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If you’re working within the educational arena then it’s likely that you will have heard of Friedrich Froebel: if you don’t know his name, you will certainly have heard of his work and if you work in early years education then you are probably working in an environment based on his theories. Whether you are a primary school teacher, nursery nurse, or other early years practitioner, the work of Friedrich Froebel may be 200 years old, but it is still having a significant impact today. Here’s everything you need to know about the man and his work.
Who was Friedrich Froebel?
Friedrich Froebel was a pioneering educator and was one of the first experts to truly recognise the importance of play to early childhood. His full name was Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, and he was born on 21st April 1782, dying on 21st June 1852.
Froebel had a very difficult childhood, which makes the impact he had on child education even more extraordinary. Born as the fifth child to a clergyman and his wife, his mother died when he was just nine years old meaning that he was neglected in early childhood. Ultimately, he was given a home by an uncle who sent him to school, and it is here that he began to study languages and mathematics, as well as acquiring an in-depth knowledge of plants and other natural phenomena.
Froebel’s early adulthood was as disjointed as his childhood. He started his career as an apprentice to a forester before attending some university courses on an informal basis. During these years he was jailed for an unpaid debt and continued to try various forms of employment unsuccessfully. It was at the end of this period that Froebel took a teaching position at a progressive model school in Frankfurt. The school was run by Anton Gruner on lines advocated by the Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. It was here that Froebel found his vocation but, when working closely with both Gruner and Pestalozzi, it was also here that he began to recognise the weaknesses in Pestalozzi’s theories and start to postulate his own.
A Successful Career
Having realised that education was his true vocation, Froebel entered the University of Gottingen in 1811. His studies were interrupted by the onset of the Napoleonic Wars but during his involvement with this campaign he met H. Langenthal and W. Middendorff. These men became followers of his theory and worked with him to open a school at Griesheim in Thuringia in 1816. In 1818 the school moved to Keilhau in Thuringia, and it was here that Froebel’s educational theories were put into practice, being applied in real childhood situations. The school flourished and Froebel wrote numerous articles about his work and his theories. This culminated in 1826, when Froebel wrote and published his most significant theory; a body of work entitled Menschenerziehung (The Education of Man).
The First Kindergarten
In 1831 Froebel left his work at the Keilhau school and accepted a position to work for the Swiss government focusing on the training of elementary school teachers. Thanks to his work at the Keilhau school, Froebel believed fervently in the importance of early years of education, and this was only cemented by his time working for the Swiss government in this role. When he returned to Keilhau in 1837, therefore, he chose to open an infant school. This school was originally named the Child Nurture and Activity Institute, but this was later renamed the kindergarten, or “garden of children.”
During this period Froebel established his own publishing house which focused solely on the production of play and educational materials. The most popular of these was a collection of Mother-Play and Nursery Songs, which were printed alongside lengthy explanations of their meaning and use. This book was so popular that its use became widespread, and it was ultimately translated into a huge number of languages.
Froebel was passionate about the improvement of infant education. He believed that a high-quality pre-school education would improve comprehensive educational levels and could also lead to social reform. Froebel’s kindergarten gained a lot of attention, and other kindergartens were established during this period, all based on Froebel’s model.
Unfortunately, because of a confusion with the socialist views of Froebel’s nephew, the Prussian government introduced a widespread ban of the kindergarten movement in 1851. The ban was not removed until after 1860, several years after Froebel’s death in 1852. It is only thanks to the work and promotion of one of Froebel’s followers, the Baroness of Marenholtz-Bülow, that his ideas were brought to England, France, and the Netherlands, where educators adopted them after his death. Kindergartens are standard educational models for children aged between 4-6 years throughout Europe and North America, only because of the work and research of Froebel.
Friedrich Froebel theories
The most significant of Friedrich Froebel’s theories is known as the Froebel play theory. This is a theory that proposed that children learn best when they are learning through play. Motor expression, social participation, free self-expression and creativity are the key pillars of play theory, and this is the Froebel theory that is still being used most widely to this day.
