History of the Arlitt Center

Ada Hart Arlitt

Inventing preschool, from the ground up

University of Cincinnati HORIZONS May 1999, p. 28.
© 1999 by the University of Cincinnati.
No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permission of the editors.
All rights reserved.

by Mary Niehaus

Lots of stamina. Real get-up-and-go. These were unwritten requirements for student teachers when the UC preschool - now the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center - was housed in Beecher Hall.

The concern was not about a college student's ability to keep up with lively 2- to 4-year-olds. It was just that the children's rooftop play area was four stories above the ground: plenty of sunshine and fresh air for tricycle riding, but a problem for ball playing.

"I was a student teacher when the preschool was in Beecher," laughs Anne Dorsey, UC professor of early childhood/special education and graduate program director. "In those days, when balls bounced over the building's edge, it was the student teacher's job to run down the stairs to get them!"

Retrieving errant balls was far less satisfying for Dorsey, a former director of the preschool, than her recent pursuit of information in the UC Archives. Along with David Kuschner, UC associate professor of early childhood education, Dorsey researched the origins of UC's Early Childhood Education program. The investigation verified their program's debt to two remarkable women: Annie Laws and Ada Hart Arlitt, preschool program pioneer.

Laws and Arlitt were acquainted through their mutual interests in education for young children and teacher training. Laws was head of the Cincinnati Kindergarten Training School when Arlitt, a psychologist, came to Cincinnati in the 1920s to work for the Community Chest's Council of Social Agencies.

Arlitt was invited to teach a course about preschool children for the UC College of Education in 1924. A year later, she had been hired by the university to create a program in child development for the School of Household Administration. She had a joint appointment in the psychology department, as well.

The next year, the first UC laboratory preschool - a half-day, model nursery group - was opened. It served 20 children, 2 to 4 years of age, from a wide range of economic backgrounds. The classroom on the fourth floor of Beecher Hall provided practical experience for student teachers and was a valuable source of information about the preschool child.

"Part of its purpose was to observe child behavior," Dorsey points out. "The main thing was to get the children in a group, because it was easier to study examples of behavior in a group setting." Graduate students in child development helped the professor collect research data.

"For Dr. Arlitt - from her perspective - the work was with families as well as with children," Dorsey notes. "The training program for teachers was not just about a teacher and a child, but about parents, too. Research increased understanding: This is how children grow and develop, and this is how to work with parents."

The preschool pioneer was ahead of her time in creating ways to build a good public image for the UC program. Arlitt arranged for pre-holiday exhibitions in downtown Cincinnati, so parents could view "the best playthings to develop the child's character and initiative," as a 1927 newspaper item described them. She wrote newspaper articles herself, had her own radio show, and began a telephone call-in service to answer parents' questions about their children's behavior and development, as well as age-appropriate toys. Graduate students were sent out into the community to meet with parents and present programs for parent groups.

"We make a fuss today about fathers being involved in their children's education," Dorsey notes, "but years ago, Dr. Arlitt had a father's group that came together to talk about child development."

The Mother's Training Center Association, an organization whose membership included many prominent Cincinnati families, also looked to Arlitt for guidance. Affiliated with UC's School of Household Administration, it served 50 local parent groups, including several African American and Catholic organizations. They all wanted to succeed in "the difficult task of character training of children ages birth to 5 years."

The psychologist, who earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago, was active in national professional associations, wrote scholarly articles and authored a number of books about child development and family life. "Very outspoken in her views," according to Dorsey, Arlitt was at the forefront in recommending education for children with special needs and in urging teachers and parents not to separate these children from their peer groups.

Although Arlitt left UC in the early 1950s, she never forgot about the needs of the preschool program. Twenty years later, after her death, UC received her bequest of a quarter of a million dollars.

Today's Arlitt Center in the One Edwards building on campus is bright and welcoming, and reflects the thoughtful, caring approach to child care that Ada Hart Arlitt inspired.

And the children's play areas are all on the ground floor.