Not many people know it but if you work in the Early Childhood field, Friedrich Froebel is one of the giants whose shoulders you stand on. Friedrich Froebel (1782 – 1852) was a German educational philosopher who may not be as well-known as Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, John Dewey or Loris Malaguzzi, but he has probably had a bigger influence on your practice than any of the others, either directly or indirectly. Froebel’s principles have become part of everyday practice in early childhood settings around the world. Many of you will know and have been influenced in your practice by Froebelian educators such as Tina Bruce, Helen Tovey and Helen May. Indeed, you can see Froebel’s influence in Aistear – The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009) which guides our practice.
Consider your own pedagogical practice:
- Are play and meaningful activities part of your practice?
- Do you value the importance of childhood in its own right?
- Do you take a holistic view of each child’s development?
- Do you use observation of children to guide your practice?
- Do you have block play in your setting?
- Do you encourage creativity in your setting?
- Do you encourage children to self-reflect?
- Do you use encouragement to motivate children?
- Do you value the use of the outdoor environment and the natural world?
- Do you encourage partnership with parents?
- Do you see children and your setting as an integral part of the community?
- Are you a female educator?
- If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then you stand on Froebel’s shoulders!
In the 1830s, Friedrich Froebel created the Kindergarten (Children’s Garden) as a place where children could learn and develop in a carefully created environment, both indoors and outdoors, under the guidance of ‘knowledgeable, nurturing’ adults. He believed that children first learn at their mother’s knee and so saw a place for women as educators. This idea, like many of his beliefs, was revolutionary in his time.
Like many of us nowadays, Froebel believed that children learn best through play, self-activity and self-reflection and he argued that learning should be related to children’s own lives. According to Froebel:
“Play is the highest level of child development. It is the spontaneous expression of thought and feeling. …It… constitutes the source of all that can benefit the child … At this age play is never trivial; it is serious and deeply significant” (Froebel in Lilley 1967:84).
He also advocated for freedom for children to choose, make decisions, follow their own interests and problem solve, many of the aspirations we have for children in our settings today. He saw the adult’s role to guide the children so that they learn to be responsible and show consideration for others within this freedom. Froebel was a strong believer in the power of observation and reflection by educators. He stated that observations alone were not enough, the educator had to reflect on the observations. He believed that through observing and documenting the child, the adult would best know how to support the child’s learning and development. In our day-to-day practice, Aistear – the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009) – also advocates for the above ideas, clearly aligning itself to the principles of Froebel and reminding us that although times have changed, the best way for children to learn and develop is still the same!
Froebel provided each child in his Kindergarten with their own garden plot to grow and care for plants and believed that children “should experience nature in all its aspects – form, energy, substance, sound and colour” (Froebel in Lilley 1967:148). He argued that the best way for children to experience nature was through playing outdoors.
Froebel developed a series of ‘Gifts and Occupations’ for use in his Kindergarten. The gifts were geometric shapes, starting with crocheted balls for babies and moving on to wooden blocks of various dimensions. Activities such as sewing, weaving, paper folding, woodwork, etc. were the Occupations. Though the Gifts are not widely used in settings in Ireland today, the unit blocks (Community blocks) many of you have in your settings (developed by Carolyn Pratt) are based on Froebel’s Gifts. Montessori’s blocks were also influenced by Froebel Gifts.
We take many of these ideas for granted in today’s early years practice without thinking of who influenced our practice. So next time someone asks you what influences your practice, you can include Friedrich Froebel in your list of influences.
I am proud to say that I stand on Froebel’s shoulders and that his principles are as relevant today as they were nearly 200 years ago.
If you would like to know more about Froebel’s principles and what Froebelian practice looks like in today’s world, follow this link to a pamphlet by Helen Tovey (2020) from the Froebel Trust.
And if you are considering additional qualifications, the BA in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning at Maynooth University, in association with Early Childhood Ireland, is the ideal way to up upskill and steep yourself in Froebelian philosophy! Find out more here.
Lilley, I. (1967) Friedrich Froebel: A Selection from his Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)(2009). Aistear The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Dublin: NCCA.
Tovey, H. (2020). Froebel’s principles and practices today. Roehampton, London: Froebel Trust.
Patsy Stafford is an Associate Professor at the Froebel Department of Primary & Early Childhood Education at Maynooth University. She lectures on the full-time and flexible BA in Early Childhood – Teaching & Learning degrees at Maynooth University.