Nursery School, or Preschool, an educational institution for children three and four years old. Emphasis is less on training than on growth and development. Nursery school gives children their first experience in playing and working with a group away from home, and helps them learn how to get along with others and to respect their rights. The school supplements children's home experiences, offering a variety of activities designed to promote their physical, emotional, mental, and social growth.
Many of the activities resemble those found in kindergarten, which enrolls children aged four to six. Nursery-school children color, paint, and build; they play with blocks, wood, sand, clay, and water; and they listen to stories and learn simple songs. They engage in both indoor and outdoor play, intended to develop both mental and physical skills. They are also taken on exploratory trips outside the school, such as a visit to the local fire station.
Rest periods and snacks are provided in school. Hot lunches are given to children attending school through lunchtime.
Some nursery schools operate half-day schedules, morning or afternoon; others are open all day. They may be open all year, or they may follow the elementary-school year, closing for vacations. More than half of the nursery schools in the United States are privately owned, run for a profit. Transportation is often provided.
The nonprofit parent cooperative school is organized, supported, and administered by a group of parents. There is usually at least one paid director or teacher who has professional training. Assistance is provided by parent-helpers. Most cooperative nurseries have half-day sessions only.
The day-care center, or day nursery, is designed to care for the children of working mothers. It operates a full-day session all year, and combines educational programs with child care. A day-care center also provides after-school care for young elementary-school children. Some day-care centers are operated by employers for their employees and may be located at the place of business. Many day-care centers are operated in homes and are basically no more than baby-sitting services.
The demonstration, or laboratory, nursery school is usually run by the education or home economics department of a college or university. As a center for child development research and teacher training, it tries to give children a rich and varied educational experience and to develop new teaching methods.
Some nursery schools follow particular teaching philosophies. Montessori schools, for example, use methods based on the ideas of the Italian educator Maria Montessori.
Church-sponsored nursery schools often emphasize religious education. Some nursery schools are part of public-school systems. Special nursery schools are also maintained for children with disabilities.
Laws regulating nursery schools vary from state to state. Most states have established health, sanitation, and safety standards, but few have laws covering the professional requirements of teachers or the program for the children. For home day-care centers, most states limit the number of children that the center can serve to six.
The nursery-school movement began in the 19th century with the growth of the factory system. Mothers often worked long hours each day and the younger children were neglected. Day nurseries were established so mothers could leave their children in a safe place while they worked. One of the first day nurseries in the United States was established in New York City in 1854. Other cities followed, and in 1898 the National Federation of Day Nurseries was founded.
The modern nursery school, combining child care with education, developed in the early 20th century. After World War I many universities set up laboratory nursery schools for research in child development and teacher education. It was found that the first years in a child's life are important in establishing healthy attitudes, a sense of values, intellectual interests, and physical skills as well as good learning habits and social behavior patterns. These findings led to an increase in the number of nursery schools.
Until 1933 most nursery schools were privately operated, either as charitable endeavors or for profit. In that year the Federal Emergency Relief Administration authorized Emergency Nursery Schools to help children of unemployed parents. As economic conditions improved and federal subsidies were withdrawn, the number of schools decreased. During World War II, however, the federal government again subsidized nursery schools.
In the mid-1960's the federal government undertook child-care programs which provided nursery school experiences for underprivileged children. One of the best known was Head Start. By helping parents to realize the value of preschool training, these programs stimulated the rapid growth of private nursery schools. As more and more women during the 1970's and 1980's resumed their careers after having babies, private nursery schools, especially day-care centers, grew greatly in number.