Rediscovering Kindergarten

kindergarten

The German term Kindergarten is widely recognized and understood, but the name of the man who coined the term, ultimately redefining early education, has largely been forgotten. In fact, today, the name Friedrich Froebel is hardly known even in educational circles. However, the foundations laid by this 19th century German educator still firmly underlie early childhood education.

What we have come to know as the hallmarks of childhood were established by Froebel over 175 years ago. At that time, play was viewed as idle, and children were considered miniature adults. Froebel radically asserted that children learn best through play, that academics should be left for after the age of seven, and that children need to be in an environment suited to learning through their hands. He believed that a child naturally loves movement, music, and exploration in nature. Stories and rhymes should be the basis for later letter and number skills.

Froebel did not so much invent these key factors of childhood, rather, he brought them to the surface and into everyone’s attention. Froebel made children important. His ideas became embodied in his original “Kindergarten” or a “Children’s Garden” based on the philosophy that children, like plants, grow at their own pace but must be nurtured by the family and society.

bark boat

After Froebel died, his educational ideas spread throughout the world. His theories were expanded, both positively and negatively. His ideas influenced generations of educators such as Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, John Dewey, Caroline Pratt, Marietta Johnson, and Charlotte Mason. The philosophies of Reggio Emilia, the Project Method, Progressive Education, and Homeschooling have their roots in Froebel’s Kindergarten as well. His ideas that children learn best through hands-on exploration are clearly visible in the current focus on STEM learning in early childhood. Many people who use these methods are unaware of the roots.

So, Froebel never truly disappeared. Yes, his name has been largely forgotten, but he is there. One just needs to know where to look. Like scientists, in order to understand the plant it is important to study the roots. The key factors about childhood that he established need to be brought back into focus and used in today’s classroom. As the late Jeanne Spielman Rubin wrote in her book, Intimate Triangle: Architecture of Crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Froebel Kindergarten:

In all fairness to Froebel, whose stature as a top-ranking scientist has been thus far overlooked by historians, and to his kindergarten, the scientific basis of which has been similarly overlooked, a significant section of the history of education should be rewritten. Perhaps his approach–after more than a century and a half of incomplete understanding or, more often, of total misunderstanding–should now be reinvestigated as a possible candidate for guiding young minds, eyes, and hands into the twenty-first century.

Many early childhood programs and kindergartens today are a poor interpretation of what Froebel intended. Yes, there are quality programs and wholesome environments, but the teachers work out of a state determined curriculum that is influenced by bench marks, testing, and money. To rediscover Froebel means to rediscover the true essence of childhood. The “Children’s Garden” needs to become again the place where children are nurtured through play, hands-on exploration, and loving care.

Froebelblick

This monument, symbolizing Froebel’s second Gift, overlooks the village of Keilhau where Froebel coined the term “Kindergarten”. It serves as a reminder of Froebel’s lasting mark on the world.

Who was Friedrich Froebel?

Friedrich Froebel was born in Oberweissbach, a village in Thuringia, Germany on April 21, 1782. His own childhood was difficult. His father was a busy pastor of the Lutheran Church and his mother died while he was an infant. Froebel was mostly left to his own devices until at the age of fifteen when he was apprenticed to a Forester. This work not only immersed him in nature, but also taught him to observe and investigate in a scientific manner. After two years, Froebel went to Jena to attend University. After floundering with his studies and tuition he went back to work for the Forestry Office. Froebel’s knowledge and love of surveying and map-making led him to architecture. He went on to become an architect’s assistant.

But unexpectedly, Froebel switched paths. He had always had a great desire to teach and a friend counceled him to apply to a model Pestalozzi school in Frankfurt. Froebel was heavily influenced by the ideas of Pestalozzi and eventually spent two years working under him in Yverdon, Switzerland in order to secure a certificate.

