by Betty Wood, OCP Director
Interwoven throughout the history of the evolution of cooperative preschools is a core belief system founded in the natural rights of the child and the responsibility of parents to ensure a proper education. Cooperative preschools have traditionally followed a humanistic developmental model influenced by the early education philosophies of Comenius, Rousseau, and Pestalozzi. As early as 1628 Jan Comenius emphasized teaching children under the age of six the basic foundations of learning through structured play. Early childhood education was so critical to the child’s preparation for higher learning that Comenius strongly proposed that teachers of preschool children should be better educated and earn higher salaries than teachers of older children. The child’s education originated at birth according to Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote the well-known Emile in 1762. The adult’s role in the child’s life was to facilitate the learning process in response to the child’s own interest in the natural world. Like Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss schoolmaster in the early 1800s, viewed education as the gradual unfolding of the child’s innate ability. Parents and teachers were instructed to encourage the child to discover his unique abilities through observation and investigation of nature. Outdoor explorations were incorporated into the daily curriculum and brought indoors for further exploration.
Two of the earliest models for cooperative preschools in the United States emerged from Utopian communities which established play schools to care for children while parents worked. Robert Owen’s Village of New Harmony, Indiana was founded in 1826. New Harmony emphasized teaching the children to be socially cooperative in their play while becoming independent thinkers who were responsible for their own actions. Brook Farm, founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1841, provided a cooperative preschool for its children in which both fathers and mothers rotated the responsibility of assisting the preschool teacher in the classroom.
Friedrich Froebel was instrumental in developing German kindergartens based on Pestalozzi’s theory during the 1840s and 1850s. His influence on cooperatives in the United States was introduced by German immigrants in 1848 and further developed by William and Eudora Hailmann from the 1860s through the 1890s. The Hailmann educational philosophy centered around the child’s natural ability to learn through play in the classroom, on the playground, and in the garden. The teacher’s role was to facilitate learning through self-realization and self-control, preparing children for becoming well balanced adults. Reading, writing, and ciphering were consciously excluded from the curriculum. Mothers and older sisters were expected to work in the classroom with the teachers. Parent participation was valued in that the Hailmanns believed that just as children need a circle of friends in kindergarten so do the mothers as they learn to work with the teachers in the joint education of their children.
As the mother’s role in education became more recognized, mothers gained confidence in their ability to influence the course of their children’s education and organized to found the Congress of Mothers in 1897 which later became known as the Parent Teachers Association in 1924. By the end of the nineteenth century the fields of education, psychology, pediatrics, and health were becoming more organized as associations with an emphasis on the welfare of the child. Increased numbers of middle class, educated families had come to recognize kindergarten as a socially accepted institution which provided mothers an opportunity to extend their domestic roles to the community by volunteering to assist teachers in the classroom in the education of their children and/or organizing and raising funds for the good of the children in schools.
The first schools in the United States to identify themselves as cooperative preschools were established in 1915. Northside Cooperative Nursery School was founded by a neighborhood community in Pasadena, California and The Chicago Cooperative Nursery School was founded by faculty wives at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. In both schools parents maintained the buildings and grounds, elected a Board, participated in the classrooms one day each week, and met for parent education classes one afternoon each week. As the Chicago cooperative developed, University education and home economics students worked as interns and the cooperative emerged into a laboratory school serving the University. By 1943, twenty eight additional cooperative preschools were founded in the states of Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.
As the number of cooperative preschools grew in the 1950s and 1960s, independent cooperatives formed councils of cooperative preschools to share information and to provide professional support. Montgomery County Council of Cooperative Nursery Schools was established in Maryland in 1943. In 1948 the California Council of Cooperative Nursery Schools was established and by 1960, there were more than one thousand cooperative preschools in the United States. The American Council for Parent Cooperatives was established in 1960 which later changed its name to Parent Cooperative Preschools International when Canada and New Zealand became part of the Council in 1964.
The years between World War I and World War II, 1915-1945, brought significant changes in families in the United States. During both wars women joined the workforce or continued their education while learning to depend upon extend family or neighborhood women to assist in the care and education of their children. Gender role expectations had begun to shift. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. By 1930, less than half of the United States population lived on farms with extended families. The general public was becoming increasingly informed in the theories of parenting and education as names such as Freud, Watson, Gesell, and Erickson were prominently featured in articles in Parents Magazine.
The post-war period, following World War II, in the United States held the promise of a bright future for families. Veterans were attending college on the GI Bill and purchasing homes with low interest GI mortgages. Birth rates increased and families migrated to the suburbs. New and better appliances replaced routine household chores. Women who had worked outside of the home during the depression out of necessity and during wartime out of patriotic duty had lost their jobs within a few months after the end of World War II. Dr. Benjamin Spock, popular pediatrician, advocated permissive parenting practices based on the needs of the child. With rapid changes in the family structure and in women’s roles, many mothers and wives felt displaced, inadequate, and incompetent. Parent cooperative preschools provided a social support network which met familial, personal, and professional needs during this time. Women who participated in cooperative preschools increased their parenting skills and acquired new skills as they chaired committees and organized fundraising events. As fathers and mothers worked together for the benefit of their children in parent cooperative preschools, gender role expectations in parenting underwent significant changes. Fathers learned to become nurturers and educators of their children under the guidance of the teachers and other parents in the community while mothers became organizers and policy makers in their committee responsibilities and service on the Board of Directors.
The tumultuous 1960s and social response to the Viet Nam War further influenced the social perception of gender role expectations and family structure in the United States. Many families chose unconventional family structures that paved the way for the various demands placed on young families in the later part of the 20th Century. Now in the 2000s, families enjoy the freedom of structuring their families to meet the financial and parenting needs of the family. Cooperative preschools continue to meet the needs of families who want to actively participate in the nurturance and education of their children while pursuing their careers. Today, flex time for both parents and the socially recognized role of either the father’s or mother’s choice to be a stay at home parent while the children are young, lends itself to parent participation in cooperatives where both parents and children develop social values and skills which contribute to a life-long commitment to community responsibility.
(Statistical information and historical facts are based on accounts from “It’s the Camaraderie” A History of Parent Cooperative Preschools. Dorothy W. Hines, Ph.D. 1998 Center for Cooperatives, University of California)