A large majority of us know the concept of the ‘kindergarten’ but may have mistaken it for merely another preschool. Today, most pre-primary schools incorporate the ideas of the kindergarten , or ‘a garden for children’ which dispels with the misconception of play being a wasteful activity and encourages a young child to learn about his, or her, environment through engagement with it. This nearly 200-year-old pedagogic approach was developed in a time, the early- to mid-19th Century Europe, when young children were no more than adults predestined become industrious cogs in the economy and society. Their instruction included no time for play and self-exploration and they were coerced to endure endless lectures and squander time on the rote memorisation of these lectures, a point with which we can all relate and sympathise.
Among the first to realise the deficiencies of such an education system, Friedrich Fröbel, a self-taught German pedagogue, sought to create a novel model of education centred on the unique capabilities and needs of a child. During that epoch, a majority of children under the age of seven worked in the mines or in factories, allocated no free time; Fröbel’s enduring work now enables them engage in ‘free work’, or the importance of purposeful activity and games in childhood. He drew inspiration from his progressive contemporary, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who observed that encouraging a child’s inherent curiosity and exploratory temperament resulted in innovative individuals having a desire to learn and become independent in both thought and action.
After teaching at Pestalozzi’s Frankfurt school, and through his own experience of self-learning, Fröbel deemed that, as humans, we are highly creative individuals and that play is essential to our development, especially during our formative years. Play employs all of our imagination and physical movements to express our interests, thereby educating us as a whole; Fröbel sums it as, “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”.
Fröbel’s kindergartens include three distinct features: toys, or gifts, for sedentary creative play, termed as occupations; dances and games for healthy movement-oriented activity; as well as the examination and nurturing of plants in a garden, which stimulates a consciousness of Nature. In the gardens, children participate in all aspects of the growth, harvesting, and preparation of nutritious, seasonal produce. This also provides them with various basic mathematical concepts that are applicable to real life scenarios; moreover, the curriculum conveys the important relationship between food, health, and the environment through these activities.
Fröbel’s work at the University of Berlin’s Mineralogical Museum enabled him to both develop simple-to-understand “gifts” and his belief that certain, fixed laws govern the development of a child, similar to how others govern in science and in society. The use of materials and the activities associated with them is central to this pedagogic approach, particularly the significance of playing with blocks, which embody the construction of the universe. Proper implementation of these gifts results in the child transitioning from an understanding of the material to the abstract, or from experimentation to theory. In essence, the blocks develop the child’s spatial understanding, from which he or she will transition onto two-dimensional flat tiles and then linear sticks; logic-based tasks centred on a combination of these enable a child to relate space and volume.
The Fröbel gifts are given in a linked, sequential order, each increasing in complexity to match the maturation of the child and to expose him, or her, to new ideas:
- A soft, squashable ball that fits a young child’s hand, which also can be attached to a string, thus facilitating multimode movement when a parent sings to their child. Fröbel proposed to give this gift to very young children, through the act of dropping, hiding and revealing, holding, rolling, and swinging the ball, the child acquires an understanding of objects and develops spatial relationships, comprehends the concept of movement, speed and time, develops a perception of colour and contrast, and of weights and gravity.
- A wooden cube and sphere – the child discovers the differences between the two shapes; first, familiarity with the sphere leads to its recognition. Second, the sphere is identical in appearance from any perceived angle. Third, it moves, leading the child to associate with it. Fourth, it produces a sound upon rolling on a hard surface. Then, this contrasts with the cube, which appears different from each direction; furthermore, spinning of the cube in a different manner exposes the child to a myriad of shapes.
- The now-familiar cube is divided further into eight, one-inch (2.5cm) identical cubes, fitting in a child’s hand. The child discovers the separation, rearrangement, and reassembly of this first building gift.
- The fourth gift is another related to building but, to the child, it appears similar to the first. However, when the child pulls it apart, each of the eight component blocks is twice as long but half the width of the previous gift. This creates new opportunities for constructive play.
- The third building gift comprises additional component cubes with the original block, with some divided into halves and others into quarters, further simulating the child’s creative abilities
In our results-oriented society, the importance of play often is forgotten as we want our children to grow up into adults as quickly as possible, imprinted with school curriculum and forced into a rigid form so that they may become an economic cog – the very notions Fröbel sought to dispel in his day. We forget that this rubber-stamping, rote-memorisation form of education creates no innovators and in a economic-driven world where innovators and entrepreneurs are valued for the jobs they create, perhaps Fröbel’s pedagogy, with its emphasis learning from play, can orient our children in a positive direction. After all, why let your child become another brick in the wall!
- Fröbel, Friedrich (1900). The Student’s Froebel: Adapted from “Die Erziehung der Menschheit”. William H. Herford. Volumes I & II London: Isbister, 1900–01. I: Theory of education. Vol. II: Practice of Education
- Norman, Brosterman (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
- Wollons, Roberta. L. (ed). Kindergartens and cultures: The Global Diffusion of an Idea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000