In the same way in which Froebel diligently observed nature as a forester, he began observing the children of his friends, colleagues, and village neighbors. He learned by watching. Then he wrote his ideas down, shared his theories, asked parents to read over his conclusions, and to try out his suggestions. In 1837, Froebel established the first kindergarten at Bad Blankenburg, Thuringia, Germany to further develop and test his radical new educational method and philosophy based on active learning. He later named his institution “Kindergarten”–a “garden” where children would learn and grow in a nurturing enviornment.

feeling

“We grow through three fundamental principles of human existence: feeling, thinking, and doing.”

Developing the environment was so important to his philosophy that Froebel stated that education must begin, “a hundred years before the child is born.” Because of that, he believed, it would take “three generations to prove the truth of the Kindergarten idea.” Until this time there had been no educational system for children under seven years of age, nor recognition that young children were capable of learning social and intellectual skills that might serve as a foundation for their whole life.

Friedrich Froebel went onto open several kindergartens, write books, lecture, and train teachers. He first put into fruition the idea of “school-mother’s”, or women teachers. The teachers he trained spread his methods throughout Europe and the United States.

The “Gifts” he developed are maybe the best known portion of his legacy. They were the first educational toys and are the root of all of today’s building toys. His “Occupations” live on in hand-work and art classes. His movement games and songs continue. He stressed the importance of celebrating festivals to build community strength.

blocks

When Froebel died on June 21st, 1852 disappointment lurked in the corners. His Kindergartens were being closed by the Prussian government for being too free—a threat to the status quo. Were they suspicious that free-thinking Kindergarteners might undermine their authority? His methods were forced underground but the great educator’s legacy did eventually become widespread through the persistence of his co-workers.

As early as 1836, Froebel pointed to the United States of America as the country best fitted, by virtue of its spirit of freedom, to receive his educational message. In many ways this was realized after his death. Now it is time to renew this relationship and reintroduce Froebel’s educational theories to the 21st century. His radical ideas of child-centered education based on play and a love of learning need to be rediscovered today.

gift

This biography was paraphrased from the original Little Journey’s to the Homes of Great Teachers Vol. 10 by Elbert Hubbard, 1916 and updated by Tiffeni J. Goesel of Williamsburg, Virginia. www.froebeltoday.com and www.facebook.com/froebeltoday.

©Tiffeni J. Goesel 2015

Resources for further reading:

Inventing Kindergarten - Norman Brosterman

How Kindergarten Came to America: Friedrich Froebel’s Radical Vision of Early Childhood Education - Bertha von Marenholtz-Bulow

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About the Author Tiffeni Goesel

Tiffeni Goesel

was born one week and 188 years after Froebel in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. She was raised to respect and learn from the past and apply it to life’s lessons. She earned her BA in education, her M.Ed in Education History and is a certified Waldorf teacher. While questioning the origins of Waldorf education, Ms. Goesel found Froebel. Since then she has attended, spoke, and taught at conferences both in the U.S and internationally. She currently teaches a variety of children and adults in her home classroom in Virginia. She advises parents and teachers on how to use Froebel’s materials and travels to schools, parks, and museums spreading Friedrich Froebel’s philosophy.

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  • Alexandra Paulino

    I love the idea of a garden where children can learn by playing freely. My dream is to implement this when I open my own Daycare Center.

  • Christine

    This article was a balm to my soul. After being in the field of early childhood for over 30 years, I am more fearful than ever before over what is happening to our children. It is as if everything in our culture, educational, and economic system is working towards making childhood a time spent only to prepare for consumerism, testing well, and getting a job. The humanness and spiritual life of children is being driven into a very distant part of life. This is the very system that Froebel stood against.

  • Sonia Mendoza

    I totally believe in Mr. Froebel's ideas. Let the children play through the age of 5, let them explore and grow. Give the children the proper environment to develop these skills and grow on their own terms and times. No child is alike and their development skills are different. Thank you for this article,it is a breath of fresh light and very powerful now that I will be soon starting a new adventure with children.

