The kindergarten movement began in Germany during the 19th century under the leadership of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852). Froebel had studied under the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who was opposed to the harsh, often brutal, teaching prevalent in his day. Pestalozzi introduced a kindlier atmosphere into the classroom. He insisted that teaching should adapt itself to the natural order of child development.

In 1837 Froebel founded the first kindergarten, in Bad Blankenburg, Thuringia. He devoted the rest of his life to the promotion of his new type of school. In 1850 he established a training school for teachers in Marienthal. His ideas were considered radical and dangerous, and in 1851 the Prussian minister of education ordered the closing of all kindergartens. Froebel died the next year, but the kindergarten movement continued under the leadership of Baroness Berta von Marenholtz-Blow, and soon it spread throughout western Europe.

In the United States the kindergarten was introduced by German immigrants. The first one was opened in 1856 in Watertown, Wisconsin, by Margarethe Meyer Schurz, wife of the reformer Carl Schurz. In 1860 Elizabeth Peabody, aided by her sister Mary Mann (wife of the educator Horace Mann), established the first English-speaking kindergarten, in Boston, and the movement then spread throughout the country.

Many of the early kindergartens were operated by churches or were maintained as philanthropic institutions. The first public kindergarten was opened in St. Louis in 1873. By 1900 many large cities had kindergartens, and some normal schools had departments for the training of kindergarten teachers.

The early kindergartens tended to follow rather rigidly the principles and methods of Froebel. After 1900, however, the findings of child psychology led to greater freedom of activity and to other changes. During the depression of the 1930's many schools dropped their kindergartens as being “expensive frills. During the late 1940's, however, kindergarten became a regular part of the school system in most cities and suburbs of the United States. Rural and small-town school systems were slower to establish kindergartens, but by the early 1980's, more than 95 percent of all five-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in kindergartens.

During the 1970's, school systems began to incorporate reading, mathematics, and other academic work into the kindergarten curriculum. A trend in the early 1980's was to lengthen the session from the traditional half day to a full day. Some educators opposed these developments because they believed that many five-year-olds were not emotionally and socially developed enough to handle academic work and to stay in school a full day.