Susan Elizabeth Blow (June 7, 1843 - March 26, 1916) was an American educator, dedicated to the education of young children. After meeting Friedrich Froebel in Germany she studied his ideas. Recognizing that young children have different needs, interests, and abilities than older, traditionally school-aged children, Susan Blow found the kindergarten model appropriate. In this "garden for children" play is emphasized as the primary method of learning, and the environment is prepared in ways appropriate for small children. In 1873, she opened the first successful public kindergarten in the United States, in St. Louis, Missouri. She spent the rest of her life teaching and writing about kindergarten education, and through her efforts kindergarten became an integral part of childhood education, allowing young children to experience learning in an age-appropriate yet structured environment.
Susan Blow was born in St. Louis, Missouri, as the oldest of six children to Henry Taylor Blow and Minerva Grimsley. Henry Blow was a wealthy businessman, who profited in the lead industry, and later became a famous politician. Her parents were deeply religious, and educated their children in the same spirit. When their home burned to the ground in 1849, together with dozens of houses at the riverfront and downtown St. Louis, the family decided to move to Carondelet, a small town just outside of St. Louis.
Susan Blow received the best education, attending private schools in New Orleans and New York City. Her education was cut short due to the Civil War, but she continued to study on her own. She supported the Union and the anti-slavery movement. When her father was appointed as the ambassador to Brazil in the late 1960s, Susan joined him there. She spent more than a year in Brazil, after which she traveled to Germany.
In Germany, Blow met Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, and was fascinated with his ideas. She observed his kindergarten classrooms and learned his theories on education. After her return to America, she decided to study more about education and completed her training at the New York Normal Training Kindergarten, operated by John Kraus and his wife Maria Boelte. In 1873, Susan's father, Henry Taylor Blow asked his friend William Torrey Harris, the superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, to open an experimental kindergarten with Susan Blow as director. Thus, the first public kindergarten was opened in the United States, at the Des Peres School in St. Louis, Missouri. A year later, Blow opened a training school for kindergarten teachers. For the next 11 years, Blow directed the Des Peres School without receiving any pay.
Blow was teaching children in the morning and training teachers in the afternoon. By 1883, every public school in St. Louis had a kindergarten, making the city a model and a focal point of the kindergarten movement. Blow spent the remainder of her life establishing kindergartens throughout the country. She eventually became very sick, and retired in 1884. She moved to New York City in 1889, and continued to teach about the kindergarten movement. She also wrote several books during this period, among others Letters to a Mother on the Philosophy of Froebel (1900) and Educational Issues in the Kindergarten (1908).
From 1905 to 1909 Blow taught at the Teachers College, Columbia University. She continued to travel around the country, giving lectures and teaching, until three weeks before her death. She died in 1916 in New York City and was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Susan Blow was greatly influenced by the theories of Friedrich Froebel. While in Germany, she learned about the German kindergarten model, in which the main objective was “learning-through-play.” The children learned about language, mathematics, and science through playing with objects, such as balls and blocks.
She took Froebel's creed that "man is a self-creative being," with even young children viewed as capable of not only imitating, but also of creating new things through play with others. Blow encouraged free-play, regarding it is the highest expression of human development in childhood, and that through play children can express the innermost parts of their soul.
She instructed teachers to encourage self expression and evoke in children their inborn creativity. At the same time, she emphasized that children need to learn about values related to human life. Her teachers emphasized free activity, spontaneity, play, and individuality.
Her kindergarten classrooms in the Des Peres School in St. Louis, were different from other school classrooms, which were often plain and dull. Blow painted all her classrooms in bright colors, and had low tables and benches, fit for small children. Each room had many plants and a lot of light, and was equipped with toys and educational materials designed for children. Balls and blocks were used to study color and shapes, and children regularly exercised outside, in the fresh air. The children also learned about hygiene and cleanliness, and had regular meals. The St. Louis Republican wrote in February 1875 about Susan Blow’s classroom:
Literally, it is a children['s] garden, and the purpose is to direct the child’s mind under six years of age into preliminary grooves of order, cleanliness, obedience, a desire for information, and to combine with these the more prominent idea of object teaching.
Some who studied with her criticized Blow as too rigid in her application of Froebel's ideas, and resistant to innovation. Indeed, her approach emphasized cleanliness and obedience over spontaneous activities. Although new teachers developed innovative techniques, Blow continued to teach and write about the kindergarten as described by Froebel until the end of her life.
Although the idea of the kindergarten was first introduced into the United States in the late 1840s through the pioneering efforts of Margarethe Schurz and Elizabeth Peabody, it was through the work of Susan Blow that it became widely accepted. She opened the first US public kindergarten in St Louis in 1873 and a training school for kindergarten teachers in 1874, successfully introducing Froebel’s ideas into the United States. She was one of the early pioneers of the Kindergarten Movement, which made kindergarten a constituent part of childhood education. The Movement led to the formation of the New York Kindergarten Association and an International Union.
All links retrieved January 12, 2020.
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