Anne Emilie Poulsson (1853 – 1939), known as Emilie Poulsson, is remembered as an American children’s author who championed early childhood education and the kindergarten movement. She wrote and translated many books for children and lectured on these topics, and on the subject of parenting. Poulsson’s “finger plays,” – short songs sung while hands and fingers help “act” out the lyrics – were wildly popular when they were first introduced in an 1893 book titled, Finger Plays for Nursery and Kindergarten. This technique is widely used today with young children and this book continues to be published. What is less commonly known is that Poulsson suffered from vision loss that eventually led her to Perkins for rehabilitation as a young woman. While at Perkins she learned braille, teach, and attended Miss Garland and Miss Weston’s Kindergarten Normal Training Class in Boston. Poulsson would go on to be an integral part of helping Perkins Director Michael Anagnos develop the first Kindergarten for blind students in the United States.
Poulsson was born in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. She developed a serious eye condition at 6 months old that caused visual impairment. Poulson’s eyesight would improve, then become poor again. She remembers having to stay inside in the dark or be in a darkened carriage when taken out during this time (Poulsson, 302). When it was better, around the age of seven she learned to read and began attending public school in Newark, New Jersey at the age of 8 (Poulsson, 302). When her eyesight became a problem again in high school, she had a good friend who served as her reader. In her senior year, her eyesight was so poor that she came to the conclusion that “handicapped persons must not make ‘a pillow of their handicap’, but let such a disability be a spur to greater effort in the use of whatever powers they possess” (Poulsson, 302). Often playing with young children, when she wasn’t strong enough to play with children her own age, her experience led to jobs as “mother’s helper” or private teachings after high school (Poulsson, 302).
Poulsson was a private teacher from 1873 until 1879, which is when her eye condition sent her to a Connecticut hospital. She would spend 9 months recovering there. During this time she befriended another young woman who had lost most of her sight, Jennie Colby. The pair entered Perkins in the fall of 1879 where they would receive training to help them with their sight loss (Swinerton, 6). Their time at Perkins was fondly remembered by students and faculty, as they were very popular, even forming a secret club known as the I.S.M. Society (Swinerton, 7-8). Due to her prior teaching experience, Poulsson came to Perkins as both a pupil and a teacher (Fish, 3). At Perkins, Poulsson learned to read braille and helped with students. During this time she studied at the Garland-Weston Kindergarten Normal Training Class in Boston because as a Perkins staff member recalls “her whole interest then and at all time was children” (Fish, 3).
This training and interest coincided with Perkins Director Michael Anangnos’ push for a Kindergarten. None existed at this time for students who were blind in the United States. Poulsson helped with an initial study that Anagnos did of Froebel’s methods on older students at Perkins and with other activities of the school when it opened (Fish, 3). The Perkins Kindergarten would be based on Froebel’s approach, which emphasized sensory awareness, creative expression, and the exploration of ideas and concepts. Froebel’s curriculum was easily adapted for children who were blind. Stress was placed upon developing the senses of hearing and of touch. After graduating from the Normal School she taught at Perkins from 1880-1882 before taking other private teaching jobs, and teaching at the Normal school she had once graduated from (Poulsson, 303). Poulsson would write “The Blind Children’s Kindergarten,” which was included in Kindergarten and Primary School for the Blind: A Second appeal for its foundation and endowment, by Michael Anagnos in 1884. Anagnos credited her with being the only person who ever added anything to Froebel’s Kindergarten methods (Fish, 3, 8). This addition – her invention of finger plays.
Poulsson began giving lectures, holding classes for mothers, and writing books, most of which were for children. In 1889 she published her first and most well-known book, Finger Plays for Nursery and Kindergarten, which by 1900 was described as a “supplementary book in every kindergarten as well as a classic in the nursery” (“Poulsson, Emilie,”463). To children, she became known as the “Finger play lady” (Shute, 419). Music for the plays was composed by fellow Perkins Alumna, Cornelia C. Roeske, whose time at Perkins overlapped with Poulsson. The book continues to be republished in print and ebook form. In 1897 Poulson and her sister, Laura began what would be a seven-year role as editors of “Kindergarten Review” which was published by Milton Bradley and Co. (Shute, 419). Poulsson wrote and translated many other children’s books and spoke and wrote on parenting (Shute, 419). Today many of her published works have been digitized and are available online. YouTube videos can be found of individuals using the same 19th-century finger plays and songs published in 1889 to teach music to children today. One such example is of a performance of “The Sparrows” on YouTube.
Poulsson’s connection to Perkins continued to the end of her life. In remembrance of her, a Perkins staff member wrote, “Miss Poulsson has always kept in close touch with this school, sharing in the responsibilities of its public affairs, of the Alumnae Association and of that mysterious club, the ISM’s” (Fish, 8). An account can be found in a December 1937 issue of the Lantern, mentioning that near the end of her life Poulsson attended an ISM meeting luncheon in which she had to be carried in by chair (“The ‘ISMS’,6). She considered her time at Perkins, “invaluable,” especially noting being allowed to attend the Kindergarten Normal School (Poulsson, 303). Poulson believed she would not have written finger plays without that Kindergarten training.
Shute, Mary C. “Emilie Poulsson 1853-1939.” Childhood Education, vol. 15, no 9, 1939, p.419, Taylor and Francis Online, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.1939.10724371.
Fish, Anna Gardner. “Anne Emilie Poulson: A friend to little children.” The Lantern, vol. 8, no 4, 1939. Internet Archive.
Poulsson, Emilie. “Autobiographical Sketch of Emilie Poulsson.” The Junior Book of Authors: an Introduction to the Lives of Writers And Illustrators for Younger Readers, From Lewis Carroll And Louisa Alcott to the Present Day, edited by Stanley Kunitz, et al. New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1934, pp. 302-303. HathiTrust.
“Poulsson, Emilie.” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States As Illustrated In the Lives of the Founders, Builders, And Defenders of the Republic, And of the Men And Women Who Are Doing the Work And Moulding the Thought of the Present Time. Volume 10, New York: J. T. White company, 1900, p. 463. Internet Archive.
Swinerton, Lenna D. “In Loving Memory of Jennie M Colby.” A Beneficent Life: Tributes to the Memory of Jennie M. Colby, Graduate of Perkins Institution, 1920, pp. 6-13. Internet Archive.
“The ISMs.” The Lantern, vol. 7, no 2, 1937, p. 6. Internet Archive.
Hale, Jen. “Anne Emilie Poulsson the ‘Finger Play Lady'” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. March 8, 2021.