The idea of pre-school education, promoted by German educationalist Friedrich Froebel, gained some acceptance by the Victorian Education Department in the 1880s, though economic circumstances in the following decade meant that educational kindergarten programs were confined mainly to middle-class independent schools. At the same time, child rescue philosophy prompted the establishment of Victoria's first creche when Mrs Strong, wife of an Australian Church minister, began caring for the children of working mothers, first in her own Collingwood home and later in a creche in nearby Keele Street. Determination to save the children of the industrialised inner suburbs of Melbourne also prompted middle-class philanthropic women to establish free kindergartens in Carlton, Burnley, Collingwood and North Melbourne in the first decade of the 20th century, forming the Free Kindergarten Union (FKU) in 1908. The kindergartens were administered by local committees and run by trained directors who aimed to educate mothers about the proper physical, moral and mental care of children between the ages of two and six.
During the depression years the union saw much of its role as being 'social work'. Hot midday meals were introduced and frequently boots and clothing were supplied. The Commonwealth Government sponsored the establishment of model nursery schools in each of the capital cities to demonstrate child care and kindergarten services, with a particular emphasis on physical development. The first of these, opened in 1939, was Lady Gowrie Child Development Centre in Curtain Square, North Carlton. By the beginning of World War II there were 30 FKU kindergartens and a number of church-run kindergartens serving 5000 children in Melbourne's inner suburbs. The necessity for women to work outside the home during World War II led to the establishment of further creches and kindergartens, especially after 1944 when the Victorian Health Department announced that it would subsidise kindergartens for all children, regardless of their parents' financial status. Together with the work of the Nursery Kindergarten Extension Board, the subsidy led to the proliferation of kindergartens across Melbourne's suburbs in the postwar years as local community groups and municipal councils saw the educational advantages of pre-school centres. While it became the norm for most children to have at least one year of pre-school education, the feminist movement of the 1970s focused attention on working women's rights to adequate subsidised child care, with subsequent extension of such services, auspiced by both private and public bodies. Ironically, changes in State Government funding for kindergartens in the 1990s meant that many families on lower incomes could no longer afford pre-school education for their children.