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Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852)

Biography, Froebel's Kindergarten Philosophy, The Kindergarten Curriculum, Diffusion of the Kindergarten

The German educator Friedrich Froebel is significant for developing an Idealist philosophy of early childhood education and establishing the kindergarten, a school for four-and five-year-old children that is found worldwide.


Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel was the youngest of five sons of Johann Jacob Froebel, a Lutheran pastor at Oberweissbach in the German principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolfstadt. Froebel's mother died when he was nine months old. When Friedrich was four years old, his father remarried. Feeling neglected by his stepmother and father, Froebel experienced a profoundly unhappy childhood. At his father's insistence, he attended the girls' primary school at Oberweissbach. From 1793 to 1798 he lived with his maternal uncle, Herr Hoffman, at Stadt-Ilm, where he attended the local town school. From the years 1798 to 1800 he was as an apprentice to a forester and surveyor in Neuhaus. From 1800 to 1802 Froebel attended the University of Jena.

In 1805 Froebel briefly studied architecture in Frankfurt. His studies provided him with a sense of artistic perspective and symmetry he later transferred to his design of the kindergarten's gifts and occupations. In 1805 Anton Gruener, headmaster of the Pestalozzian Frankfurt Model School, hired Froebel as a teacher. To prepare him as a teacher, Gruener arranged for Froebel, now twenty-four years old, to take a short course with Johann Henrich Pestalozzi at Yverdon. Froebel believed Pestalozzi's respect for the dignity of children and creation of a learning environment of emotional security were highly significant educational elements that he wanted to incorporate in his own teaching. He also was intrigued by Pestalozzi's form, number, and name lessons, which would form a basis for his later design of the kindergarten gifts. After his training with Pestalozzi, Froebel taught at Gruner's Model School until he returned to Yverdon in 1808 for two more years of study with Pestalozzi.

From 1810 to 1812 Froebel studied languages and science at the University of Göttingen. He hoped to identify linguistic structures that could be applied to language instruction. He became particularly interested in geology and mineralogy. From 1812 to 1816 Froebel studied mineralogy with Professor Christian Samuel Weiss (1780–1856) at the University of Berlin. Froebel believed the process of crystallization, moving from simple to complex, reflected a universal cosmic law that also governed human growth and development.

In 1816 Froebel established the Universal German Educational Institute at Griesheim. He moved the institute to Keilhau in 1817 where it functioned until 1829. In 1818 Froebel married Henrietta Wilhelmine Hoffmeister (1780–1839), who assisted him until her death. In 1831 Froebel established an institute at Wartensee on Lake Sempach in Switzerland and then relocated the school to Willisau. Froebel next operated an orphanage and boarding school at Burgdorf.

Froebel returned to Germany, where in 1837 he established a new type of early childhood school, a child's garden, or kindergarten, for three-and four-year-old children. Using play, songs, stories, and activities, the kindergarten was designed as an educational environment in which children, through their own self-activity, could develop in the right direction. The right direction meant that, in their development, children would follow the divinely established laws of human growth through their own activity. Froebel's reputation as an early childhood educator increased and kindergartens were established throughout the German states.

In 1851 Karl von Raumer, the Prussian minister of education, accused Froebel of undermining traditional values by spreading atheism and socialism. Despite Froebel's denial of these accusations, von Raumer banned kindergartens in Prussia. In 1852, in the midst of the controversy, Froebel died. Although kindergartens existed in the other German states, they were not reestablished in Prussia until 1860. By the end of the nineteenth century, kindergartens had been established throughout Europe and North America.

Froebel's Kindergarten Philosophy

Froebel shaped his educational philosophy during the high tide of German philosophical Idealism that was marked by the work of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), and Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831). In the Education of Man (1826), Froebel articulated the following idealist themes: (1) all existence originates in and with God; (2) humans possess an inherent spiritual essence that is the vitalizing life force that causes development; (3) all beings and ideas are interconnected parts of a grand, ordered, and systematic universe. Froebel based his work on these principles, asserting that each child at birth has an internal spiritual essence–a life force–that seeks to be externalized through self-activity. Further, child development follows the doctrine of preformation, the unfolding of that which was present latently in the individual. The kindergarten is a special educational environment in which this self-active development occurs. The kindergarten's gifts, occupations, and social and cultural activities, especially play, promote this self-actualization.

Froebel was convinced that the kindergarten's primary focus should be on play–the process by which he believed children expressed their innermost thoughts, needs, and desires. Froebel's emphasis on play contrasted with the traditional view prevalent during the nineteenth century that play, a form of idleness and disorder, was an unworthy element of human life.

