Childhood education pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel was born at Oberweissbach in the Thuringia region of Germany. (Froebel is the English form of the German surname Fröbel.) Just as his last name was translated from his native language, his ideas and educational practices were adapted to a variety of international settings. Froebel's greatest contribution to the care and education of young children, however, was his invention called the KINDERGARTEN.
The principal accounts of Froebel's life were written either by himself or by his supporters. Most of these biographies draw extensively upon his correspondence, contain religious language, and present Froebel in an uncritical, sometimes hagiographical, manner. The accounts highlight Froebel's unhappy early childhood experiences, describing them as influencing his thoughts and actions as an adult. The most lasting of Froebel's contributions to early childhood education is his insistence that its curriculum be based on play. Although Froebel was not the first to recognize that PLAY could be instructive, he did synthesize existing educational theories with innovative ideas of his own. He was not a very clear thinker, however; his writing is sometimes difficult to follow unless the reader interprets it in the context of German Romanticism, Idealist philosophy, and Naturphilosophie, or Nature Philosophy. These intellectual concepts heavily influenced Froebel. He read works by the German poet Novalis (1772–1801) and the German philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), Karl Krause (1781–1832), and Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854).
Froebel applied his so-called spherical philosophy to education and it, rather than empirical observation, guided his work. Because of his strong religious beliefs, some educators have argued that his approach is more accurately described as mystical rather than philosophical. His method was to counterpose opposites that would then be resolved through the mediation of a third element. For example, Froebel held that mind and matter, although opposites, are both subject to the same laws of nature in which God, the third element, is immanent. Another triad he used in relation to the child was unity, diversity, and individuality. Each child would spontaneously represent these elements, a process he referred to as all-sided, self-activity. This is the context of his statement that "play is the self-active representation of the inner from inner necessity."
Like the seventeenth-century Moravian bishop and educator JOHANN AMOS COMENIUS, Froebel thought that all personal development came from within. Therefore, he asserted that the task of the teacher was to provide the conditions for growth without intervening too much in the learning process. Froebel presented these ideas in his 1826 book The Education of Man. In this philosophical work, Froebel explains the aims and principles of his first school at Keilhau and describes the characteristics of the stages of BOYHOOD(never GIRLHOOD). Like the revolutionary Swiss-born French philosopher, JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712–1778), Froebel believed that education should be adapted to the needs and requirements of each stage. Also, like Rousseau, he advocated that teaching should follow nature, avoiding arbitrary interference in the life of the young child. Contrary to many religious beliefs at the time, this naturalist approach asserted that every child is born good.
After childhood the youngster begins school, and Froebel devoted a chapter to describing the subjects he thought appropriate for this stage. This discussion owes much to the theories of Swiss educator, JOHANN PESTALOZZI (1746–1827), whose work Froebel observed when he visited Pestalozzi's Yverdon Institute between 1808 and 1810. In the final part of his book, Froebel talks of the necessity of unity between the school and the family, thereby emphasizing the notion that education is most effective when the school and family complement each other.
Near the end of his life, Froebel turned his attention to the family and the education of young children through play. He invented his famous educational TOYS, which he called gifts, a graded series of wooden blocks together with a sphere and a cylinder. Later, he added learning activities, which he called occupations, such as paper-folding and -cutting, weaving, and clay modeling. At Blankenburg in 1837, Froebel gave the name kindergarten to his system of education foryoung children.
In 1843, Froebel published a book entitled Mother's Songs, Games and Stories. This was his most popular book; as the title suggests, it described action songs and finger plays (together with their musical notation) woodcut illustrations, and guidance on how to present the songs as well as the meanings that could be derived from them. The book's content was based in part on Froebel's observations of mothers singing to their children. Froebel wanted to help women educate their infants more effectively as a prerequisite for a better society. Many middle-class women in Germany and elsewhere, including the United States, opened kindergartens and used Froebel's methods to educate their children.
Educators have long debated the nature of the relationship between Froebel's philosophy and his pedagogy. While the gifts and occupations and games may not have been logically entailed by his philosophy, without it many teachers resorted to formalism and mechanical imitation. For the most part, his attempts to persuade public schools to adopt the kindergarten saw only limited success during his lifetime. After his death, however, his ideas and practices spread rapidly; other educators came to agree with Froebel's belief in the importance of early childhood education.
See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Education, Europe; Education, United States; Progressive Education; Theories of Play.
Bowen, H. C. 1893. Froebel and Education by Self-Activity. London: William Heinemann.
Brehony, Kevin J., ed. 2001. The Origins of Nursery Education: Friedrich Froebel and the English System. 6 vols. London: Routledge.
Shapiro, M. S. 1983. Child's Garden: The Kindergarten Movement from Froebel to Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Wollons, R. L., ed. 2000. Kindergartens and Cultures: The Global Diffusion of an Idea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
KEVIN J. BREHONY