History of Preschool

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ~ William Butler Yeats

For me, this quote perfectly sums up the rewards, importance, and purpose of a profession in education, especially one in early childhood.

A teacher has the power to impact a child’s life forever. And in a multitude of ways! One of the best ways to impact a child is to instill and foster a love of learning by igniting and nurturing a flame that will burn for a lifetime. And parents, YOU are your child’s first teacher!

Don’t you just LOVE watching that little spark ignite? This is exactly why I was called to early childhood education. Because I love seeing that spark and love of school/learning ignite as early as possible in a child’s life. You can read more about my passion for early childhood education by checking out Who is Maestra Momma, Profile of a Daycare and Teacher, or pretty much reading any of my blog posts about play, toys, books, etc.

In my last post about Preschoolers, I talked about the difficult decision families make with regard to daycare, preschool enrollment, and general school readiness with some helpful links (worth checking out if you haven’t already). If you’ve been reading, you know we have chosen to keep our 3-year-old home. Of course, that doesn’t mean we literally stay home. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. But let’s save that for another post exploring how stay-at-home parents can enrich their children’s everyday lives with a exposure to a variety of experiences and concepts.

CAUTION: this is a NERDY but informative post. I have promised that we would talk a bit about the history of preschool. Yes, I’m a nerd and I love educational research, but I also wanted to explore this topic for parents or teachers who need some validation today! Maybe you aren’t a nerd or interested in the societal movements and policy behind preschool programs. That’s alright, feel free to skip ahead to The BIG GAP!

Some Interesting Facts and Dates

During the Industrial Revolution (late 1700s and early 1800s), the idea of “infant schools” was born.  Churches, factories, and private homes began to offer childcare while parents were working. It goes without saying that only families from a lower socio-economic group would have needed these. Man, I wish I was a time-traveling fly on the wall. What did they do with kids then? What was the adult-to-child ratio? Where did children sleep and eat?

In 1848, Wisconsin paved the way for a state-funded and controlled education system by establishing a committee dedicated to the free education of children aged 4 to 20.

In 1873, Wisconsin started the first four-year-old pre-kindergarten program. Seriously, go Wisconsin. (Bet my sister who lives there is so proud right now!)

In the early 1900s, Maria Montessori visited the U.S., and so spread her philosophy that children learn best when allowed to play and interact freely with their environment. There’s more to it of course but basically, she advocated for child-led rather than teacher-led learning.

In 1926, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was established. Per NAEYC, they are “a professional membership organization that works to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8, by connecting early childhood practice, policy, and research.” Their vision is that “all young children thrive and learn in a society dedicated to ensuring they reach their full potential.” They put out some great books, resources, and professional development.

In 1965, President Johnson’s administration created Head Start, the first publicly funded preschool program. Learn more about Head Start programs here.

In the 1980s, due to a growth in interest for Preschool Programs and a decrease in funding, many states started their own programs for students from low-income families.

By the early 2000s, approximately 70% of four year-old children attended some form of preschool program according to History of Preschool in the United States, including private for-profit, not-for-profit, sometimes subsidized, and public settings.

In 2006, the Illinois State Board of Education established Preschool For All, which continues to be the only state universal preschool program that serves three year olds as well as four year olds. Guess which former President you can thank for that?

As President, Obama also prioritized education reform to better support early childhood education nationally. Led by then U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Obama administration challenged the nation’s policy makers to re-imagine public education by moving away from the current K-12 system to pre-K-12. They cited 50 years of research proving what all of us parents and teachers know…

In 2017, the Office of Head Start reported that Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide services to over a million children every year through 1,700 agencies in local communities. 80% of those children are 3- and 4-year-olds.

Currently, in the United States, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and New York have legislation underway to establish or already have universal preschool for all four year olds in the state.

Wasn’t all that learning fun? But, seriously, let’s talk about WHY preschool programs were born and continue to be so necessary today. I’m really just going to focus on one. But it’s a BIG one!


Aside from the need to accommodate working families, preschool programs and their funding have long focused on supporting children from low-socioecomic families, and the reason is undeniably sad but true. Folks, please feel free to Google search this, because there’s WAY too much for me to cite sources here. But there is TONS of research demonstrating a learning gap between children who come from low- vs. high- socioeconomic families.

I know some people may take issue with that statement, because maybe you don’t like the term “gap”. Maybe you don’t want to label students by their economic status, or label them “at risk” because of that. Maybe you want to attribute this phenomenon to school zoning, staff development and teacher retention in low socioeconomic areas. But the facts are the facts, and so much of the research also demonstrates that the gap (or whatever you want to call it) is established well before children enter school.

The most cited research on this gap was done by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. After observing 42 families from different socio-economic homes, and simply recording child-adult interactions for an hour at a time, once a month, from when the child was 7-months to 3-years, they concluded that children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words by the age of 3 than children from low-income families. 30 million! Yes, million!

Deep breath. The nerdiness continues. My psych research background got me thinking really critically about the way they arrived at their remarkable conclusion. Was the sample (number of families) big enough to confidently support their assertion? Did observer effect cause some parents to use more words while observed while causing other parents to feel nervous and maybe speak less?

This seems like a good place for a nerdy graphic.

Graph adapted from Hart, B. & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Difference in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Researchers grouped children into three socioeconomic status groups based on occupation: “Professional” “Working Class” and “Welfare”. Groups strongly correlated with parents education levels and family income.

Here are some great reads to learn a bit more:

The Thirty Million Word Gap, a summary of Hart & Risley’s research, from West Virginia Early Childhood

The Word Gap: The Early Years Make the Difference from NAEYC

Let’s Stop Talking About The ’30 Million Word Gap’ from NPR

So, yes, 30 million may be a bit exaggerated, and maybe we should term it differently. But subsequent research supports their ultimate finding that adult-child interactions matter. From early on. With long-lasting impacts.

Also, the nerd in me, (specifically, the psych and educational research nerd) really wants to replicate the Hart and Risley study in my home simply to see how many words we use during adult-child interactions during any given 1-hour sample. Because, I don’t have enough things to do… Anybody with me? Sidenote: I did used to collect similar data on classroom interactions to help teachers maximize their teacher-child interactions, language modeling, and concept development.

Okay folks, that’s all for now. Yay history! Yay preschool! Yay early childhood education! Yay learning! I hope I’ve given some parents and teachers cause to pause and reflect on how much power we hold as the people ultimately responsible for educating children, a.k.a lighting a life-changing fire.

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