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Alice Putnam (1841–1919)

kindergarten chicago school children

A leader in the American kindergarten movement, Alice Putnam was a Progressive educator who trained many teachers and helped establish public kindergartens in Chicago. The daughter of Chicago Board of Trade founding member William Loring Whiting and Mary Starr, she was educated privately in a school run by her mother and sister, and at the Dearborn Seminary. She married Joseph Robie Putnam, a businessman, on May 20, 1868, and became a Sweden borgian (members of a church basing its theology on the work of the philosopher and theologian Emanuel Sweden borg), like her husband. The mother of four children, she started a parents' group to discuss Friedrich Froebel's kindergarten pedagogy. Putnam then began a home kindergarten, a kindergarten organization, and a training school, and became involved in kindergarten and educational reform in Chicago and nationally. Although little known because of her self-effacing humor, Putnam was a major figure within the group of Progressive educators and social reformers whose radical ideas were the force behind child-centered education.

Putnam came by her interest in the kindergarten, one of the most successful and lasting of all Progressive reforms, through her concerns about the education of her two eldest children. The parents' group, which she began in her home in 1874, was made up of a dozen or so of her friends, including three men, and focused on Froebel's Mother Play and Songs, a book of finger plays, games, and songs intended for the home education of young children. Putnam then trained as a kindergarten teacher herself, at a school run in Columbus, Ohio, by Anna J. Ogden. In 1880, Putnam took over the training class Ogden had started in Chicago. Other influential kindergarten leaders, such as Anna Bryan (who revolutionized American kindergarten methods by including more activities based on children's actual lives) were trained by Putnam, who ran the class until 1910.

A model of the maternalistic, social housekeeping ideal in which women extended the private sphere of domestic caring to public good works, Putnam moved her training class to Hull-House, at the request of Jane Addams–the founder of the settlement that was the seedbed for so many progressive reforms. For seven years, Putnam commuted between her home on Chicago's suburban West Side to the South Side slum where Hull-House was located, and did fundraising to support the Children's Building at Hull-House. John Dewey was a frequent guest lecturer at Putnam's training school, and gained some of his knowledge about educational methods from her.

In 1880 Putnam's original parents' group became the Chicago Froebel Association, which further promoted the kindergarten cause. By this time the kindergarten movement was becoming factionalized into a conservative Froebelian, a progressive American, and a more radical scientific wing. Although she received training from Susan Blow in St. Louis and from Maria Kraus-Boelte in New York City, both traditional Froebelians, Putnam's pragmatic attention to the needs of her own children and those of other parents from different backgrounds had a liberalizing, stabilizing effect. Later, in 1901, Putnam became president of the International Kindergarten Union, the group that tried to mediate dissension within the kindergarten movement.

A strong believer in civic pride and stewardship, Putnam expanded her kindergarten work to serve the city of Chicago as a whole. In 1886, under Putnam's auspices and with the permission of the Chicago Board of Education, the Chicago Froebel Association began a kindergarten housed in a public school. By 1892, when the association successfully petitioned the school board to adopt the kindergarten, there were twelve private kindergartens in public schools. These classes were incorporated into the public system, as was usual in the transition from charity to public kindergartens. This evolution of private good work into public services, through the advocacy and support of energetic individual leaders or private foundations, was a hallmark of the establishment of social welfare programs in the United States, an endeavor in which Putnam played a major role in the city of Chicago.

Like many Progressives, Putnam was influenced by the growth of the new science of child psychology. In 1894, Putnam, along with a number of other charity, or "free kindergarten," directors, attended G. Stanley Hall's Clark Summer School of Higher Pedagogy and Psychology in Worcester, Massachusetts. There she was introduced to Hall's experimental child study methods and participated in educational research. Hall asked Putnam and her former student, Anna Bryan, to design a special kindergarten survey, or topical syllabus, that was sent out to kindergarten teachers' to find out their views on subjects such as hygiene, music, and stories. Putnam's and Bryan's questions about whether teachers felt free to deviate from Froebel's formal educational routines showed how American kindergarten teachers were beginning to modify his sequenced educational materials, or "gifts," and handwork "occupations." Unlike younger modern kindergarten leaders such as Patty Smith Hill, who became closely allied with developmental psychology, Putnam continued to focus on children primarily from the perspective of family life.

Putnam's personal, practical motivation and lack of dogmatism won her great respect within the kindergarten movement. She worked especially closely with Elizabeth Harrison, who shared Putnam's interest in parent education and was also a moderate within the kindergarten movement. In 1883 Putnam and Harrison started the Chicago Kindergarten Club, which many affluent mothers joined along with their children.

In addition to her kindergarten leadership, Putnam was a key member of the group of educational Progressives who made turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago a hotbed of social reform. Putnam was directly responsible for getting Francis Parker, one of the main architects of child-centered progressivism, appointed to the principalship of the Cook County Normal School. Eagerly open to new educational ideas, Putnam had attended a summer school that Parker had held on Martha's Vineyard, where she learned about Parker's Quincy Method, in which reading and language arts were integrated with other subjects. Always seeking to combine her private and public life, Putnam moved her family to a house near Cook County Normal School, so that her three daughters could attend the laboratory school attached to the school. Putnam herself taught a kindergarten class at Cook County Normal School for some years and was the kindergarten trainer there. She joined with other pedagogical progressives, such as John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young, who clustered around Parker and helped spread Dewey's child-centered educational philosophy. Dewey was a frequent lecturer in Putnam's training classes.

A woman of affluence and intelligence with little formal education, Alice Putnam had a great impact on the kindergarten movement and on Progressive education through her own ideas and work and through the way she supported and connected other educators with differing views and backgrounds. She wrote articles, some of which appeared in the Kindergarten Review and other kindergarten publications; gave speeches, some of which were published in National Education Association Proceedings; and maintained a voluminous correspondence. In 1906 she began teaching two correspondence courses at the University of Chicago, "The Training of Children (A Course for Mothers)" and "Introduction to Kindergarten Theory and Practice." Putnam designed this coursework to inform parents and teachers about how children's learning could be integrated with children's lives, the central theme in Putnam's educational thinking. Putnam's work as a parent educator and kindergarten teacher, trainer, and leader and her involvement with Progressive education in Chicago had an important impact on the shift from subject-centered to child-centered pedagogy that was, and remains, the central dividing issue in American educational philosophy and methods.


BEATTY, BARBARA. 1995. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

SHAPIRO, MICHAEL STEVEN. 1983. Child's Garden: The Kindergarten Movement from Froebel to Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

WEBER, EVELYN. 1969. The Kindergarten: Its Encounter with Educational Thought in America. New York: Teachers College Press.


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