By Margaret Johnston

* From a presentation prepared for 1982 W.A.E.Y.C. Conference.

If history has any valid claim on our time and attention it is because, as the historians are fond of saying, “knowledge of the past helps us to understand the present.”  This is especially true in the field of Early Childhood Education where so much growth has occurred in a relatively short time.  Stopping to review this growth and to assess the changes it has brought may indeed help us to gain a clearer perspective on current developments in our field.

In this brief review of the history of Early Childhood education in Washington State, the focus will be on some of the key ideas and events which have influenced Early Childhood Education programs during different period of time spanning the last forty years.  The first period, beginning in 1940 and lasting until 1946, encompassed the “War Years.”


1940-1946 “War Years”

In 1940 programs providing care and/or education for young children included a few small private nursery schools, several laboratory schools at the 4-year educational institutions and a very few “day nurseries” such as Seattle Day Nursery.  Seattle Day Nursery was the first care program in Seattle and was supported by charitable contributions and “community fund” money.  A similar program existed in Tacoma and both of them provided social work services to families as well as the nurturing care of children.

In 1941 the Seattle Public Schools began a small program in Family Life Education for parents, led by Katherine Whiteside Taylor.  From these classes the idea of parents setting up their own “play groups” to serve as parent education laboratories emerged.  These first parent cooperative play groups, begun in 1941, were the beginning of what was to become a unique state-wide cooperative parent education program enrolling over 15,000 families a year.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, women were suddenly needed to replace men in the work force and in 1942 the Lanham Act was rushed through Congress, appropriating money to establish what came to be known as the Lanham act Schools in every community where women needed to fill jobs essential to the war effort.

It is significant that these were called schools, not day nurseries, although they operated long hours, in some cases 24 hours a day.  These schools, located in churches, community centers and some public schools were very well equipped with beautiful wooden block sets, housekeeping centers, creative materials and books—everything a nursery school teacher could ask for—plus, genuine army blankets and sheets, cut in half to fit small cots.  They were well-staffed with teachers and volunteers, and while the quality of the programs they provided varied considerably, many of them were very good.  The presence of the schools in so many communities around the state helped to make the idea of group care and education for preschool children visible, if not all together acceptable.

Key Ideas

In 1940 the wide-read U.S. Government pamphlet on “Infant and Child Care” advocated that babies be fed on a strict 4-hour schedule and never be picked up unnecessarily since this might “spoil” the child.  This philosophy also included the ideas that children should be seen, not heard, and have proper respect for their elders.  This authoritarian style of family life and child guidance was beginning to be challenged in the early 1940’s by new ideas about child development and behavior based on the research of Arnold Gessell at Yale University.  His normative data and graphic descriptions of the ages and stages of child growth and maturation became the foundation for a developmental approach to childrearing and education which gained wide acceptance.

These theories developed by Sigmund Freud on the psycho-sexual stages of child development also gained popularity during this time and became integrated into the philosophy of many new proponents of developmental psychology.  The result of these new ideas was the growth of permissive approach to child guidance that was in direct opposition to the authoritarianism of the previous decade.  The programs in the Lanham Act Schools often reflected a combination of the old and new ideas about child behavior, while the new parent cooperative play groups championed the newer developmental theories.

By 1945 the war had ended and the Lanham Act Schools were closed.  Men returned to their jobs and women to homes to begin a new period of our history—“The Child-Centered Years, 1946-1958.”


1946-1958 “The Child-Centered Years”

As this period began, returning to a normal way of life was the goal, creating an explosive growth of new families and an unprecedented “baby boom.”  A high value was placed on “family togetherness” as typified by the popularity of backyard barbecues and family outing of all kinds.  The idea of neighborhood cooperative “play groups” flourished in this climate and by the mid-1950’s some 150 of these groups were operating in the Puget Sound Area.

Some new nursery schools and private day care centers opened, often offering both a nursery school program and all day care.  Montessori schools also increased during this time and the University of Washington continued to operate a small nursery school teacher education program and laboratory school.  It became a resource for helping to train the many part-time teachers of the new coop0eratives and private schools.

A small chapter of the National Association for Nursery Education (later to become NAEYC) enjoyed a modest growth and probably had about 30 members by 1958.  The only professional organization for teachers of preschool children, its leadership came largely from the faculties of the colleges of teacher education.

Key Ideas

The key ideas which influenced the growing field of Early Childhood Education during

these child-centered years came from the growing body of knowledge about child development and from Freudian psycho-analytic concepts.  Guidance principles for parents and teachers emphasized the need for “age-appropriate expectations” for children’s behavior.  Freudian stages of emotional development and the importance of children’s feelings also were an accepted tenet of child guidance practices.

Books and articles on child-rearing proliferated as families grew.  Most of them focused on the practical application of developmental theories to the every day problems of child guidance and discipline.  Some of these like Dr. Spock’s “Infant and Child Care” became important sources of authority on the principles of child-rearing.

