Rosabeth Moss-Kanter on Nursery School Bureaucracy

Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss-Kanter describes the organisation of a nursery school.

Moss Kanter describes how learners and teachers alike take on bureaucratic personae:

Intentionally or unintentionally, child-rearing practices in a society reflect the character of that society, not only in the explicit standards and demands communicated but also in the kinds of experiences chosen to convey them. There is a relationship between the structure of education and the major institutional forms of a society. If American society conducts a preponderance of its activity through formal organization, then it is not surprising that even very young children should be provided with the experiences of formal organizations, in the form of nursery schools. It is these experiences which comprise one of the several social worlds of the child, to which he orients his behavior and through which he fulfils his psychic needs. By offering a social world which has the phenomenological impact of a bureaucracy, in the experiences it provides, in the truths and meanings it advances, and in the kinds of interpersonal relationships it promotes, a nursery school can produce children whose world orientations are adjusted and attuned to bureaucratic life …

Certain activities regularly occurred at the same time every day, there was a definite order to events, and rooms and toys were available only at designated times. One teacher used a routine in which a session was divided into five periods: (1) free play, downstairs room-such equipment as slides, climbing apparatus, tricycles, large wooden blocks, and a puppet theater available; (2) structured artistic play, upstairs rooms-painting, working with clay, crafts and access to small toys … (3) sedentary group activity, downstairs room-usually a story, sometimes a record of songs; (4) snack, upstairs room … (5) group play, outside in appropriate weather … For all of the classes, there was even a signal (a piano chord) designating the end of an activity.

By means of the routine, activities were clearly circumscribed in time and space, with clear beginnings and endings, and the child’s behavior was structured via the equipment available. A sense of specialization pervaded the routine; places, toys, and time periods all had particular activities associated with them.

Play activity itself was circumscribed and given a place in the larger pattern of events that comprised the organization. Play illusions would be supported only when the situation was defined as ‘playing’ and discouraged when the context was different. For example, while playing in the school’s sandbox, children often would give one of the teachers a gift of sand pie, and proclaim it delicious. The same activity at any other time … would meet disapproval. At snack time, when ‘real’ things were available to eat the teachers would not support make-believe. Play was thus compartmentalized, and the distinction between play, a small part of the school’s activity, and reality, the larger organizational context, made clear.

Delineation of role relationships also reduced uncertainty and showed the child his place in the organization. The most important role distinction was teacher-child. Teachers were socially distinguished from children not only by their adult stature and bearing, but also by their control of certain resources and their relative freedom with regard to their participation in expressive songs and games. The teachers … generally used a different tone of voice and vocabulary when speaking to a child than when speaking to another teacher or adult.

Thus, the nursery school had a series of … mechanisms with a bureaucratic flavor: a formal and generally invariant routine; specialization of activities with respect to time and place; delineation of role and relationships; models of appropriate behavior; institutionalized and structure practices and procedures; and imposition of organization on even “free,” expressive behavior.


Moss-Kanter, Rosabeth. 1972. ‘The Organization Child: Experience Management in a Nursery School.’ Sociology of Education 45:186–212. pp.186, 197–198.


Previous || Chapter 9: Directory || Next