For decades, Perkins accepted only those pupils who were “older than nine and younger than nineteen.” Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe had experimented for several years by accepting a small number of younger children who were blind, but in 1882 this came to an end. The Perkins Institution had expanded its educational services to upper-level students, and there was simply no longer room for the youngest members of the school population.
At that time more than 50 percent of blindness was caused by ignorance and/or neglect. The Perkins trustees and Director Michael Anagnos were keenly aware of the need to remove young children from such unhealthy conditions and provide an education in a safe environment.
In 1882, Reverend Edward A. Horton spoke at the annual meeting of the Perkins Institution at Tremont Temple. He passionately challenged his audience to fund the establishment of a kindergarten that would “raise [little sightless children] from a position of sloth and torpor into one of comfort and diligence.” It was this desire that separated the institutes for the blind in the United States from those in Europe where emphasis was placed upon industrial education. In the United States, the goal was to teach the whole child, making him or her a productive and well-educated member of society. These were the very principles used by Frederick Froebel when he established the world’s first kindergarten, in Germany, in 1837. Anagnos, the son-in-law of Dr. Howe and his successor at the Perkins Institution, was a dedicated and tireless fundraiser for the new venture. Schoolchildren all over the country contributed their pennies, and many generous benefactors made larger donations.
In 1885, six acres were purchased in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, at the corner of Perkins and Day Streets. Two years later, on May 2, 1887, the United States’ first kindergarten for the blind opened its doors to 17 pupils. A success from the beginning, the facilities were later expanded to include a school for girls, one for boys, and a third building containing a hall and a gymnasium. By 1895, enrollment had grown to 70 children. Initially, pupils were drawn from the New England states, but in later years children came to the kindergarten from all over the country. The school was unable to expand fast enough to keep up with the demand for its services, and many children were put on waiting lists until sufficient funding was available.
When the students from the kindergarten for the blind grew older, they went on to succeed at Perkins Institution in South Boston, demonstrating the great advantages of early education. The Perkins Kindergarten was based upon 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. Music was strongly featured, with instruction in musical notation, singing and the playing of instruments.
In 1893 Director Anagnos, who was aware that the sense of touch stimulated greater intellectual development in the brain, persuaded Miss Anna Molander, a Finnish educator, to introduce the “sloyd” method to his teachers. It was the forerunner of contemporary manual arts training.
In 1913, Perkins and the Kindergarten for the Blind moved to its present location on the main campus in Watertown, Massachusetts. The kindergarten became a department of Perkins, eventually expanding its instruction through grade six and becoming known as the Lower School.
In the next two decades, many more changes were initiated. Perkins introduced speech therapy and physiotherapy, a system of corrective gymnastics adapted from the Swedish school of therapeutic movement. The school embraced Maria Montessori’s educational methods, with their emphasis on sensory development and directed activity. Perkins Psychologist Dr. Samuel P. Hayes adapted the Binet testing program, creating the first psychological testing tool for measuring the mental ability of children with visual impairment. These tests were used in both the Lower and Upper schools. The Hayes-Binet tests were ultimately used throughout the world.
The Lower School remained at the cutting edge of educational advancement for children who were blind. Recognizing that the home environment was as important as the classroom, Perkins created the position of Home Visitor, designed to help families integrate and complement what their students learned at school. In cooperation with the American Foundation for the Blind, the school created the Department of Special Studies dedicated to researching experimental child-based education techniques. In May of 1937, Miss Lucy Wheelock, a leading expert in the field of kindergarten education, declared that the Perkins Kindergarten represented the beginnings of progressive education.
By the mid-20th century, educators recognized that preschool-aged children benefited greatly from intervention and education. Perkins expanded its services to include a preschool program, early intervention services for infants and toddlers, and training and support to their parents.
The Kindergarten for the Blind and the Perkins Lower School were born of the dreams and dedication of Samuel Gridley Howe and Michael Anagnos. They and the school’s dedicated staff created a garden of warmth and love for children whose lives had begun in poverty and misery. Children who would have become society’s castaways were given the tools to allow them to take their places alongside their sighted counterparts and reap the benefits of an educated mind. Perkins’ commitment to the dignity of every student continues undiminished to this day.
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Kindergarten. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.