The commonly expressed goal of most nursery schools and cooperative play groups was to “promote the optimal social, emotional, physical and intellectual development of each child.”  (Almost always in that order.)  Nursery schools with such goals became known as traditional or developmental nursery schools, offering children a variety of daily activities carefully designed for the preschool child.


1958-1965 “challenge & Change”

In 1956 an event occurred which was to have a great impact on all levels of education—the launching of the first space satellite by the Soviet Union, ushering in the next period—“Challenge and Change”—1958-1965.  This accomplishment was perceived as evidence that their scientists and the educational system which produced them were superior to ours.  Critical attention was focused on our schools and colleges and for the next few years many studies of school curriculums and teaching methods were undertaken.

National concern over the short-comings of public education escalated during the late 1950’s.

Books like “Why Johnny Can’t Read” became best sellers.  A new system of teaching mathematics was invented and rushed into classrooms when still in notebook form.  High school science classes expanded and scholarships began to be rewarded.  Parents became greatly concerned with insuring that their children would be admitted to a good college, and began to put a premium on early reading ability.

Meanwhile in the laboratories of the educational psychologists, numerous studies were being made of how learning takes place.  This research documented the adverse effects of early deprivation on development.  From this work new evidence that the early years of childhood were critically important to later intellectual functioning emerged.  Preschool education, long ignored by the educational establishment, suddenly achieved a prominent role as the place to begin to “get a child ready for college.”  New educational programs (now dignified with the term “curriculum”) were designed which departed markedly from traditional nursery school philosophy and methodology.

These new innovations in Early Childhood Education included the talking Typewriter of O.K. Moore, David Weikart’s Piaget-based Cognitive Curriculum, Glen Nimnicht’s Responsive Environment Preschool and Bereiter and Englemann’s “Academic Preschool (now Distar).  In addition, research in progress at our own University of Washington laboratory preschool was studying the application of behavior analysts’ principles to the guidance of young children in school settings.  This work, demonstrating the power of the systematic use of reinforcement in changing children’s behavior, was to have a far-reaching effect on education at all levels.  These new ideas and programs generated both great interest and fierce opposition from those committed to a developmental view of early childhood.  A degree of polarization developed between opponents and supporters of the new innovations produced by this period of changing views about what should be goals of preschool education.

Parent Cooperatives continued to grow and were being incorporated into new Family Life

Education Programs in Vocation-Technical Institutes and new Community Colleges.  They were now called Cooperative Preschools instead of Play Groups and were expanding their programs to include parents of children under 3 years of age.

Montessori Schools and other private schools were stressed pre-academic learning gained growing support from parents who wanted their children to succeed in school.

Almost all day care centers now included preschool and/or kindergarten programs and many focused on school readiness.

In Seattle two forward-looking churches opened preschools for children of poor parents, designed to counter-act educational deprivation, one using the new Bereiter-Englemann’s Program (Distar).

The local Chapter of N.A.N.E. now had 50 or so members, and its membership was slowly becoming more representative of those employed in the field.

This period which produced an explosion of new knowledge about the process of learning and the importance of the early years of childhood laid the groundwork for the next period when the War on Poverty was launched and the Politicalization of E.C.E. began, 1965-75.


1965-1975 “Politicalization of ECE”

The War on Poverty, began in 1965, was conceived as a grand social-economic experiment to eliminate poverty and its causes.  Since the lack of education was one identifiable cause of poverty, helping poor children to succeed in school was a logical step in this direction, generating “compensatory education” programs designed to compensate children for the “educational deprivation” of their home environments.  These programs included special funds to improve the educational programs in schools with large enrollments of poor children, programs for Indian and Migrant children, and Heart Start.

Heart Start programs were organized by local Community Action Committee and funded directly through Federal Offices of Economic Opportunity.  Heart Start meant money, not only to support the new “Comprehensive Child Development Centers” but for new jobs, both professional and non-professional.  The educational institutions who were called upon for training and evaluation services also benefited.  From the beginning Head Start was operated outside the jurisdiction of the public school system, developing its own administrative structure, which was sometimes responsive more to political than educational issues.

Concurrently with the War on Poverty years, the civil rights’ movement was gaining momentum, the anti-war movement was escalating and women were beginning to make an impact on political and social issues.  The birth rate declined as many young people rejected the traditional patterns of family life.  All of these events influenced the rapidly expanding field of Early Childhood Education during these turbulent years, bringing it out of its academic “ivory tower” and into the political arena.

The educational component of Head Start was designed by University-based proponents of traditional preschool education, experienced in working with programs serving middle class children.  During the first few years of Head Start these educators determined what was to be taught in the classrooms and in staff training programs.  For the most part they opposed attempts to introduce new curriculum ideas that had been developed from recent research.  Identified as the “Early Childhood Education

4)      The creation of a new body of knowledge about the effects of preschool education.

