Throughout educational history, world philosophers have wrestled with understanding the myriad of questions and problems surrounding the education of society’s children. Historically, many early childhood educators supported the idea that children should be trained as soon as possible to become productive members of the larger society so that the cultural heritage of the society could be preserved from generation to generation; this cultural imposition theory has been prevalent throughout the educational history of the world (Staff, 1998). Several educational reformers opposed the cultural imposition theory through their beliefs that childhood is an important period of human growth and development, and that adults should not impose their views and ways upon young children; instead, these reformers defined educational appropriateness as what is necessary to each child's level of development and readiness, not what is expected by society (Staff, 1998). The German educator, Friedrich Froebel, was one of these pioneers of early childhood educational reform. As an idealist, he believed that every child possessed, at birth, his full educational potential, and that an appropriate educational environment was necessary to encourage the child to grow and develop in an optimal manner (Staff, 1998). According to Watson (1997b), Froebel's vision was to stimulate an appreciation and love for children and to provide a new but small world--a world that became known as the Kindergarten--where children could play with others of their own age group and experience their first gentle taste of independence. Watson further adds that this early educational vision laid the foundation for the framework of Froebel's philosophy of education which is encompassed by the four basic components of (a) free self-activity, (b) creativity, (c) social participation, and (d) motor expression.
As an educator, Froebel believed that stimulating voluntary self-activity in the young child was the necessary form of pre-school education (Watson, 1997a). Self-activity is defined as the development of qualities and skills that make it possible to take an invisible idea and make it a reality; self-activity involves formulating a purpose, planning out that purpose, and then acting on that plan until the purpose is realized (Corbett, 1998a). Corbett suggests that one of Froebel's significant contributions to early childhood education was his theory of introducing play as a means of engaging children in self-activity for the purpose of externalizing their inner natures. As described by Dewey (1990), Froebel's interpretation of play is characterized by free play which enlists all of the child's imaginative powers, thoughts, and physical movements by embodying in a satisfying form his own images and educational interests. Dewey continued his description by indicating that play designates a child's mental attitude and should not be identified with anything performed externally; therefore, the child should be given complete emancipation from the necessity of following any given or prescribed system of activities while he is engaged in playful self-activity. In summarizing Froebel's beliefs regarding play, Dewey concluded that through stimulating play that produces self-activity, the supreme goal of the child is the fullness of growth which brings about the realization of his budding powers and continually carries him from one plane of educational growth to another.
To assist children in their development of moving from one plane of educational growth to another, Froebel provided the children with many stimulating activities to enhance their creative powers and abilities. Froebel designed a series of instructional materials that he called “gifts and occupations”, which demonstrated certain relationships and led children in comparison, testing, and creative exploration activities (Watson, 1997b). A gift was an object provided for a child to play with--such as a sphere, cube, or cylinder--which helped the child to understand and internalize the concepts of shape, dimension, size, and their relationships (Staff, 1998). The occupations were items such as paints and clay which the children could use to make what they wished; through the occupations, children externalized the concepts existing within their creative minds (Staff, 1998). Therefore, through the child’s own self-activity and creative imaginative play, the child would begin to understand both the inner and outer properties of things as he moves through the developmental stages of the educational process.
A third component of Froebel’s educational plan involved working closely with the family unit. Froebel believed that parents provided the first as well as the most consistent educational influence in a child’s life. Since a child’s first educational experiences occur within the family unit, he is already familiar with the home environment as well as with the occupations carried on within this setting. Naturally, through creative self-activity, a child will imitate those things that are in a direct and real relationship to him-things learned through observations of daily family life (Dewey, 1990). Froebel believed that providing a family setting within the school environment would provide children with opportunities for interacting socially within familiar territory in a non-threatening manner. Focusing on the home environment occupations as the foundation for beginning subject-matter content allowed the child to develop social interaction skills that would prepare him for higher level subject-matter content in later educational developmental stages (Dewey, 1990).
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Froebel (1907) urged educators to respect the sanctity of child development through this statement: We grant space and time to young plants and animals because we know that, in accordance with the laws that live in them, they will develop properly and grow well. Young animals and plants are given rest, and arbitrary interference with their growth is avoided,/because it is known that the opposite practice would disturb their pure unfolding and sound development; but, the young human being is looked upon as a piece of wax or a lump of clay which man can mold into what he pleases (p. 8). Motor expression, which refers to learning by doing as opposed to following rote instructions, is a very important aspect of Froebel’s educational principles. Froebel did not believe that the child should be placed into society’s mold, but should be allowed to shape his own mold and grow at his own pace through the developmental stages of the educational process. Corbett (1998b) upholds Froebel’s tenets that a child should never be rushed or hurried in his development; he needs to be involved in all of the experiences each stage requires and helped to see the relationships of things and ideas to each other and to himself so that he can make sense out of both his subjective and objective world. Corbett further agrees that development is continuous, with one stage building upon another, so that nothing should be missed through haste or for any other reason as the child moves through the educational process. Responsible educators should strive to recognize each child's individual level of development so that essential materials and activities to stimulate appropriate educational growth can be provided. Froebel believed that imitation and suggestion would inevitably occur, but should only be utilized by the teacher as instruments for assisting students in formulating their own instructional concepts (Dewey, 1990).
The Kindergarten idea was first introduced into the United States in the late 1840’s (Watson, 1997b), and Froebel’s basic philosophic principles of free self activity, creativity, social participation, and motor expression are valuable components which exist functionally, with some modifications, in most current early childhood education programs. The education of society’s children is still a difficult and fascinating issue studied by world philosophers. Educators of the future will continue to look to philosophers of the past for assistance in striving to attain the common goal of being jointly responsible for nurturing, educating, and cultivating each child toward his or her maximum potential through the educational process.
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