Froebel’s Gifts

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Friedrich Froebel. His early life reads like one of those dark, old German fairytales. His mother died in 1783, right after he was born. And so Friedrich Froebel had a lonely childhood. He spent his days in the woods, looking at trees and rocks and flowers, wandering the dense forests of Thuringia in what was then Prussia.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It’s a lush region, sometimes referred to today as “Das Gruene Herz Deutschland’s” – the “Green Heart of Germany”.

Roman Mars:
That’s Kurt Kohlstedt. He produced this story.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I actually lived near Thuringia when I was a kid and the forests there are “einfach zauberhaft” – simply magical. And I can really see how Froebel became enthralled.

Norman Brosterman:
He looked at rocks, he studied the trees. He worked with a forester for a while. He was an apprentice forester.

Roman Mars:
That’s Norman Brosterman. He’s an author who studied Friedrich Froebel for years.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Brosterman says that Froebel worked for a time as a land surveyor and even served in the military. He was skilled at drafting and geometry and at one point became convinced he should be an architect.

Norman Brosterman:
He did everything you needed to become an architect. He took all the right classes.

Roman Mars:
But he didn’t become an architect. A friend convinced him to become an educator instead. And in changing course, Froebel arguably ended up having more influence in the world of architecture and design than any single architect.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And that’s because Friedrich Froebel created kindergarten.

Norman Brosterman:
I believe kindergarten had a tremendous influence on the 20th century. It impacted all parts of society, of course, including art and architecture.

Roman Mars:
If you’ve ever looked at a piece of abstract art or modernist architecture and thought, my kindergartner could’ve made that. Well, that may be more true than you realize.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
The kindergarten was the product of Froebel’s decades of experience in a wide range of fields. But the foundations of it were built on the principles of Johann Pestalozzi.

Norman Brosterman:
Pestalozzi is considered the Father of Modern Education, which basically means they will learn better if you treat them well rather than hit them with sticks, you know.

Roman Mars:
In addition to the whole “not hitting kids with sticks” thing, Pestalozzi emphasized physical activity and active learning over rote memorization and repetition. And in particular, he felt that kids should draw.

Tamar Zinguer:
Pestalozzi was an early childhood educator who had incorporated pedagogical drawings in the curriculum.

Roman Mars:
That’s author and Cooper Union Professor Tamar Zinguer.

Tamar Zinguer:
And basically he is one of the first who thought that drawing should be part of any school curriculum and should be taught to the very, very young.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Froebel worked for a time in a school based on these principles. And he built on what he learned from Pestalozzi, incorporating his own ideas along the way about how children should be taught.

Tamar Zinguer:
Pestalozzi was especially busy with breaking down the two-dimensional world. But what Froebel did is break down the three-dimensional world.

Roman Mars:
Froebel realized he wanted kids to go beyond just drawing lines on pages. He wanted them to learn through the physical manipulation of objects.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Froebel wanted children to play with toys, objects designed and crafted specifically for educational play. Now, this doesn’t sound like that unusual today but it really was back in the early 1800s.

Tamar Zinguer:
Children used to go to work with their parents. They used to sit by their parents’ side and they would play with the detritus of the parents’ work. I mean, for example, the candle maker would make wax figurines with the leftover wax. The wooden blocks were only made from the leftover wood from the carpenter, so it was always from the leftover material.

Roman Mars:
Froebel wanted to build real educational intent into objects of play but it took him decades to come to this key realization and a lot of time observing children and nature.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
He was put in charge of an orphanage for a while, overseeing young children. But he also studied the natural sciences, in particular, the emerging discipline of crystallography.

Norman Brosterman:
Well, it turns out that the man who invented kindergarten was a crystal scientist.

Tamar Zinguer:
He worked with the foremost crystallographer of the time in Berlin.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Where most people saw nature in big flowing organic shapes like hills and plants and animals, Froebel zoomed in to study the straight lines and the geometric forms of crystals.

Tamar Zinguer:
To try to understand how the physical world around him is actually made.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Froebel came to see crystal structures as the building blocks of reality.

Roman Mars:
And this alchemy of crystals and the teaching of Pestalozzi and a childhood alone in the woods all crystallized into a solid vision. In 1837 when he was 55 years old, Froebel founded the very first kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg, Germany.

Norman Brosterman:
And his intention was to create an educational system for children who could not yet read or write, so he thought to use geometric forms as a way to teach complex and simple lessons all through play. If you can harness play, you can teach kids a lot of things.

