Friedrich Froebel's vision of education began with his idea of educating women for their role as mothers. His book Mother Songs is a collection of pictures and verses for mother and child. One of the purposes of the book was to develop a child's body, limbs and senses in various fingerplays and games with its mother. The first gift was intended to be given by the mother to the child in the first months of life.
Froebel recognized that children began to learn as soon as they began to interact with the world. The Froebel gifts were carefully designed to provide opportunites for children to learn for themselves an extraordinary range of concepts. Through directed play, highly trained teachers encouraged children to draw analogies between the Froebel gifts and other forms, such as the body and other natural objects like nuts or the sun, and even abstract concepts, such as self, unity, perfection, and color.
Women from middle class backgrounds embraced Froebel's concept of motherhood as vocation. It empowered them by valuing their maternal instincts and encouraging them to educate themselves to facilitate their child's development. Anna Wright discovered the Froebel gifts and attended a training course to enable her to use them at home with her young son, Frank Lloyd Wright
The women who trained as kindergarten teachers gained economic independence and a respected role in the community. Initially kindergarten teachers were trained within the kindergatens. They developed an understanding of the Froebel methods and materials through play, discovering for themselves the lessons they would encourage the children in their care to discover. They also made sets of Froebel Gifts and Occupations for use in their Kindergarten.
Margarethe Meyer trained as a Kindergarten teacher before moving to Wisconsin with her husband Carl Shurz. Margarethe employed Froebel's philosophy while caring for her daughter, Agathe, and four neighbour children, leading them in games and songs and group activities that channeled their energy. Other parents were so impressed at the results that they prevailed upon Schurz to help their children, so she opened a small kindergarten, the first in the United States.
The kindergarten spread rapidly into many different cultures and languages because it was experienced rather than explained through translation of German texts. The Centennial Expostition in Philadelphia in 1876 included a working Kindergarten, although Froebel's books were not translated into English until the following decade.
It was natural that those who had not experienced the play with Froebel materials would have difficulty understanding the process. The lack of clear and concise writings about the nature of this play continues to this day. Early attempts by followers of Froebel to provide manuals for the gifts contributed to a mechanical use of the gifts by teachers who had read about them rather than played with them. To some observers it seemed that anyone could teach little children as long as they were motherly.
It was also inevitable that differences of opinion and interpretation would arise among groups of followers. Gradually the specifc activities designed by Froebel were replaced by other toys or games. While the idea of children learning through play was retained many of these replacement activities lacked the conceptual richness of the Froebel originals. There was simply not as much there for the child to discover. For example, playing with large floor bocks is different from handling the blocks that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and arranging them on grid. Froebel's insistance that every part of a gift be used in an arrangement may seem arbitary but it reinforced the idea of unity at the center of his philosophy. The conceptual dance between the whole and the parts disintegrates if parts can be discarded in play.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the preeminence of Froebel may be attested by the number of his imitators. Aspects of Froebel's philosophy were adopted by many different groups. The maternalistic focus of Froebel could be used both to support the movement for mothers to stay at home with their children and promote the education of women and their employment as Kindergaten teachers. Political or religious groups committed to changing society could adopt Froebel methods as an alternative to existing educational models. The kindergarten movement often found enthusiastic support those who strove to improve the morals of the working classes. The current interest in the environment has revived interest in Froebel's ideas about nature.
Can we see in movements such as Outward Bound the logical extension of Froebel's idea of nature as classroom - a place of physical, intellectual, social and spiritual developemnt of the individual? The five cores values of Outward Bound echo the familiar Froebelian themes: learning through experience, adventure and challenge, compassion and service, social and environmental responsibility, and personal development
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