It’s 1837 and Friedrich Froebel is planting a garden in Germany. He’s been working on it for several years, sowing, weeding, and fertilizing. Only it is just now beginning to bloom. There are no daisies, or tomatoes, or even pumpkins in Friedrich’s garden. This garden is an “experimental social experience.”¹ You see, its children he’s trying to grow an his garden is kindergarten.
Friedrich lived in a time when people saw children as unruly little things that needed extreme discipline if they were to grow into good adults. Play was unnecessary, in fact the desire to do so only proved what little undisciplined monsters they were. It was an idea that Froebel would grow to reject.
Froebel’s theories developed during a two-year stint as a forester’s apprentice. Sitting alone in the quiet of the woods, he made things with stones and cobweb, pondering all the while nature and its laws. By the time he left, he was obsessed with the idea of the unity of nature. He brought his ideas with him when he began training as a teacher. He pondered the thought that we are creative beings. How much better to develop this creativity in unity with God and with respect to the order of nature.
What children need, he said, is music and nature, stories and drama. They need to play with blocks and puzzles and make art. Froebel understood how pliable a child’s mind is in the first three years of life. He knew a child’s desire to play could be harnessed, and their natural curiosity guided to help them grow and mature. Play leads to discovery, and discovery leads to growth.
A child then, is like a plant in the garden. You can’t make the plant, you can only nurture it and help it grow. What they need are good materials and caring gardeners. He thought about who could best take care of these tender shoots and Instantly he knew it had to be women. We are after all sweet and cuddly by nature. So he set up schools to train these female child gardeners—his kinder garteners—to provide a safe, loving atmosphere for little children to grow.
1837 saw the opening of Froebel’s first school The Child Nurture and Activity Institute, in Blacksburg, Prussia. There the children were the center of everything. The matronly kindergartener would gently guide the physical, moral, and spiritual development of her little plants. She would educate boys, girls, rich, poor, all together. Yet another idea that was radical for its time. The school was just like one big cozy family. Froebel wrote a book of songs and games for the children and even created what he called his “gifts.” The “gifts” were made mostly of wooden blocks and geometric shapes designed to be introduced in a specific sequence. The object of the gifts, according to Froebel, was to ” strengthen their bodies, to exercise their senses, [and] to engage their awakening mind.”²
It was Mrs. Margaretha Schurz that transplanted Froebel’s garden to the U.S. The year was 1856, and liberals in Germany had begun a revolution. This whole Monarchy system is getting kind old, they said, Let’s dust it off and move it out. For some reason the Monarchy disagreed, and the revolution was squashed like a June bug on a picnic blanket. With all the warm fuzzies gone from daily life in their homeland, many of the would-be reformers fled to America. Mr. and Mrs. Schurz were among the party.
Now, Margaretha had met Herr Froebel, and in fact her sister had opened many kindergartens herself. So when Margaretha began to educate her own children along with four of her neighbors, she instinctively went with Froebel’s teachings. Soon other parents near her home in Watertown, Wisconsin noticed what Margaretha was doing and liking what they saw, wanted their children to be included.
It didn’t take long for the idea of kindergarten to spread to educators in other states. Due to industrialization, many women were saying sayonara to their traditional home-keeping roles and heading off to the factories. The children, however, still needed looking after. Froebel’s kindergarten looked like it could provide the answer.
Privately run schools were the first to pop up, but finally in 1873 they went public. Like most things once the government got its hands on it, the original idea of what kindergarten should be was ruined. Learning objectives, habit formation, and standardized curriculum became the buzzwords of the day. Nature and free play were relegated to after school hours.
So was Froebel right? Were his gifts anything more than fun things to play with? Did it really make a difference in the long run? Well here are a few people that were brought up with Froebel’s gifts:
Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect know for his organic style of architecture. He’s pretty famous for this house:
Buckminster Fuller: Architect, author, inventor. He held the patient on dome homes. Here’s one of them:
Piet Mondrian: Dutch painter famous for things like this:
And guess who was a childhood fan of Froebel’s blocks:
Wow, that’s pretty impressive. I wonder what would happen if I played with blocks? Would it make me more creative, and as smart as Einstein? Whatever it does, I sure hope it doesn’t give me that hair.