Kindergarten in the Victorian Age

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

Some days it feels as if my world revolves around education in Oshawa, from a historical perspective as well as from the present. My daughter will be entering Senior Kindergarten this week and that has gotten me thinking about how different it was when I was that young and even how different it was when my parents were in school.

In Junior Kindergarten last year, my daughter was learning about architectural styles of castles, space, life cycles of butterflies and how to make vermicomposters. I clearly remember naptime, playing with wooden blocks and story time in a circle. There were no computers, no iPads to record students’ memories and no one even thought about composting!

Before the kindergarten system was established, student sat in rows of seats according to their grade level. The youngest sat on benches in front of the other student’s desks, their feet barely touching the ground. With all of the other students begging for attention from the teacher, the little ones often got overlooked. Research into the education and psychology of young children only began to occur in the late nineteenth century. Most people thought that educating the young was a waste of time. According to the Oshawa Museum’s Olive French Manuscript “Some of the doctors in the 1860s/70s were noticed to have said that small children, even up to the age of seven or eight, should not attend school. They should be home and allowed the freedom of play in the fresh air and sun. This would build up stronger constitutions and also relieve the overcrowding in the schools.”

Students of the South Simcoe Street School, c. 1926, A983.4.5.3

Overcrowding was an issue for Oshawa schools from the beginning. Buildings in downtown Oshawa such as the Disciples Church and Sons of Temperance Hall were often pulled into service as classrooms when space was needed.

Eventually, Centre Street School underwent a complete reconstruction and renovation and in 1923 the school would have “twenty four rooms, including facilities for a Kindergarten and a spacious auditorium. The restructuring of the school would cost the School Board $175 000.”¹ Olive French claims the school was built for $220 000 and accommodate 700 students. It would be another twenty four years before a second kindergarten class would become operational at Ritson Road School. Kindergarten classes were added to most other schools in Oshawa during the 1950s; South Simcoe School in 1950, 1952 at Simcoe Street North (Dr. S.J. Phillips), and 1953 at Coronation, duke of Edinburgh and Woodcrest Public Schools.

Not a lot is known about the local kindergarten curriculum at that time. Miss Greta Ellis taught kindergarten out of her home in the early 1920s before being hired by the School Board in 1924. Miss Ellis would play the piano; later while she taught, her assistant would play.²

Today I’m wondering what the School Board of the past would have thought about paying their new Kindergarten teachers to supervise naptime. I’m not sure if I’d have liked going to school in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century’s. Many of the schools in Oshawa’s past were quite poorly constructed, dim, draughty, and inadequately supplied. I think I’ll stick to my happy naptime memories of the 1980s and see what 2017 brings for my daughter.

  1. Ross, J. Douglas. Education in Oshawa. 1970.
  2. French, Olive. Education in Oshawa. Unpublished manuscript. 1967.

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