a wide experience of sensations and emotions as a basis for its future conscious development. James L. Hughes, Froebel’s Educational Laws P.10

Concern over children’s welfare is seen in the contemporary media images in which children are depicted as victims of “bad” inner city environments or at the other extreme are gracefully posed in “good” or rural and suburban settings.

Children in The Ward ca. 1908f1244_it0627

Children in The Ward ca. 1908Don Valley, boys return home from fishing ca. 1916

Boys gatherin trilliums  Star Weekly, May 17, 1913 The Star Weekly, May 17, 1913  caption: “GATHERING WILD FLOWERS IN NORTH TORONTO, Boys in North Toronto are able to enjoy the advantages of both city and country. These lads are gathering the trilliums …”

One of Hugh’s numerous publications, Dickens as Educator 1913, highlights the famous writer’s message that children are good in nature yet are degraded through the exploitation and neglect endemic to the urban poor. By pointing out that the essence of Dickens’ stories lay in the faithful depiction of how children feel, act and are influenced Hughes presented child-centred education as the platform for a moral society.

A leader in the Orange Order and president of the Toronto Sunday School Association Hughes was among the cadre of Protestant social reformers that included Toronto Daily Star editor Joe Atkinson. The latter’s “Fresh Air Fund” that sent children to the country in the summer and “Santa Clause Fund” appeals  left a legacy of numerous tots-on-the-street shots by press photographer William James.

Santa Claus Children Dec. 15, 1913 p.1 Jamesf1244_it8028Toronto Daily Star December 15, 1913

Blending Kindergarten with formal education

Froebel designed a series of toys or “gifts” that led the child progressively from an understanding of simple to complex patterns found in nature and design. Free play with the objects was considered crucial and only after this took place was supplemented with directed exercises.

Froebel's gifts

To extend the influence of kindergarten, Hughes promoted blended Kindergarten and Grade One classes. Unfortunately, as S.B. Sinclair’s 1889 provincial handbook: First year at school or blending of kindergarten with public school work, a manual for primary teachers demonstrates it was, at least at first, the reverse influence that took place with Froebel’s “gifts” being employed more as direct teaching aids than as creative play objects.

First year at schoolFirst year at school 2


Arts Programs for Children at Artscape Wychwood Barns


Children who play in the sand pit are drawn by the art display to Lynn Jackson’s children’s art studio. When the barns opened in 2008 she swapped the bustle of Kensington market for a rent geared to income live-work studio in what she immediately appreciated as a calm neighbourhood. A year later she began renting another studio as a base for children’s art classes to promote “positive self-awareness, innovative thinking, and the original expression.” That first year she had three students per week but changing local demographics worked in her favour. She now offers after-school, in-school, week-end and summer camp art programs with a handful of instructors and assistants. Aware that in offering only half-day programs she was catering exclusively to nanny-employing families she introduced full-day programs last year. The neighbourhood’s gentrification, while increasing the market, means greater competition. Within the past year she’s noticed the rise in local storefront kids’ art businesses. These range from the one-of-a-kind such as the “Action Potential Lab” to the“4cats” franchise operation. “Last year when 4cats opened I was really worried. I lost half my clients, but they returned some months later.”

2014-05-15 22.31.52

On second floor the nannies congregate in the early morning and at lunch to pick up their charges at the Helene Comay Nursery School. Soraya Yacoubi named the school after her mentor and guide who ran an art based preschool program at the Jewish Community Centre for sixty years. Jewish culture is woven into the school program but children of all faiths are welcome. As Soraya explains, the essence of what they do is to support children to learn through play by focusing on the individual needs of each child, “We don’t think of the group but try to understand each child socially, emotionally and cognitively and let them reach a new level of development.” Beyond this, the goal is learning those essential sharing, negotiating, listening skills that makes one acceptable to society. Yacoubi is full of praise for the barns as a location for the school and not the least of the attractions is the park that surrounds the complex. “Kids need nature; it’s very meaningful to them, especially living in the city. We’re about to have an incubator in the classroom. I will go to Kensington market tomorrow to get some fertilized eggs. The children will wait 21 days and then see them hatch.”


One of the most accessible of the pre-school programs takes place during the market on Saturday mornings. Parents and small children can drop in to the smART lab for hands-on workshops exploring art, science and technology. As well as the drop-in program, Jo Jorgensen, a teacher with in-depth knowledge of activity based learning, offers party and tutoring services, music & movement and Lego League programs.

Tova Rosenberg has developed an early childhood music program for music in the barns. Using singing, movement and a wide variety of instruments, pre-schoolers are introduced to the orchestra in the playground facing studio.

Maude Paterson and James Hughes would be suitably impressed by the level of creativity and quality of education here at the barns and its surrounding park one hundred and thirty three years after they introduced kindergarten to Toronto

.Fresh Air fund June 19, 1911 Appeal for donations to the Toronto Daily Star’s Fresh Air Fund

tweet kindergarten





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s