- Nina Martineck
Pratt's Youngest Students
For the most part, as Pratt students, we’re well aware of how Pratt’s history has impacted our own. If only out of necessity, we can recognize our place within our institution, and our institution’s place in us. However, because Pratt’s history is so heavily interwoven with aspects we didn’t know it created, it’s likely to have impacted us before we even knew Pratt existed. Example: Did you go to kindergarten?
The concept of a kindergarten program, in which pre-elementary age children learn fundamentals through hands-on learning and play, made its way from Germany to the U.S. towards the end of the nineteenth century. As the movement gained momentum, educators and reformers wanted to implement these programs into education systems and train women to see it through. In 1892, Pratt Institute’s Teacher Training School would be one of the first in New York to do so.
The program was run by and for women. Alice E. Fitts served as the longest-running director, and she prioritized the education of working mothers and their children. Per her beliefs, the kindergarten was open and free of charge to the surrounding community. Many parents attended classes at Pratt while their children did the same, learning how to read and count while the adults learned how to teach them. The course was a two-year commitment, and after its completion, women could enter the workforce. Most stayed in the education field, and quite a few, including Fitts, stayed in academia to train more teachers. As the number of trained kindergarten teachers grew, the programs became more and more common in New York City, often completely tuition-free and geared towards the children of working-class parents.
Pratt’s program, naturally, was a success. Hundreds of teachers and far more children passed through over the years. The facilities, located at the corner of Willoughby and Ryerson, were built especially for kindergarteners. The rooms were meant to resemble residential living spaces rather than contemporary classrooms. Children sat in circles instead of rows. Half the day was dedicated to play, both guided and self-guided. The children grew their own gardens in the backyard, learned songs and dances in music lessons and began to prepare for elementary school. The work of the training school was even displayed at the 1906 World’s Fair in St. Louis. For both children and their instructors, the program proved to be revolutionary.
It’s unclear exactly when the kindergarten program was terminated, as it appears to have fizzled out before its dissolution. The program’s building was demolished during the 1950s urban renewal of Clinton Hill, and now a Willoughby-copycat apartment building stands in its footprint. It feels like all that remains are blurry photographs and faded postcards. However, the kindergarten program’s legacy lurks quietly yet ubiquitously in boxes of broken crayons and patterned rugs on classroom floors. Unknowingly, five and six-year-olds see its vision into fruition.
Illustration by Sude Kurban