Head Start funds were regularly allocated for research in order to measure the results of the

project.  When new “educational models were introduced in 1968 an ambitious long-range comparative study was begun called ‘Planned Variation’.”  Perhaps the most significant of the many findings of the study was that the teacher’s skill and style were key to the effectiveness of all the different curriculum models.

In addition to these changes, Head Start was responsible for a great proliferation of new preschool teaching materials for Sesame Street, and for many changes in the schools and communities lucky enough to have a Head Start Center.  The entire field of growth of the National Association for the Education of Young Children to over 17,000 members by 1970.  Early Childhood Education teacher-training programs multiplied rapidly at Vocational-Technical Institutes, Community Colleges and all the state’s four-year educational institutions.  Child Care Coordinating Committees, called 4’s Committees, were organized in a number of communities and at the state level.  Out of this effort a State Office of Child Development was set up, operating for two years.  A statewide training project for Day Care Providers and Foster Parents also grew out of this inter-agency cooperation which continued until 1982, involving over 7500 day care and foster care providers.

  • The list of programs serving young children in the state now included the following:
    • 36 Head Start Centers, plus Migrant and Indian Centers
    • 4 Head Start Follow-Through Programs
    • 2 Head Start Parent-Child Centers
  • A number of State-funded programs for “urban and rural disadvantaged preschool children”
  • Early Childhood Education programs in some public schools and the extension of preschool
  • services to the handicapped.
  • Laboratory Preschool at 12 different Community Colleges and Vocational-Technical
  • Institutes, operated as part of their teacher-training programs.
  • A network of Parent Cooperative Preschools now covering the entire state as new
  • Community Colleges were built.  Total enrollment in these parent education
  • programs was not over 15,000.
  • Over 300 day care centers.
  • Many new private preschools and Montessori schools.

By 1975 the value of Early Childhood Education programs was widely recognized and opportunities for their continued growth seemed assured as the next period began, 1975-1982, which became “A time of Entrenchment and Crisis.”


1975-1982 “A Time of Entrenchment & Crisis”

The two most important events which influenced ECE during this period were the changing roles of women and worsening economic conditions of inflation and recession.

The growth of the Women’s movement during the 1970’s brought about far-reaching changes in the roles of women.  Sizeable gains were made in combating discrimination in employment and the legal status of women.  The number of working women grew rapidly so that by 1980 both parents worked in the majority of families.  At the same time the number of single parents increased as women became less dependent on men for support.

During the last part of this period the deepening economic recession created hardships for millions of families.  Concurrently budget cutbacks drastically reduced funds for early childhood programs and much needed day care services.

Pragmatic eclecticism characterized the educational philosophy of most early childhood educators during this period.  There was general recognition that no one preschool curriculum worked best for all children and programming based on the individual needs of each child was the goal in most programs.  Self-esteem as a primary goal for ECE gained new importance to prepare children for the years of far-reaching changes which lie ahead.

Heightened awareness of the insidious influence of sex-role stereotyping brought about many changes in teachers’ attitudes and in preschool materials and activities.  Research showing that group day care for infants and toddlers could be beneficial to their development overcame longstanding opposition for the group care of very young children.  A study of Early Childhood Education instigated by the State Board of Education in 1981 gathered valuable information about the wide variety of programs for young children available in Washington.

Statistics from the study reflected the following trends:

  1. The continued rapid growth of day care centers, particularly those serving infants and toddlers.
  2. The addition of child care services in most private preschools and private elementary schools.
  3. A marked decrease in the number of parent cooperative preschools due to budget cuts in Community Colleges.
  4. The emergence of several new programs for children who are the victims of child abuse and the formation of a state office to coordinate efforts to prevent child abuse.
  5. An increase in the number of after-school day care programs and the introduction of full-day kindergartens in some schools.
  6. The growth of the Family Day Care Association and the professionalization of its members
  7. The continuation of Federal funds for Head Start in spite of budget reductions.
  8. The elimination of Early Childhood Teacher training at the University of Washington and curtailments of programs at the other state universities.
  9. Strong support among parents for early childhood education.

During this time the National Association for the Education of Young Children continued to maintain a large membership and in Washington 6 new chapters and a strong state A.E.Y.C. have been established.

However, the most significant and interesting development during this recent period has been the dissemination of results from a number of longitudinal studies which present convincing evidence that early education for young children not only has positive effects on school achievement and life adjustment, it is cost-effective.  The information from these studies in exciting—It will undoubtedly have a great influence on our field.  In a time when it appears programs for children are indeed a low priority on the national agenda, this research may well assure a future resurgence of support for early childhood education.  At the same time this verification of our convictions about the importance of the early years of childhood provides a positive basis for the continuing efforts of all of us in this organization in behalf of quality education for young children.