The Architect of Kindergarten System
The word “Kindergarten”, is well-established in English language. In fact, it is of German origin, meaning either “garden of/for children”, indicating suitable ecosystems for their growth and development. Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782–1852), a German educationalist, developed this concept based on the adventures of his own life, which was not always favorable to him. Churning the ocean of his miseries, Froebel identified certain principles for early childhood learning, which have contributed to make lives of generations of children livable ever since. The principle of “playful learning” liberated multitudes of kids from the shackles of monotonous learning rituals.
Life of Froebel
Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel was the youngest of five sons of his father. His mother died as he was just nine-month old. Busy with his own career Friedrich’s father, who was a Lutheran pastor, left him to his own devices. Later on when he remarried, Friedrich was further unlucky and felt neglected his stepmother. A profoundly unhappy childhood! He was put into a girls' primary school at the instance of his father. Later on, he moved to a local town school at the home town of his maternal uncle. During this time, he served as an apprentice to a forester and surveyor and joined the University of Jena for the study of botany, both instilled in him deep love for nature. He had a short stint in architecture in Frankfurt, which equipped him with an artistic perspective and a sense of symmetry.
The turning point of his life happened with his association with Johann Henrich Pestalozzi, a well-known educationalist of the time. Pestalozzi maintained great respect for the dignity of children and endeavored to create a learning environment of emotional security. These concepts exerted seminal influence on the Froebel’s concept of kindergarten.
Froebel, a prolific learner, continued his studies in languages and science at the University of Göttingen. Knowledge of linguistic structures was at his service as he developed a pedagogy for language instruction later on. Study of mineralogy with Professor Christian Samuel Weiss, one of the pioneers of crystallography, instilled in him a fundamental principle of human development: just like crystallization, humans moved from a simple to complex structures, he observed. This enlisted a focused attention on the education at early childhood age, which was wholly neglected in those days.
In 1837, Froebel established a new type of early childhood school, the so called kindergarten, for three-and four-year-old children. He visualized it as a place, where kids realize their God-given life by their own explorations via playful activities. The concept of kindergarten was well-received and it spread throughout Germany like a wildfire.
Soon emerged allegations that the concept of kindergarten contained “destructive tendencies in the areas of religion and politics”, which could undermine the traditional values by promoting atheism and socialism. Froebel vehemently denied these charges. However, kindergartens were eventually banned in the German kingdom of Prussia in 1851. In the midst of these controversies, Froebel died in 1852. However, the concept of kindergarten kept spreading throughout Europe and North America. It remains as a powerful model for early childhood education today.
The Kindergarten Philosophy
In his book Education of Man (1826), Froebel articulates the foundational philosophy of the kindergarten movement. Accordingly, self-actualization is considered as the goal of any education. Every child potentially incorporates its own future just like a seed, which unfolds the story of a tree. It is God-given and complements with His grand plan for the universe. Hence, the purpose of education is not to impart anything from outside, rather to facilitate unfolding of the inherent human potential to its full realization. Education means “to lead froth or to draw out” (something which is inherent), in the true spirit of the Latin root of the word, “educare”.
The self-actualization is achieved through the self-motivated activities of the individual child. Kindergarten has to provide suitable environment for children to engage in activities that help unfold their innate essence in the social and natural context. "Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in a community of peers," says Froebel.
The activities of kindergarten hinges around plays. “Learn by playing” is the motto of kindergarten. Froebel believed 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." In play, a child constructs its understanding of itself and of the world around.
In fact, this was a radical proposition! It sharply contrasting with the prevalent understanding of education in the nineteenth century that considered play as an expression of either idleness or disorder. Play was conceived as an unworthy aspect of human life, which awaited systematic eradication from the psyche of children, transplanting the fine tastes of life in order to socialize them. Froebel suggested just the opposite. He wanted children to engage in play in order to disclose inherently novel in them. Through play, a child interacts with other children leading to better socialization. Play could ultimately relate a child to the divine intentions about its very being. Play, according to Froebel, is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child's soul. Play is characterized by spontaneity, joy, freedom and serenity, which shall permeate through all human activities as children and later on
Learning through nature was another important cornerstone of kindergarten education philosophy. Froebel advocated engagement with nature during kindergarten days, to instill love of nature in children. This would contribute to the holistic and integral development of a child, he surmised. Attention to the health, physical development, the environment, emotional well-being, mental ability, social relationships and spiritual aspects of development of a child were stressed in kindergarten education.
The role of a kindergarten teacher is to facilitate the play of the child in loving accompaniment or guidance as mandated. They should serve as the "gardeners" of children's potential. Froebel maintained that young children learn best in stimulating environments, where they could explore and learn from their own self-directed activities. Teachers are curators of such ecosystem.
The Kindergarten Curriculum
Froebel also created suitable curriculum for the kindergarten based on so called “gifts” and “occupations”. The common purpose of both gifts and occupations were to facilitate “learning by playing” and thus to bring about self-actualization. Froebel introduced the concept of “free work” (German: Freiarbeit) and identified “play” as the fundamental mode of learning available to a child.
Froebel gifts consisted of educational toys, which were essentially a collection of some geometrical forms and other materials to help construct things as per the spontaneous imagination of children. A typical gift consisted of 1) six soft and colored balls, 2) a wooden sphere, cube, and cylinder, 3) a large cube divided into eight smaller cubes, 4) a large cube divided into eight oblong blocks, 5) a large cube divided into twenty-one whole, six half, and twelve quarter cubes, 6) a large cube divided into eighteen whole oblongs: three divided lengthwise; three divided breadthwise, 7) quadrangular and triangular tablets used for arranging figures, 8) sticks for outlining figures, 9) whole and half wire rings for outlining figures, 10) various materials for drawing, perforating, embroidering, paper cutting, weaving or braiding, paper folding, modeling, and interlacing to facilitate creation of geometrical and architectural designs. Gifts help children to develop the simplest geometrical figures like a sphere or a circle as well as more complex objects, resulting from the integration of the former.
Froebel Occupations were items such as paper, pencils, wood, sand, clay, straw, and sticks for use in constructive activities. Sticks and rings helped children trace designs on paper. They serve the needs of exercising the small muscles of the hand, coordination of hand and eye movements, leading first to the art of drawing and later on to the art of writing. They provide hands-on explorations and practice with skills like clay work, woodwork, lacing, weaving, drawing, and cutting. They allow children uninterrupted periods of play where they construct their own meaning of how things work.
The routine activities of a typical kindergarten also include games, songs, and stories designed to assist in sensory and physical development and socialization.
The purpose of kindergarten is not to teach anything special, rather to prepare the way for the child for learning. Children shall imbibe a passion for learning, instilled through playful activities, making them school-ready.
Creativity is Re-imagination
The defining moment of kindergarten revolution was its redefinition of the concept of “play”. Froebel could understand the power of play to engender learning based on his own pathetically lonely childhood. He was abandoned to engage with himself and with the nature. That helped him invent things in a playful manner. In his concept of kindergarten, Froebel achieved a rebranding of the notion of “play” as a powerful tool of early-childhood learning, and no more as a sign of idleness and aberration. In the process, Froebel saved millions of children, who would have otherwise systematically weaned off their playful nature, to render their lives utterly miserable!