Froebel’s Kindergarten: The Origins of Early Childhood Education

In 1838 the German educator Friedrich Fröbel laid the foundations of modern education when he opened the Play and Activity Institute. He soon called it a Kindergarten, reflecting his belief that young children should be nurtured and nourished ‘like plants in a garden’. A decade later, the changing political climate led to a policy that prohibited all kindergartens from operating — Fröbel had to shut the doors of his institute. What followed was a personal crisis for the passionate educator and a diaspora of young kindergarten teachers leaving Germany and opening early childhood education centers all around the world. And then the story takes an interesting twist.

The full story
Froebel's kindergarten

In 1838 the German educator Friedrich Fröbel laid the foundations of modern education when he opened the “Play and Activity Institute”. Fröbel soon called his institute a Kindergarten, reflecting his belief that young children should be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden”.

Fröbel, who studied under the Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi, established the idea that games and playing are typical and essential forms of life. Activities in the kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening, and self-directed play. Quality time spent like this was a considerable improvement to the life of many children, given that the alternative was often to help parents with work.

He also introduced the concept of “Frei-Arbeit”, which can be translated into “free work”. During set periods of time, children were allowed to work on things by themselves. Where many adults saw pointless play, Fröbel saw important learning taking place. While practicing their concentration skills and resilience, the children also learned about engineering, logic and physics.

Froebel gifts
Froebel's Gifts

To help facilitate this process, he developed a set of educational toys known as Fröbel Gifts. The set contained 20 objects, such as balls, blocks, and sticks. Fröbel carefully designed the toys to help the children in his kindergarten recognize and appreciate common patterns and forms found in nature.

His innovative ideas soon found appeal and many young educators came to learn from Fröbel and to see the immense potential displayed by children at his institute. Later, many of Fröbel’s students opened their own Kindergartens and Germany experienced rapid growth in the number of early childhood centers.

Then something bad happened

After suppressing the German revolutions of 1848–49, the Prussian government started a crackdown on new democratic ideas and women were forbidden from being politically active. The fact that some were operating a kindergarten all by themselves was seen as problematic.

And so it didn’t take long for the government to label Fröbel’s Kindergarten ideas as dangerous to both the State and church; soon all schools that followed Fröbel’s principles were banned.

For Fröbel, who saw his life’s work destroyed and the future of all the children disrupted, this was a terrible blow. He died in dismay just a year later. But the ban caused a diaspora of kindergarteners who could no longer work in Germany, spreading Fröbel’s ideas all over the world. One of Fröbel’s students founded the first kindergarten in the United States in 1856. But the story was far from being over.

20 years later

Exactly 20 years later, a young woman named Anna Lloyd Jones stumbled upon a set of Fröbel’s Gifts at a visit to the first World’s Fair in the United States. Anna, a teacher by training, was so excited by the wooden toys that she bought a set for her nine-year-old son.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Little Frank loved the toys his mother brought home and began building all kinds of geometrical structures — first with the wooden toys, later in miniatures and with other materials. Without formal training, Frank Lloyd Wright became one of the world’s most renowned architects, responsible for some of the most iconic buildings in modern architecture, many of which resemble Fröbel’s toy blocks.

Froebel’s impact

Germany lifted its ban on kindergartens in 1860, realizing that it was a terrible mistake. And while Fröbel wasn’t around anymore to witness the rebirth of his ideas in his homeland, they continued to spread around the world and became an inspiration for Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and many others who set out to innovate formal education.

Fröbel once said that “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” Frank Lloyd Wright described the influence of such play in his approach to design as follows: “For several years, I sat at the little kindergarten table-top… and played… with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks… All are in my fingers to this day.”

What about you?

How was your personal experience with play and learning when you were young? Did you go to kindergarten? And what are your thoughts on the play as a way of growth and development? Share your thoughts!

 “It’s ironic how kindergartens are doing everything opposite of Froebel.”

– Hakim Diwan

Sources

Dig deeper!

Read what science has to say about attending kindergartens 🙂

Or check out this summary on Montessori school education by us!

Classroom exercise

Let’s try designing our own kindergarten based on Froebel’s ideas. Brainstorm as a class all of the things that you think will be required. What kind of furniture would be best? How many toys will we need? How should the teachers behave? There’s lots to plan to create your own kindergarten. Let us know what your class thinks are the most important factors in the comments below!

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