  • Scott Bultman

    Community Playthings have maintained a strong connection with Froebel's teachings. It's great see this article, especially on Froebel's birthday. Tiffeni Goesel has dedicated her life to reviving his work and her research is an integral part of this upcoming documentary https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/763078892/froebel-kindergarten-film

  • Claribel Jones

    My last visit to a public school kindergarten room broke my heart everything that said, "Play, think, imagine" was removed no home living center, no blocks, no messy art area. The teacher was thrilled the children had learned to read. I told her they had a lifetime to learn to read but only a few years to explore, think and find out who they are. She looked at me with disgust. I taught nursery school through third grade for more than 30 years. I fear for America that the joy of learning, discovering, and exploring has been replaced with this mantra "Is this on the test?" I do not understand today's parents for allowing their children to be placed in such unnatural environments at such an early age.

  • Marti Higgins

    Somehow, we need to not only remember Froebel, but to revive and take to heart his teachings. Everything I read about him makes me want to know more of him. We truly have forgotten, if we ever knew, what "kindergarten" is supposed to be.

  • LynKristine

    The whole reason why Froebel created the idea of kindergarten was to allow children the opportunity to learn through play and to develop their social skills. Creative play is a wonderful way for children to tap into their creative side, establish friendships, and learn to solve conflicts. Why can't we allow children to be children? I don't think Froebel would be to happy the way we are pushing children under five to become adults.

  • Tiffeni Goesel

    Thank you for all your kind comments. I'm pleased to read that several of you have taken the article topic to heart and are even encouraged to read more by Friedrich Froebel. His books are all online to read. One important fact to remember is that Froebel never intended his philosophy of education to be limited to early childhood; but wrote about carrying his theories throughout the years to adulthood. Many of these ideas were practiced at Keilhau in Germany; a beautiful village hugged in a valley. If you are curious, my Froebel work is on my website: www.froebeltoday and at www.facebook.com/froebeltoday. I am a practicing Froebel teacher and mentor. Please contact me if you have questions. Thank you.

  • Betty Hutchison

    What is missing is the realization of the great loss of the individual's creativity. The young child has not been here before, and the world is his to discover, learn from and recreate in his own likeness. That is the essence of the young child's and the kindergarten/preschool experience. First, the child has to learn and value his own individuality and learn to respect others and then be comfortable in his personal quest to explore and possibly create what was never there before with the support of adults who facilitate and value his exploration and creation. Now how do you test that???

  • Rick Ellis

    My final seminar project in 1980 for my master's degree in early childhood was based on the recreation of "A Garden for Children" in my own public school setting, where I taught kindergarten. I felt as though at that time, I was able to achieve that goal. Teachers had ownership of their classrooms, creativity both for teachers AND students was admired and encouraged, and holism prevailed. Sadly in 2015, homogeneity is the name of the game, scripted and canned programs are in place, and standardized testing now governs the educational realm. I feel very lucky that I was able to be a teacher in an era that exemplified many of Froebel's values. I feel sad for the children of today who will not be afforded that opportunity. We must look at our long-term investment in these children as tomorrow's leaders and wonder what they will bring to the table for the unresolved problems of the world. Everyone will be looking for "the manual", and there will be none! A scary thought! Let's all band together in support of play as the learning medium!

  • Jacqui Biddle

    I would like to read more articles about Froebel work. I am studying a bachelor in early childhood and I am in my last year of study.

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View Comments 11
Close

Comments (11)

Leave a Comment
  • Alexandra Paulino

    I love the idea of a garden where children can learn by playing freely. My dream is to implement this when I open my own Daycare Center.

  • Christine

    This article was a balm to my soul. After being in the field of early childhood for over 30 years, I am more fearful than ever before over what is happening to our children. It is as if everything in our culture, educational, and economic system is working towards making childhood a time spent only to prepare for consumerism, testing well, and getting a job. The humanness and spiritual life of children is being driven into a very distant part of life. This is the very system that Froebel stood against.