Roman Mars:
The word “kindergarten” cleverly encompassed two different ideas. Kids would play in and learn from nature but they would also, themselves, be nurtured and nourished like plants in a garden.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And the key to it all was a set of deceptively simple-looking toys.

Roman Mars:
These were Froebel’s Gifts.

Tamar Zinguer:
They’re called gifts because they were to draw out the gifts of the children.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
In German, of course, the phrase Froebel’s Gifts is rolled together into a single word, “Froebelgaben”.

Roman Mars:
Froebel’s Gifts were meant to be given in a particular order. The toys growing more complex over time, teaching different lessons about shape, structure, and perception along the way.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
The first of Froebel’s Gifts was a soft-knitted ball.

Tamar Zinguer:
A wool ball and it’s basically the first gift a child could get at the age of six weeks.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Then the child would graduate to another ball, roughly the same size as the first.

Tamar Zinguer:
But this one is not soft. It’s hard. A maple wooden ball and has a surface. It is smooth, it can roll. And then they are given the cube and the cube is an opposite. It has sides, it has edges, it has sharp edges, it has points. The cube cannot roll. Kids are asked to enumerate the differences between the two.

Roman Mars:
And then they get a cylinder which combines elements of both the ball and the cube and it blows their little minds.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Each new gift would get more and more interactive and more complex. Some were designed to be hung from a string and spun in the air.

Tamar Zinguer:
And as they rotate, some very interesting forms are created that are not visible when the form is stationary.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Like a cube, for instance, looks like a cylinder when you spin it around fast enough.

Tamar Zinguer:
He wants the children to start to see that there are some invisible parts contained within the visible.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Next up came objects made up of smaller objects like a cube that breaks down into a bunch of little cubes.

Roman Mars:
And then the toys would shift from being about perception to being about creation. They would become more versatile – pliant and constructive. Blocks gave way to paper, string, wire, little sticks and peas that could be connected and stacked into structures.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
The objects would get more abstract and creative, leading to the final lesson.

Tamar Zinguer:
The last is really just working freely with clay.

Roman Mars:
Clay being the most malleable of all. It’s rigid and it’s soft and there’s a whole range of things a child could build with it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But even at this final stage, this wasn’t the kind of creative free-for-all we tend to associate with childhood play. Froebel had children sitting at desks, little workstations with grids laid out on them.

Tamar Zinguer:
So it’s not free play. The fact that the table has an underlying grid is very much at the root of the directed play. You follow instructions and there’s an underlying order.

Roman Mars:
And so in this very structured, very Germanic way, the gifts encourage students to think abstractly and to relate ideas, objects, and symbols.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
A set of blocks could be used to teach counting. Then the child could use those same blocks to build a house and then tell stories of a family living in that house. So they were modeling the world in different ways, all using the same set of objects.

Tamar Zinguer:
The children realized that they can create new shapes and new forms that they create on top of the grid table.

Roman Mars:
These kindergartens weren’t just schools. They were art schools – without all the sex and drugs and clove cigarettes. They were places that taught about shape and form and color. And when kindergarten graduates went out into the world, the world changed.

Norman Brosterman:
The kind of art that was being made in the 19th century is really different than the kind of art that was made after kids went to kindergarten.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Expressionist, cubist, and surrealist artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky attended early kindergartens. Others like Piet Mondrian encountered Froebelian methods as teachers. And when you look at a lot of their work alongside illustrations in kindergarten teacher guides, the resemblance is uncanny.

Roman Mars:
And it wasn’t just artists. Kindergarten influenced designers, too.

Norman Brosterman:
Walter Gropius started the Bauhaus in 1919. Gropius decided to hire a kindergarten teacher as the first hire of this famous school of design.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So the Bauhaus had its adult design students doing geometric exercises, much like those found in kindergartens.

Roman Mars:
And the effects of Froebel’s work on design education rippled out beyond Germany. And some of his most explicit and direct influences can be found among the world’s most famous architects.

Norman Brosterman:
Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect, is the great child of the kindergarten. You can find the kindergarten in everything Wright ever did.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867, around the time kindergartens were gaining traction in the United States. And his mom took classes in kindergarten education. Wright never went to architecture school but he recalls that when he was young, his mother brought home a set of Froebel’s gifts.

