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Educational Pioneers: Friedrich Froebel, 1782-1852


Friedrich Froebel was a German educationalist working in the early 19th Century. His work was heavily influenced by his belief in the unity of God, Nature and Man. Froebel's theories followed in the footsteps of the Swiss philosopher Rousseau, and he gained practical experience as a teacher at Johann Pestalozzi's school in Yverdun. Froebel was inspired by Pestalozzi's child-centred approach to education, but critical of his lack of direction. Froebel himself was driven by his belief in the value of early learning. He wrote that 'the earliest age is the most important one for education, because the beginning decides the manner of progress and the end' (in Rusk, p.143). Froebel published a number of books on early years education, including a book of action songs and rhymes titled Mother Play and Nursery Songs, and The Education of Man, published in 1826. In this work he introduced the concept that young children learn through play. He is best known for setting up the 'Kindergarten' schools for young children, which pioneered his child-centred, play-based philosophy. This article will explain some of Froebel's theories and look at their place in early years education today.

A Brief History

Froebel was born in 1782, the youngest of five children. His mother died when he was an infant. He spent some time living with his uncle, attending the local school and eventually becoming an apprentice to a forester. His love of nature was fuelled by this work, but he continued to study. After trying various jobs, he turned to teaching, working first at Pestalozzi's school in Yverdun and then at a progressive school in Frankfurt. His experiences there inspired him to set up an educational community at Keilhau in Prussia with friends and their families. Following the success of this school, he moved to Switzerland to become the Head of an orphanage. During this time his theories on how young children learned through play gained momentum, and in 1837 the first 'kindergarten' was established. Froebel died in 1852, but his work was carried on by others. His kindergartens were brought to England as early as 1854.

Froebel's theories - the importance of play

Like Rousseau, Froebel saw distinct stages in the development of a child. He insisted that each stage should be experienced to the full before moving on to the next and he recommended different approaches to learning depending on the child's individual needs and the stage they were at (Brehony, p.23). Froebel linked a child's development to what he saw in nature: 'He likened the growth of the child to the growth of a plant, to be tended and cared for as the gardener cares for his seedlings' (Woodham-Smith, in Lawrence, p.22). Just as a neglected plant withers and dies, so Froebel believed a child robbed of love and opportunity in their early years would grow to be a troubled adult. He saw play as the means by which a child could thrive: 'the plays of childhood are the germinal leaves of all later life' (in Cohen and Garner, p. 135). As the name of his system of schooling suggests, the 'kindergarten' or 'children's garden' allowed time for outside play and experiencing nature. Froebel felt that play should have a purpose if the child was to learn from it. He devised specific playthings and activities for young children, which he called the 'Gifts' and 'Occupations'. The Gifts consisted of groups of blocks to be presented to the child in a certain way, accompanied by the use of clay, sand, wood and drawing materials. The Occupations included weaving, paper folding, cutting and threading (Pound, p.15). Froebel has been criticised for being too prescriptive with these playthings, especially as he also advocated that a child should be allowed free expression in their play (Pound, p.16). It is generally agreed, however, that Froebel saw play as the ultimate tool for successful development. As Isaacs writes, Froebel's opinion was that 'play is the fundamental medium and instrument through which the child, out of his own impulses and inward resources, effects his own growth in every direction that is open to him' (in Lawrence, p.192).

Froebel's theories - the role of the teacher

Froebel valued the mother as the first educator of the child, just as Rousseau and Pestalozzi had before him. He took this a step further, advocating that early years teaching was skilled work and that those involved should receive some training (Brehony, p.23). He also departed from the views of Rousseau and Pestalozzi because he did not see the home and school environments as separate entities. Instead he saw the kindergarten 'linking home and school so that the child's experience was one of continuity and the kindergarten and family were jointly involved in children's education' (Brehony, p.23). Kindergarten children were encouraged to take some of their activities home to enhance the connection between family and school. Froebel himself wrote that 'the union of the school and of life, of domestic and scholastic life, is the first and indispensable requisite of a perfect human education' (in Cohen and Garner, p.64). Teaching had a spiritual resonance for Froebel. He believed each child was blessed with divine goodness and that the teacher was there to provide guidance. He wrote that a teacher should 'animate all things' for the child, illuminating the world around them and connecting the outside world to the child's sense of self (in Cohen and Garner, p.245). His advocacy of child-centred education, of stepping back and allowing the child to discover for themselves, appears to be at odds with the highly structured Gifts and Occupations. Pound explains that 'there was a sharp divide between what Froebel said and the intricate instructions that went with the Gifts which made his theory difficult to put into practice' (p.16). This did not prevent it from becoming a hugely popular method of education.

Linking Froebel's theories to today's practice

Froebel's impact on early years education in the UK has been great. Brehony points out that the kindergartens established in England after his death were the fore-runners of today's nurseries: 'This is because when nursery schools received state funding after 1918, the majority had been free kindergartens' (p.23). His belief in the need to train teachers led his followers in England to set up the Froebel Educational Institute in 1894. The Institute continues to train practitioners as part of Roehampton University. Froebel is credited with propelling child-centred education forward: 'the term 'child-centred' is modern, but the conception which it embodies can be traced back to Froebel' (Slight, in Lawrence, p.95). However, many of Froebel's theories seem almost unremarkable now. His views on the importance of play and on linking school and family have become an accepted part of early years practice. Many of the play things and activities Froebel recommended for young children are standard resources in modern nurseries, although introduced in a less structured way. His understanding of nature and the importance of outside areas for play match the current emphasis on outdoor play spaces for nursery settings. In 1826, Froebel wrote of young children that 'play at this time is not trivial, it is highly serious and of deep significance (in Cohen and Garner, p.135). Compare this with a recent quote from Making their day in 2003: 'Play...becomes the contextual space where meaning is made and negotiated as children develop ways of interacting with toys, space and 'others' to construct and reconstruct the world. As children attempt to make sense of their lives through play, stories are told, narratives constructed' (David et al, p.33). His pioneering belief in learning through play has underpinned many subsequent educational theories.


The Froebelian education system was enormously successful. Its grounding in the benefits of play continues to inform modern early years practice, and yet Froebel was working over one hundred and fifty years ago. He learnt from the work of his predecessors and built on it with his own experience and understanding. Froebel himself acknowledged the role of a much younger generation in his work: 'My teachers are the children themselves' (Lawrence, p.23).

Links with other educational pioneers

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778

Johann Pestalozzi, 1746-1827


Friedrich Froebel and English Education, edited by E. Lawrence, University of London Press Ltd, London, 1952

Doctrines of the Great Educators, 4th Edition, Robert R. Rusk, Macmillan, New York, 1969

Back to nature, article by Professor Kevin J Brehony, Nursery World, 17th August 2006

Readings in the History of Educational Thought, A. Cohen and N. Garner, University of London Press Ltd, 1967

How Children Learn, Linda Pound, Step Forward Publishing Ltd, Leamington Spa, 2005

(The section on Froebel's life was largely resourced in Pound's book).

Making their day, Pre-school learning Alliance, London, 2005

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, more years ago than she’d care to mention, Juliet taught in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 classes in South London and East Sussex. She has also worked as a Learning Mentor. She was originally a freelance writer for the FSF and had a children’s picture book published. Juliet is now officially employed by the FSF and Tapestry, working in product support and as an Education Advisor. Along the way she has accumulated a husband, some children and way too many pets!

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