For most five year olds in the United States entering kindergarten is a normal event, seen often as a rite of passage rather than a privilege for the masses. This was not always the case. In fact, not until the second half of the 1800s did communities begin to understand the benefits of a transition year for young children to help ease the buffer from play to an academic setting. First started by Friedrich Froebel in the 1850s in Germany, the Kindergarten model quickly spread to the United States.
But in order for there to be kindergartens, there must be kindergarten teachers. Thus, some Normal Schools began to train their pupils in the tenets of early childhood education. (Normal School was the name given to schools preparing teachers for a career in education).
Enter Sarah Chamberlain. Born in 1840 in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Sarah graduated from the Bucknell Female Institute intending to become a teacher. However, within a few years the Civil War erupted and she volunteered instead to become an Army nurse and was sent to serve in Nashville, Tennessee. When the war ended, she married Charles Eccelston, a soldier she had met during her nursing career. Nine years later she became a widow with two small children to raise alone.
Her family offered to take her and the children under their roof, but fiercely independent Sarah announced that she would take the children with her to Philadelphia where she would attend a Normal School that trained kindergarten teachers. Determined to remain autonomous, Sarah finished the training and taught kindergarten to support herself and her two children.
In 1880 opportunity presented itself when the town of Winona, Minnesota advertised the need for a kindergarten teacher. Sarah moved to Winona, taught kindergarten, and later established a kindergarten training program at the Winona Normal School. After three years of harsh winters, Sarah saw a unique opportunity when Argentine President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento asked for North American teachers to come start schools and train teachers so that all Argentine children would have access to an education.
Leaving her college-age son back in Pennsylvania, Sarah took her 14-year-old daughter with her on an arduous journey to Paraná, Argentina. Here, Sarah would find her life calling.
At times homesick, underpaid, and without supplies, Sarah successfully began teaching her first Argentine kindergarten in 1884. Her reputation quickly spread and soon she was training future kindergarten teachers at a nearby Institute. Eventually Sarah went on to establish a large training school in Buenos Aries and became Argentina’s official inspector of kindergarten programs. At the age of 53 she was invited back to the United States for a worldwide educational convocation where she represented Argentina’s kindergarten system. She continued setting up and running kindergarten programs in Argentina until she was 76 years old.
It is never easy to leave one’s homeland, but Sarah was determined to pursue her passion. Sarah Chamberlain Eccelston is fondly remembered in her adopted country as the Grandmother of Kindergartens. For us, she is remembered as a strong independent woman who followed her dream.
Thanks to Pat Parker for sending me Sarah Eccelston’s name.
Born in New York City, raised in suburban New Jersey, educated in Pennsylvania, and now living and writing in Virginia.