Roman Mars:
Wright said that the moment he was given Froebel’s gifts, he quote, “began to be an architect.” He went on to say, “For several years, I sat at that little kindergarten table, ruled by lines about four inches apart. But the smooth cardboard triangles and maple wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day.”

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And Wright wasn’t the only one. European modernist Le Corbusier also never went to architecture school but he did attend Froebelian schools in Switzerland.

Roman Mars:
The gridded geometries and repeated patterns of Le Corbusier’s modernist houses and apartment blocks look like they were drawn on those gridded kindergarten desks.

Norman Brosterman:
Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by some, the two most important architects of the 20th century had exactly the same childhood.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And then there’s Buckminster Fuller, famous for pioneering geodesic domes made up of triangles. Fuller discovered his greatest engineering insight as a kindergartner connecting Froebelian peas and sticks.

Norman Brosterman:
If you know Buckminster Fuller, this is the thing he’s most famous for. You know, the domes made out of peas and sticks, basically nodes and rods. So he learned that in kindergarten.

Roman Mars:
Obviously, not everyone who attended kindergarten became a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Le Corbusier or a Bucky. But the abstract lessons of kindergarten tilled and fertilize the ground so the seeds of their ideas could find purchase in the world.

Norman Brosterman:
Abstraction was accepted fairly quickly in Paris and in Europe, perhaps because children had already been doing a lot of the same kinds of things for many decades. That was one of the reasons that they were not so shocked when art turned in that direction.

Roman Mars:
So in terms of 20th century art and design, kindergarten was an absolute triumph. But Friedrich Froebel only got to witness the spread of his vision for about a decade before it was cut short.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
In the 1850s, the Prussian government was cracking down on liberal thought. And in 1851, they issued the “Kindergartenverbot”, a national ban on kindergartens. And Froebel died the very next year.

Norman Brosterman:
And you know, you wonder if he died of a broken heart in 1852. Of course. Who knows?

Roman Mars:
But even though the ban slowed the expansion of kindergartens in Germany, it didn’t stop the idea from spreading elsewhere. Far from it. A lot of free-thinking liberals left Germany and they brought Froebel’s kindergarten with them.

Tamar Zinguer:
So his disciples, they were so dedicated to the work that they immigrated, many of them to the United States. And basically because of the ban, that’s what led to Froebel’s theories to be known around the world.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And the most dedicated kindergarten evangelists were women. As Tamar Zinguer points out in her book “Architecture in Play”, Froebel believed that women should play a leading role in educating children.

Roman Mars:
To be clear, Froebel wasn’t exactly a feminist. He had very traditional ideas about gender roles and believed that it was the role of women to nurture children as nannies and kindergarten teachers.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But regardless of Froebel’s reasoning, teaching kindergarten was a rare opportunity.

Norman Brosterman:
It was one of the only jobs you could get as a young woman. There weren’t many jobs.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And it was women who drew up and translated the lesson books that would be used to teach a generation of young artists and designers. By 1885, there were over 500 kindergartens in America and they were taught primarily by women.

Roman Mars:
And you might be thinking, “Hey, I went to kindergarten. Why didn’t I grow up with this incredibly dramatic immaculately planned sequence of toys?” Well, ironically, the passion of some of kindergarten’s biggest proponents is part of the reason why you probably didn’t grow up playing with Froebel’s gifts.

Roman Mars:
The first kindergarten in the United States started in Watertown, Wisconsin in 1856 but it was German language only. The educator Elizabeth Peabody was inspired by this kindergarten and went on to found the first American English-language kindergarten in Boston in 1860.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Peabody wanted to spread the teachings of Froebel to as many children as possible. And so she reached out to Milton Bradley, the famous board game maker. She wanted Bradley to mass-produce Froebel’s Gifts so that it could be accessible to everyone.

Tamar Zinguer:
And Milton Bradley having heard her, was convinced and since that moment, it turned his entire attention to the manufacturer of Froebel blocks and gifts.

Roman Mars:
But where Peabody saw an educational ideal, Bradley saw a business opportunity.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Bradley began adding a bunch of new toys into the mix. And then other manufacturers got in on the game too, making all different kinds of stuff and just calling it all kindergarten toys.

Norman Brosterman:
He just made up stuff and he said, this is kindergarten and this is kindergarten, this is kindergarten. It’s not necessarily Froebel’s kindergarten.