For Froebel, play facilitated children's process of cultural recapitulation, imitation of adult vocational activities, and socialization. He believed the human race, in its collective history, had gone through major epochs of cultural development that added to and refined its culture. According to Froebel's theory of cultural recapitulation, each individual human being repeated the general cultural epoch in his or her own development.

By playing, children socialize and imitate adult social and economic activities as they are gradually led into the larger world of group life. The kindergarten provided a milieu that encouraged children to interact with other children under the guidance of a loving teacher.

The Kindergarten Curriculum

Froebel developed a series of gifts and occupations for use in kindergartens. Representing what Froebel identified as fundamental forms, the gifts had both their actual physical appearance and also a hidden symbolic meaning. They were to stimulate the child to bring the fundamental concept that they represented to mental consciousness. Froebel's gifts were the following items.

  • Six soft, colored balls
  • A wooden sphere, cube, and cylinder
  • A large cube divided into eight smaller cubes
  • A large cube divided into eight oblong blocks
  • A large cube divided into twenty-one whole, six half, and twelve quarter cubes
  • A large cube divided into eighteen whole oblongs: three divided lengthwise; three divided breadthwise
  • Quadrangular and triangular tablets used for arranging figures
  • Sticks for outlining figures· Whole and half wire rings for outlining figures
  • Various materials for drawing, perforating, embroidering, paper cutting, weaving or braiding, paper folding, modeling, and interlacing

As a series, the gifts began with the simple undifferentiated sphere or circle and moved to more complex objects. Following the idealist principle of synthesis of opposites, Froebel's cylinders represented the integration of the sphere and the cube. The various cubes and their subdivisions were building blocks that children could use to create geometrical and architectural designs. Using the sticks and rings to trace designs on paper, children exercised the hand's small muscles, coordinated hand and eye movements, and took the first steps toward drawing and later writing.

The occupations were items such as paper, pencils, wood, sand, clay, straw, and sticks for use in constructive activities. Kindergarten activities included games, songs, and stories designed to assist in sensory and physical development and socialization. Froebel published Mutter-und-Kose-lieder, (Mother's songs, games, and stories), a collection of kindergarten songs, in 1843.

Diffusion of the Kindergarten

Kindergartens were established in Europe and North America. In the United Kingdom, Bertha Ronge, a pupil of Froebel's, established several kindergartens. In the United States, German immigrants introduced the kindergarten. In Watertown, Wisconsin, Margarethe Meyer Schurz established a kindergarten for German-speaking children in 1856. In New York, Matilda H. Kriege introduced and marketed kindergarten materials imported from Germany.

Henry Barnard, the first U.S. Commissioner of Education, popularized Froebel's philosophy in his Common School Journal. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894) established a kindergarten in Boston, translated several of Froebel's books into English, organized an educational organization called the Froebel Union, and established an institute to train kindergarten teachers.

Superintendent of Schools William Torrey Harris, (1835–1909) incorporated the kindergarten into the St. Louis, Missouri, public school system in 1873. Harris was assisted by his associate, Susan Elizabeth Blow (1843–1916), a dedicated Froebelian, who wrote Letters to a Mother on the Philosophy of Froebel in 1899 and Kindergarten Education in 1900.

In the early twenty-first century, kindergarten teachers continue to emphasize Froebel's ideas of developing the social side of a child's nature and a sense of readiness for learning. The important outcome for the kindergarten child is readiness for the intellectual learning that will come later in his educational career.


DOWNS, ROBERT B. 1978. Friedrich Froebel. Boston: Twayne.

FROEBEL, FRIEDRICH. 1889. Autobiography, trans. Emilie Michaelis and H. Keatley Moore. Syracuse, NY: Bardeen.

FROEBEL, FRIEDRICH. 1896. The Education of Man, trans. W. H. Hailman. New York: Appleton.

FROEBEL, FRIEDRICH. 1910. Mother's Songs, Games, and Stories, trans. Francis Lord and Emily Lord. London: Rice.

LAWRENCE, EVELYN, ed. 1969. Froebel and English Education. New York: Schocken.

LILLEY, IRENE M. 1967. Friedrich Froebel: A Selection from His Writings. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

ROSS, ELIZABETH D. 1976. The Kindergarten Crusade: The Establishment of Preschool Education in the United States. Athens: Ohio University Press.

VANDEWALKER, NINA C. 1971. The Kindergarten in American Education. New York: Arno Press and New York Times.

WEBER, EVELYN. 1969. The Kindergarten: Its Encounter with Educational Thought in America. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.


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