An appreticed forester moved quietly through the German woodlands at the turn of the l8th century. Aware of each plant and animal, the young man seemed to absorb healing from the forest and from a deep awareness of the unity, the inter-connectedness, of nature. Friedrich Froebel was excited by what we today call the ecosystem.
After teaching himself what he could about this revivifying world of nature, 17year-old Froebel enrolled in the University of Jena. The academic world was in a state of advanced pedantry—dry as dust. Froebel hopped from course to course and was thought a strange fellow "who made wonderful things from stones and cobwebs." Possibly Froebel alone saw the link between stones and cobwebs. But that all life was united was a conviction he carried from the laboratory into the world of children's education.
Poverty drove Froebel from university to debtor's prison, to drifting from job to job until a chance meeting with a pupil of the famous educator, Johann Pestalozzi, awoke his interest in work with children: his life's calling.
Froebel was plainly uncomfortable with the place and treatment of children. Truly, plants and animals seemed more at home on earth than the infinitely more precious life form, the small human being. His own childhood and work in the forest taught him that people nurtured little plants carefully but pounded children into shape like lumps of clay.
When 34 and poverty-stricken as always, Froebel tramped off into the German countryside to open his first elementary school. Since most children under six years are poor candidates for academic teaching, schools reached no lower. Thus Froebel started his educational reform within the system. But this was an elementary school with a difference— his teachers were a band of devoted followers who felt, like Froebel, that nature and man needed to be in harmony with each other and with God. Indeed, the teachers with their spouses lived as a small community with their pupils feeling under the guidance of a large family.
Froebel felt that the child too young to attend school was suffering in a home environment that considered him an awkward little adult who was, on most occasions, a nuisance. After years of thought and study, after teachers complained about the poor state of incoming students, Froebel arrived at the solution: the creation of a garden of children, or kindergarten.
In the new kindergartens the young plants were seen as developing but fragile beings who needed support. Froebel sensed that in the years three to six, the child needed a horizon beyond the home, but was clear the kindergarten should never replace family. He was one of the first to accord "play" an essential place in the curriculum and to stimulate thoughts about what constituted a good educational toy in the stereotyped minds of Prussian educators.
But Froebel's kindergarten had rocked the academic boat. And the Prussian government, alarmed over leftish activities, confused Froebel with a political-activist relative and struck at creeping socialism by banning the kindergarten. It wasn't to reappear in Germany until after Froebel's death. Fortunately most European countries and the United States saw the kindergarten as something other than a communist bacillus on the body politic, and kindergartens were gradually established under Froebel and his followers.
Often a revolutionary thinker is labeled for his most popular invention—so was Froebel. Some of his most valuable contributions are from a later recognition that the prekindergarten years, birth-to-three, are vitally in need of his main educational thrust—unity. Ultimately Froebel had to go back to the soil of childhood's roots— the family. To parents he raised a plea unique for his time: "Let us live for our children!"
What is the significance of Froebel for today?
Froebel wanted the kindergarten to stimulate the family to appreciation and love for the child. The kindergarten was to be an extension of the family, a new but small world for the child to begin community with his age group and for his first gentle taste of independence. In the years before kindergarten and throughout the child's life, Froebel taught that family and home play the central role.
Froebel's appreciation for the interconnectedness of all nature is taking shape in the environmental movement today.
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