Margarethe Schurze | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Margarethe Schurz

America's First Kindergarten Teacher

Margarethe Schurze | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeHead and shoulders portrait of Mrs. Margarethe Meyer Schurz, the first kindergarten teacher in the United States.

Margarethe Schurz

Portrait of Mrs. Margarethe Meyer Schurz, the first kindergarten teacher in the United States. View the original source document: WHI 4681

Note: This is a grade-level appropriate biographical essay about a significant figure from Wisconsin's past.

Today, nearly all children in the United States attend kindergarten. They learn numbers, the alphabet, they finger paint, and many even have snacks and nap time. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, kindergarten didn’t even exist when the United States was founded. The first kindergarten in the US was started in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1856, eight years after Wisconsin became the thirtieth state in the Union.

Margarethe Meyer Schurz was born in Hamburg, Germany. She came to the United States when she was nineteen years old. She and her husband, Carl, first settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before moving to Watertown, Wisconsin in 1855. One year later, Margarethe started the very first kindergarten in the United States. Where did she get idea? Margarethe learned about the idea of kindergarten in Germany.

The first kindergarten, a small one to six room school.

Margarethe Schurz's Kindergarten

Margarethe Schurz founded the first kindergarten in America in 1856 in Watertown Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 7126

In Germany, an educator named Friedrich Froebel had started the first kindergarten for the youngest learners in 1837. Kindergarten is a German word meaning "a garden where children grow." In kindergarten, students learn through playtime and activities. This was very different from traditional schooling.

School in the 1800s was very strict and formal. Education meant memorizing things—lots of things. If you had a good memory, you were a good student. Entire classes had to memorize and repeat whatever the teacher said! There was little time set aside for play during the school day.

Kindergarten focuses on social skills, like learning how to behave around other people. Children in kindergarten learn by playing games and singing songs. They work together in groups. Students have fun while they learn. Children in kindergarten still learn this way today, though the focus has recently started to shift toward skills like math and reading.

In 1859, Margarethe met Elizabeth Peabody. Elizabeth was a well-known writer and teacher from Salem, Massachusetts. Margarethe described her kindergarten idea to Elizabeth. She loved the idea! She helped start kindergartens all over the United States.

Margarethe was proud of her school. She worked hard to make education better for her community. But she didn’t stay in Wisconsin for long. After her daughter died in 1867, Margarethe decided to return to Germany. Her ideas, though, kept growing long after she had left.

Margarethe’s first kindergarten class had only five students, and they spoke German. Now children all over the United States attend the “garden where children grow."


Reading Level Correlations

  • Level S (5th Grade)

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