  • Sonia Mendoza

    I totally believe in Mr. Froebel's ideas. Let the children play through the age of 5, let them explore and grow. Give the children the proper environment to develop these skills and grow on their own terms and times. No child is alike and their development skills are different. Thank you for this article,it is a breath of fresh light and very powerful now that I will be soon starting a new adventure with children.

  • Scott Bultman

    Community Playthings have maintained a strong connection with Froebel's teachings. It's great see this article, especially on Froebel's birthday. Tiffeni Goesel has dedicated her life to reviving his work and her research is an integral part of this upcoming documentary https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/763078892/froebel-kindergarten-film

  • Claribel Jones

    My last visit to a public school kindergarten room broke my heart everything that said, "Play, think, imagine" was removed no home living center, no blocks, no messy art area. The teacher was thrilled the children had learned to read. I told her they had a lifetime to learn to read but only a few years to explore, think and find out who they are. She looked at me with disgust. I taught nursery school through third grade for more than 30 years. I fear for America that the joy of learning, discovering, and exploring has been replaced with this mantra "Is this on the test?" I do not understand today's parents for allowing their children to be placed in such unnatural environments at such an early age.

  • Marti Higgins

    Somehow, we need to not only remember Froebel, but to revive and take to heart his teachings. Everything I read about him makes me want to know more of him. We truly have forgotten, if we ever knew, what "kindergarten" is supposed to be.

  • LynKristine

    The whole reason why Froebel created the idea of kindergarten was to allow children the opportunity to learn through play and to develop their social skills. Creative play is a wonderful way for children to tap into their creative side, establish friendships, and learn to solve conflicts. Why can't we allow children to be children? I don't think Froebel would be to happy the way we are pushing children under five to become adults.

  • Tiffeni Goesel

    Thank you for all your kind comments. I'm pleased to read that several of you have taken the article topic to heart and are even encouraged to read more by Friedrich Froebel. His books are all online to read. One important fact to remember is that Froebel never intended his philosophy of education to be limited to early childhood; but wrote about carrying his theories throughout the years to adulthood. Many of these ideas were practiced at Keilhau in Germany; a beautiful village hugged in a valley. If you are curious, my Froebel work is on my website: www.froebeltoday and at www.facebook.com/froebeltoday. I am a practicing Froebel teacher and mentor. Please contact me if you have questions. Thank you.

  • Betty Hutchison

    What is missing is the realization of the great loss of the individual's creativity. The young child has not been here before, and the world is his to discover, learn from and recreate in his own likeness. That is the essence of the young child's and the kindergarten/preschool experience. First, the child has to learn and value his own individuality and learn to respect others and then be comfortable in his personal quest to explore and possibly create what was never there before with the support of adults who facilitate and value his exploration and creation. Now how do you test that???

  • Rick Ellis

    My final seminar project in 1980 for my master's degree in early childhood was based on the recreation of "A Garden for Children" in my own public school setting, where I taught kindergarten. I felt as though at that time, I was able to achieve that goal. Teachers had ownership of their classrooms, creativity both for teachers AND students was admired and encouraged, and holism prevailed. Sadly in 2015, homogeneity is the name of the game, scripted and canned programs are in place, and standardized testing now governs the educational realm. I feel very lucky that I was able to be a teacher in an era that exemplified many of Froebel's values. I feel sad for the children of today who will not be afforded that opportunity. We must look at our long-term investment in these children as tomorrow's leaders and wonder what they will bring to the table for the unresolved problems of the world. Everyone will be looking for "the manual", and there will be none! A scary thought! Let's all band together in support of play as the learning medium!

  • Jacqui Biddle

    I would like to read more articles about Froebel work. I am studying a bachelor in early childhood and I am in my last year of study.

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