Early Childhood Education

Froebel, Friedrich (1782-1852)


Although recognized primarily as the “Father” of the kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel also helped change educational methods for all age levels around the world. In the early 1800s, it was assumed that school should begin at age 7, with male teachers who enforced rote memorization by strict discipline. By the end of the nineteenth century, women were accepted as classroom teachers, discipline was less punitive, and his ideas about active learning had been incorporated into kindergartens and upper grades.

Many of Froebel’s innovations can be attributed to his own difficult childhood, described in detail by Bowen (1909), Downs (1978), and others. He was born in the Thuringian village of Oberweisbach, now in eastern Germany. His mother died when he was an infant, a stepmother rejected him, and his father was an overworked Lutheran minister. Because he was a “dreamer” with learning problems, Friedrich was placed in the local school for girls until age 10. After that, he lived with an uncle and attended classes with boys. At fifteen, he was a forester’s apprentice for two years, where he developed an interest in nature and read scientific books.

Froebel briefly attended several universities to study philosophy and sciences. It was a period of radical ideas and social reform. At Jena, from newly translated Persian scriptures and crystallography, he redefined God to mean a spiritual element that holds everything in the universe together. In 1805, after being persuaded to teach at a Pestalozzian school in Frankfurt, he found his lifetime occupation. He said that it was like being a fish put back into water and he became determined to open his own school. He established his coeducational Universal German Educational Institution in 1816, following two years with Johann Pestalozzi. Its unique emphasis was upon “learning by doing” in cooperative groups, including gardening and handicrafts. Its philosophical goal was to integrate the inner spirit of students with the outer world.

When Froebel recognized that his students lacked preparation for a system of learning through doing when they entered at age 7, he began extensive correspondence and observations. Reading the long-forgotten writings of John Amos Comenius supported his concept of infant education with the assistance of their mothers and classrooms for those aged 3-7. When he was fifty-eight years old, despite the recent death of his wife and persistent financial problems, a kindergarten with a teacher training class and a mothers organization formally opened in Rudelstadt in 1840. It introduced the idea of “making the inner outer and the outer inner” by playful games and activities. The concept quickly spread, with his followers establishing similar schools in other locations. By 1848, 260 kindergarten supporters met at Rudelstadt to celebrate its success. However, Prussian officials became increasingly suspicious of his political affiliations. He was accused of being a pantheist and a socialist. They ordered all kindergartens closed in 1851, although most of those outside their state remained open. Support of other educators, originally negative because he supported female teachers and because he had difficulty in explaining his philosophy, had become positive. This was indicated by the standing ovation given when he entered a major European Educational Congress the following spring, but Froebel died “of a broken heart” two months later.

Although Froebel was a charismatic and persuasive speaker, he always found it difficult to express his thoughts in writing. He depended upon his wife, friends, and even former students to clarify his thoughts, but he traveled widely and maintained a prodigious output of letters, journals, and some major publications. His Education of Man (1826) was widely discussed throughout Europe, with its 1885 annotated translation by William Hailmann a major contributor to the movement in the United States that became known as Progressive Education. The activities of his 1844 picture book with an English title of Mother-, Play- and Nursery Songs are still chanted by mothers and integrated into preschool classes around the world.

At the time of his death, Froebel was still developing sequenced curriculum materials. Best known are the Gifts and Occupations, blocks and manipulative materials that were to be introduced in a logical progression from simple to complex as children became ready for them. Music was integrated into active games. Children had garden plots and sand boxes. In these original kindergartens, individuality and creativity were encouraged by teachers who were facilitators, not disciplinarians. Mother volunteers were welcome, with teachers often addressed as “Auntie” to indicate their sisterhood.

Froebel’s kindergartens, with their teacher training classes, continued after his death. He had married Luise Levin in 1851, a former pupil who successfully moved the training program to Keilhau. The Baroness Bertha von Marenholz-Bulow, a financial supporter since 1849, carried the message to England, France, and other nations until her own death in 1893. Some of his followers, particularly those who had participated in his training classes and had left Germany because of the political situation, maintained his philosophy and passed it on to their own students in the United States. They recognized that he had intended to continue modifying and improving upon his original ideas. However, there soon were varied interpretations of his methods. Manufacturers sold manuals describing rigid use of products that they attributed to Froebel. Some educators who professed to follow him had only a superficial understanding and interjected their own beliefs (Hewes, 2001, 2005).

In the United States, when the kindergartens became integrated into the public schools during the early 1900s, children under age 4 or 5 were no longer admitted. Patty Smith Hill and other Froebelians became concerned about younger children. Their 1926 Committee on Nursery Schools evolved into the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which maintains the basic kindergarten philosophy (see www.naeyc.org).

Interest in Froebel has recently revived. Brosterman (1997) described how modern art and architecture of the early 1900s derived from the Froebelian schooling of their creators. Rubin (2002) explained the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and Froebel’s crystallography. Authentic Froebelian materials and reprints of early books are available from the Froebel Foundation (www.froebelfoundation.org). Archives and other references are in several European universities. In England, the Froebel College in Roehampton is also the location of an International Froebel Society organized in 2002 with plans for biennial conferences (www.froebelweb.org). American kindergarten archives include those of the Association for Childhood Education International (see www.acei.org) at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Further Readings: Bowen, H. Courthope (1909). Froebel and education through self-activity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Brosterman, Norman (1997). Inventing kindergarten. New York: H. N. Abrams. Downs, Robert B. (1978). Friedrich Froebel. Boston: Twayne; Froebel, Friedrich (1826). The education of man. Translated by William Hailmann, 1885. New York: D. Appleton; Hewes, Dorothy W. (2001). W. N. Hailmann: Defender of Froebel. Grand Rapids, MI: Froebel Foundation; Hewes, Dorothy W. (2005). Maintaining the median. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 26/2(April- June); Rubin, Jeane (2002). Intimate triangle: Architecture of crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Froebel kindergarten. Huntsville, AL: Polycrystal.

Dorothy W. Hewes