Other Friedrich Froebel theories that still have key relevance to the way that we educate our young children today include the set of tools and materials he developed which are known as the Froebel Gifts and Occupations. These are a series of open-ended toys and tools that are presented to children at different developmental stages of their early years progress. The gifts were a series of six open ended resource tools and were presented to children at approximately the following ages:
- Gift 1 is presented to a child when they are an infant. This is a small soft ball, or ball made of yarn in a block colour. The ball should be small enough to fit into the child’s hand. Froebel felt that by interacting with the ball (holding it, squeezing it, dropping it, and so on) a child would understand more about movement, speed and spatial relationships. It would also help with colour and contrast development
- Gift 2 is presented when a child is aged between 1-2 and consists of a wooden cube and a wooden sphere. Children would delight in experimenting and discovering the differences between the two wooden shapes: the idea was that children would observe the two gifts and how they moved and looked. They could also enjoy the noises they made as they rolled on different surfaces
- The third gift was presented to children between the ages of 2-3 years old. This gift was eight identical wooden cubes, and they were designed to spark the imagination of the child based on how they used the blocks. They could be pulled apart and built together in a myriad of different ways making this the ideal toy for sparking open-ended play
- The fourth gift is also presented to children between the ages of 2-3 years old, at the same time as the wooden cubes. This is a cube that is made of small pieces that can be deconstructed and then reassembled in different ways. The cube could be used independently or broken down and used with the previous gift to increase the construction and imagination play opportunities
- The fifth gift is presented to children between the ages of 3-4 years and continues with the theme of wooden cubes. This time additional cubes are added, and some of these have been divided into halves and quarters. Whilst this would increase the play potential of the toy, Froebel also intended for it to be used to build maths concepts, and encourage scientific, logical thinking in children
- The final gift was offered to children between the ages of 4 and 5 and included more complex wooden block shapes such as prisms. Mathematical reasoning was continually promoted via this toy, though children were free to interpret these gifts as they wished, through their own play
Many of Froebel’s theories focused on the importance of nature and outdoor play to a child’s development: he believed that access to the light and space that nature provides is key to brain development. What’s more Froebel was the first to recognise the significant impact that how they are treated in the first three years of their life can impact the life-long brain development of children.
What did Friedrich Froebel do for education?
It would be impossible to overestimate what Friedrich Froebel did for education. The way that we think about early childhood, and how we interact with children academically during this period was pioneered by Froebel, and the modern value placed on early years education is thanks to his work and his research. Much of the focus of Froebel’s research was on learning through play, and what was innovative about the research he constructed is that he based his understanding of children, and his research, on observing them. This was innovative for its time.
Friedrich Froebel introduced the concept of early years education, and the value of early years learning through play. Perhaps Froebel’s most significant quote is that “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul.” From an educator’s point of view, Froebel’s theories really did change everything.
At its most fundamental level, Froebel believed in the power of play, and this is something that educators (particularly those working with children under the age of five) still focus on embracing today. Play allows children to understand the world around them, and to construct their own version of it, by experiencing it directly at their own level. The main principles of play theory are that:
- Children should learn through play, as this will allow them to discover how things work at their own pace. Children should have regular access to free play and be encouraged to engage in hands-on activities, to remain active, and focus on each individual child’s unique interests
- The play should be conducted at the child’s own pace, and each individual’s developmental pace should be respected. Froebel acknowledged that all children learn at their own pace and learn in different ways: he believed that it was more important that children set the pace for themselves than for educators to set the pace for them
- Educators and Practitioners only serve as a guide for the children under their care. They are not keepers of knowledge, but rather guides whose purpose is to lead the children under their care to a deeper understanding that will extend their existing interests. The reasoning behind this approach was that this would encourage children to self-motivate, with self-motivation driving their educational progress. Children should be encouraged to make mistakes, rather than punished for any errors, with a trial-and-error approach being actively encouraged
- Free play should never mean unprepared play: whilst free play is essential, the learning environment should be prepared to ensure that it is an optimal learning environment for children based on their learning stage and their ability. Play theory is not an excuse for educators to take a step back from their involvement with a child’s learning, therefore
- Finally, play theory also emphasised the importance of movement. Froebel felt that movement was key to a child’s development, and for this reason his approach involved using songs and dance, active finger movements and the movement of objects in order to interest and develop small children
In our modern society, a child’s right to play has been protected by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is widely acknowledged that children need space to play, to explore the world and express themselves without the direction of an adult. Modern children are afforded less opportunity to play independently than in previous generations: structured family lives, the drive to engage with formal educational activities, and increased media use and screen time have all had a negative impact on how much time children of all ages have to play. For this reason, Froebel’s play theory is just as relevant, and just as important, today as it was when it was first posed almost 200 years ago.