Early Childhood Education

Eliot, Abigail Adams (1892-1992)

 

Abigail Adams Eliot is best known for her contributions to the American nursery school movement. In 1922 Dr. Eliot founded the Ruggles Street Nursery Training School of Boston, where she integrated parent education and teacher training components into work with nursery age children. Her educational philosophy, formulated in 1944, outlined a set of beliefs that anticipated contemporary early childhood education in the United States. She urged teachers to help children develop “balancing traits” and, at the same time, to supply what they need for self-realization. Eliot emphasized the child’s need to balance a sense of security with growing independence; self-expression with self-control; awareness of self with social consciousness; growth in freedom with growth in responsibility; and the opportunity to create with the ability to conform.

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on October 9, 1892, Abigail was the third child of Reverend and Mrs. Christopher Rhodes Eliot. Reverend Eliot served as minister of the Meeting House Hill Church in Dorchester and later of Bulfinch Place Church in Boston’s West End. The Eliot children attended public primary school. Abigail and her older sister, Martha May, graduated first from Boston’s prestigious Winsor School and later from Radcliffe College, located across the Charles River in Cambridge.

After graduating, Eliot began a career in social work with Boston’s Children’s Mission to Children, an organization that placed children in foster homes. Soon disillusioned with social work, she left Boston in 1919 to study economics at Oxford University. While abroad, Eliot determined that her ambitions lay in education— an interest she attributed in part to her experience as a young child instructed in a Froebelian kindergarten.

Through a fortuitous association with Mrs. Henry Greenleaf Pearson, who knew of Margaret McMillan’s The Nursery School (1919), Eliot learned of the English nursery school movement. Mrs. Pearson, as head of the Women’s Education Association’s nursery committee, raised money to send Eliot to study at the Rachel McMillan Nursery School at Deptford, a slum district of London. Eliot left for England in 1921, eager to learn directly from Margaret McMillan, the crusader who first coined the term “nursery school.”

Upon returning to Boston in January 1922, the Ruggles Street Day Nursery, situated in Roxbury, became the Ruggles Street Nursery School and Training Center. The change in name reflected a groundbreaking emphasis on “schooling” for very young children. Until that time, young children in group care benefited primarily from improved physical health and safety; educational programs were most often reserved for older children. Additionally, Eliot worked with children living in poverty, unlike colleagues who leaned toward conducting child development research in laboratory nursery schools (Braun and Edwards, 1972, p. 151).

The Ruggles Street Nursery School originally employed an eclectic mix of Froebelian gifts, Montessori apparatus, and McMillan materials, plus art supplies, clay, and blocks. Eliot selected soft yellow paint for the schoolroom walls, colored cloth for the tables, and soft rugs for seating. She hung pictures, set out vases of flowers, and used attractive plates and napkins for the children’s meals (Eliot, no date, p. 31).

Ruggles Street teachers encouraged the children to play with materials as they chose—to the dismay of some visitors. The emphasis on imagination and creativity shocked Montessori-trained observers. Miss Eliot, in turn, described her own discomfort with the Watson-trained teachers of Teachers College, Columbia University who strove “never to touch a child,” a startling departure from her own beliefs about children’s needs (Braun and Edwards, 1972, p. 156).

Eliot confronted skepticism in other quarters as well. Lucy Wheelock, founder of Boston’s Wheelock College, never endorsed early childhood education as practiced at the Ruggles Street Nursery School, although she did invite Eliot to teach a course on nursery education. Primary educators of the day doubted whether young children should be away from home at all, particularly as susceptibility to contagious diseases increased when children came into close contact. Social workers worried that Ruggles Street teachers lacked adequate training to work effectively with families; Eliot’s parent education program was often deemed too “experimental.”

In 1926, the Ruggles Street School expanded into new buildings and became the Nursery Training School of Boston. That same year Eliot earned the Master of Education degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, followed by the doctorate in 1930. By then, nursery education had attracted the interest and enthusiasm of middle class families through such programs as the Cambridge Nursery School, a cooperative formed and financed by a group of mothers with guidance from Abigail Eliot.

As the nursery school movement gained momentum, Eliot—with colleagues Patty Smith Hill of Teachers College and Edna Noble White of the Merrill Palmer Institute—began meeting annually with graduates of their respective schools. Dr. Eliot also assisted in founding the National Association for Nursery Education and, in 1933, served as their representative to the federal Works Progress Administration, which provided funds to nursery schools for unemployed families and jobs for teachers. These conferences evolved into the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). During World War II, Eliot consulted on providing day care for the children of war workers under the Lanham Act.

By mid-century, Dr. Eliot recognized the need to offer four-year, bachelor’s degree programs to students preparing to work with young children. In collaboration with Tufts University’s President Carmichael, the Boston Nursery Training School became affiliated with the university in 1951. Eliot retired in 1952 and, in 1955, the school was renamed in her honor as the Eliot-Pearson School. Evelyn Goodenough Pitcher took over as director in 1959 and, in 1964, the school was reconfigured as an academic department. Today Abigail Eliot’s legacy is known as the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University.

In retirement, Dr. Eliot traveled extensively with her companion of many years, Anna Holman. She continued to work on behalf of children, first by helping to found Pacific Oaks College in California and later by teaching at the Brooks School in Concord, Massachusetts.

Further Readings: Braun, S. J., and E. P. Edwards (1972). History and theory of early childhood education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc.; Eliot, A. A. (1982). A heart of grateful trust: Memoirs of Abigail Adams Eliot. Transcribed and edited by Marjorie Gott Manning; McMillan, M. (1919). The nursery school. New York: E. P. Dutton; Pearson, E. W. (January-March 1925). The Ruggles Street Nursery School. Progressive Education II, 19-21; Weber, E. (1969). The kindergarten: Its encounter with educational thought in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ann C. Benjamin