Roman Mars:
The simple abstractions of Froebel’s gifts had gone commercial.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And within a few years, Elizabeth Peabody went from promoting the manufacturer of kindergarten toys to speaking out against it.

Elizabeth Peabody:
The interest of manufacturers and of merchants of the gifts and materials is a snare. It has already corrupted the simplicity of Froebel and Europe and America, for his idea was to use elementary forms exclusively and simple materials.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Even the word kindergarten itself became a generic term, a catchall for early childhood education of all different kinds.

Roman Mars:
These days, most kindergartens are a lot different from anything Froebel imagined and few kids encounter those early gifts in any kind of sequence, if at all. But kids still play with blocks.

Alexandra Lange:
I mean, I really think that it’s because of Froebel, or Fröbel, or however it’s correctly pronounced, that children in the Western world play with blocks. But I think also blocks are a constant across a variety of educational systems because there’s so much in them that they can teach.

Roman Mars:
That’s Alexandra Lange, an architecture critic and author of “The Design Of Childhood: How The Material World Shapes Independent Kids”.

Alexandra Lange:
The block is this incredibly malleable toy that can be used in all of these different ways.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Froebel wasn’t the only one to see educational value in blocks. In the early 1900s, Caroline Pratt debuted her unit blocks.

Alexandra Lange:
Unit blocks, which are essentially those classic brick-shaped pale wood blocks that really, I can’t think of any early childhood classroom I’ve been to that doesn’t have those blocks.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
In some ways, all modern toy blocks are influenced by Froebel. Tinker Toys and Lego and Kinex, they’re all about understanding shape and form and making connections. But they also represented a departure from Froebel’s highly organized and linear approach.

Alexandra Lange:
You know the Froebel blocks, you were supposed to proceed from 1 to 20 through his exercises, whereas the unit blocks are much more open-ended. They’re more like we tend to encounter blocks today.

Roman Mars:
These days, we don’t think that blocks need an accompanying gridded desk or a syllabus of objects. Now blocks are creative tools for children that give them a chance to use their imagination as they build houses and cities and interact with each other. That’s what I see when my boys play with Legos or build castles in Minecraft.

Alexandra Lange:
There isn’t this sense of strict progression. It’s more a sense that these blocks are a tool for children to recreate their own world as best they can.

Roman Mars:
And who knows how many architects, builders, designers, and thinkers all started with these literal building blocks, Froebelian or otherwise, learning creativity through construction.

Credits

Production

Producer Kurt Kohlstedt spoke with Norman Brosterman, author of Inventing Kindergarten; Tamar Zinguer, author of Architecture in Play: Intimations of Modernism in Architectural Toys; and Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.

Comments (6)

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  1. Beth

    If you do not at some point mention Jim Miller Melberg in your playground episode you have really dropped the ball.

  2. You guys are amazing! I haven’t enjoyed listening to anything this much! I don’t know where you get your ideas for stories, but I have just joined the audience and listened to the programs on Usonian Homes, Sears Homes in a box, Onate’s Foot, and the Accidental Room….all of these are home runs! I especially enjoyed this Froebel’s episode, too. Just keep them coming, please! Really enjoying your work, and very appreciative of your creativity and professionalism. I hope you’re super proud of your work!

  3. SteveD

    The Kandinsky video is spectacular. (Reader, if you didn’t watch it, go back and do so!) The visualization of moving into, and through, the artwork is exactly what I always imagined when looking at the two-dimensional work. It made me smile :)

  4. Helena

    This podcast has been my favourite for a couple of years. And i definitely wanted to join the comment section on this episode.
    I grew up in the 90’s which means i would only play outside on playgrounds and seesaws.
    But with a huge difference. I was born in Brasilia. One of the few modernist and constructivist cities, absolutely created out of nowhere from great architects. Like Nieymer, Le Courbusier and Burle Marx dreams.
    My home building was squared. My city symbol was a building that is actually a half sphere and 2 rectangles. Until I was 9 years old i could only draw using triangles. People, flowers, animals. They were all triangle based shapes. My mum was called on school sometimes.
    And she only replied i was creative and finding my own way of self expression. She really did filled me up with puzzles and japanese tangrans. I remember looking to the world and trying to understand proportions and combinations. Eventually geometry lead me to creativity, and to drawing nature. I became a painter, illustrator… and as an adult a designer. Today I’m dedicated to put peoples’ behaviour as a puzzle. And I would totally say this liberty had a major impact on my own mental models.

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