Our Founding Director, Dr. Edith Dowley

Dr. Alberta Siegel Reminisces about Bing Nursery School

by Karen Robinette, Teacher - Center AM
The Bing Times - April 1997

Dr. Alberta Siegel is chair of the Bing Nursery School Director's Advisory Committee. She first came to Stanford as a freshman in 1946 and later became a friend and colleague of Dr. Edith Dowley, the founding director of Bing Nursery School. Dr. Siegel spent time at Bing conducting a research project during the early years of the school. The staff recently had the pleasure of a visit with her to discuss Dr. Edith Dowley and the founding of Bing Nursery School.

Immediately after World War II, Stanford University increased in enrollment by 94%. In order to accommodate the influx, the Stanford Village complex was developed from converted military housing located in Menlo Park on the current site of SRI. At the time of its development, the Stanford Village had many GIs in residence. Many had been overseas during their children's early years, and they had concerns about their parenting skills and their children's development. A group of the GIs approached the University president to see if a nursery school could be established that would support the Stanford Village community. The School of Education was contacted as well as the School of Psychology. The Peninsula Volunteers, a women's group in the community, were approached and agreed to raise the money to establish the school. Dr. Edith Dowley

A teacher was hired to begin the school but left after one year to get married. At that time, Edith Dowley was working on her Ph.D. at Stanford. Dr. Lois Meek Stoltz was doing research on "Father Relations of War Born Children" and Edith Dowley was studying the mothers. She was asked to become a head teacher for one quarter until a permanent teacher was found. She agreed, and this was the beginning of our role as Stanford's Laboratory School. Dr. Dowley stayed on and became Director of what was then the Stanford Village Nursery School.

The original nursery school site was located in the Stanford Village and consisted of a very large room with dividers, a single room with a one-way mirror for research, and a large yard. Dr. Dowley desired to have a facility built that had been designed specifically for children. Coincidentally, Peter Bing and his mother, Anna Bing Arnold, were interested in giving a gift to Stanford. Dr. Bob Sears suggested the nursery school, and Peter Bing felt that his mother would be very pleased with that choice. The gift from the Bing family went toward building the Bing Nursery School classrooms and yards. A grant from the National Science Foundation was secured for the research wing of the school.

Bing Nursery School was built on a site that consisted originally of four flat acres. Dr. Dowley worked with the architects to design the school and the yards. The initial plans drawn up did not reflect Dr. Dowley's input, so a junior architect agreed to revise them, incorporating Dr. Dowley's ideas. Her idea in designing the space was to give back to children something of what modern society had taken away. Later, the architectural firm was so impressed by the result that they brought prospective clients to see the school. A gala opening celebration was held with Anna Bing Arnold attending. She was thrilled with the school and sent a donation every year thereafter.

Originally, there was a nurse's station at the entrance to the school. The nurse would assess the health of each child daily to assure that the child was able to fully participate. The office was specifically designed with the window looking out so that the director could see the families as they arrived and departed. Dr. Dowley wanted the children to enter each classroom through an atrium so that the children would not feel that they had entered a huge institution. The wide patio overhangs were built so children could be outdoors even in inclement weather. Radiant heating was installed in the floors so the classroom doors could remain open without compromising the temperature indoors. The sand pools were also designed by Dr. Dowley. She felt that they would be safer than having sand boxes which might injure children climbing in and out. Each teacher had a small desk at the entrance to the classroom so as to be accessible to families as they entered. Dr. Dowley positioned the observation rooms so that they would be discreet and not interfere with the programs, and she planned the hills and selected the plantings in the yards so the children could witness the changing of the seasons. She planned for some trees to blossom, some to produce berries, some to be deciduous and some to be evergreen.

There have been some changes made to the original design over the years. For example, the two-year-old classroom was converted from a conference room. All of the bookkeeping used to be handled at Encina Hall, so a separate office area was not needed at the beginning; the current office area was used as a parents' reading room with comfortable sofas. The current children's library was once a kitchen and the existing kitchen area is new.

Dr. Edith Dowley was a very kind and soft-spoken woman. She was adored on the Stanford campus, and she knew the names of all of the parents and children with whom she was connected. She believed that the nursery school should be an extension of the family outward rather than of the elementary school downward. She was an advocate of mixed-age groupings in the nursery school since that arrangement duplicates the home environment. Dr. Dowley included children with special needs in the programs. She also included non-English speakers as she felt children would be well served from exposure to the English language prior to their entrance into elementary school. She desired to support children whose families could not afford nursery school, so a scholarship fund was established. Eventually the monies for the scholarship fund were depleted. The current director of Bing Nursery School, Jeanne Lepper, worked to reestablish this scholarship fund. Jeanne Lepper, incidentally, was a teacher at Bing Nursery School when Edith Dowley was the director, as was Bonnie Chandler, a current head teacher in the school.

Edith Dowley retired, and she went on to volunteer in Head Start programs and other day care centers. She died of breast cancer in 1988. Dr. Dowley would undoubtedly be pleased to know that her own grandniece is now attending Bing Nursery School and benefiting from her innovation and vision.