After a Century, We’re Still Plugging Preschool

July 10, 2013

From finger painting to playing in the sandbox to learning your ABCs, who would debate the critical importance of the preschool years to the development of young children? Preschool provides an opportunity for children to learn how to socialize in a group setting and to become equipped with the building blocks of learning. And it offers child care to working parents.

An old book cover

Cover of AAUW report “Adolescence: Its Problems and Guidance,” 1932

In the early 20th century, AAUW’s amazing women also saw the value of preschool (often called nursery school). During the 1920s and 1930s, many AAUW branches worked to establish preschools and playgroups in their communities to fill the needs of both children and their mothers.

In 1932, 39 branches reported establishing preschools, including ones in Jackson, Mississippi; Spokane, Washington; and Berkeley, California. By 1937, that number had grown to 45 branches. That same year, the AAUW Southern New York (NY) Branch preschool was established “by interested young mothers who are members of the AAUW Child Study Group.” As the April 1940 AAUW Journal explained, “The mothers themselves share the responsibility of the school …. and feel that their children are better prepared to enter school because of their own plan of informal nursery school.”

In response to the growing trend of educator- and parent-established preschools (helped along by AAUW members, of course!), Patty Smith Hill responded to the need for a governing organization by calling together a group of 25 people from various disciplines.

black-and-white photograph of a woman

Lois Hayden Meek, AAUW Educational Secretary (1924-1929). Image by AAUW Archives

This group established the National Committee on Nursery Schools in 1926, and it eventually became the National Association for the Education of Young Children, “the nation’s premier organization for early childhood professionals.” AAUW’s own Lois Hayden Meek was selected to be among the founding group. Meek had been recruited as educational secretary in 1924 to develop AAUW’s child development study— one of the first-ever programs of its kind. Under her guidance, the association witnessed the creation of many branch preschools and produced several study guides on topics of interest to parents, such as The Preschool Child and The Adolescence: Its Problems and Guidance. Meek would go on to advocate for legislation that provided child care to the huge influx of workers in war industries during World War II, and she built and directed two child care centers in Portland, Oregon, each of which accommodated 500 children.

In the 1920s, many believed that the college-educated woman’s most valued contribution to society was as a mother and educator of the next generation. This belief explains the genesis of the newly created field of child study and parent education following World War I. College-educated mothers could fulfill both their academic and personal needs through this discipline.

Of course, today we know that women have many varied and important contributions to offer society. Still, most of us have benefited in some way from the 1920s child study movement and AAUW’s part in it, whether we realize it or not. Perhaps you are a student in the field of early childhood education. Or maybe you are a mother or father who benefits from child psychology and development to better navigate the landscape of parenthood. Or perhaps you were simply once a preschool kid playing in a sandbox.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   July 10, 2013

1 Comment

  1. […] of University Women (AAUW) speak to me, one on preschool and one on women’s wages: and […]

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