From April 2 to May 21, 1997 the exhibition Froebel’s Gifts: Educating Children through Design, was on view at Columbia University.
Friedrich Froebel [1782-1852] is best known as the father of the kindergarten system, which he also named. His own childhood was difficult; his mother died when he was a baby and he was raised by his strict Lutheran minister father. At 17. as an apprenticed forester he decided plants and animals were better treated than children. Froebel was then exposed to two important educators, Johann Pestalozzi [active, hands on educational activities] and Christian Weiss [geometric symmetries, chemical composition]. Froebel established first an elementary school and then a kindergarten with the goal of leading children to a UNITY with themselves. As important as Froebel was to education, he was equally important to the worlds of art and architecture.
In the 1840s, Froebel designed 20 sets of geometric toys gifts as merely a small part of his educational system. These included the following gifts: 2-6. blocks, 8. stick work, 9. rings, 10. net drawing exercises, 14. paper weaving, 15. slat work, 16. joined slats, 17. paper interlacing [album], and 19. peas work. A relative of Froebel’s published something controversial in 1851 causing the Prussian government to ban kindergartens as an arm of the socialist movement. When Froebel died an embittered man in 1852, his hopes for social-educational reform in Germany and America looked hopeless.
The following artists and architects seem to have a close connection to Froebel’s work:
Wassily Kandinsky [1866-1944] [Florence, Italy] attended one of the first Italian kindergartens. Many of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus period paintings bear a close resemblance to Froebel’s 20 gifts
Frank Lloyd Wright [1867-1959] [USA} probably began his kindergarten training years before his mother found the Gifts at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. Wright attributed these kindergarten toys with being the basis of all his work. University architectural classes [such as Columbia’s] on the importance of Froebel blocks are presented on the internet.
Piet Mondrian [1872-1944] [The Netherlands] taught drawing in primary schools at the age of 17. Drawing for small children in Holland at that time was of increasingly complex geometric designs on right-angle grids. This procedure was almost identical to the net drawing that Froebel first introduced. This drawing exercise and kindergarten system has been in public use in Holland since 1860.
Georges Braque [1882-1963] [Argentuil-Paris suburb] was exposed to the French national kindergarten system which advocated and used Froebelian teaching methods.
Charles Jeanneret [Le Corbusier] [1887-1965] [Switzerland] began his studies at the age of three. He studied under one of the first graduates of a new state-mandated Froebelian school. After three years in this private kindergarten, he entered public school which was also Froebelian.
Josef Albers [1888-1976] [Germany] apprenticed in a stained-glass workshop had a lifelong interest in geometric frames. He’s best known for his Homage to the Square.
Although Froebel died in despair, his teachings caused major changes in the education of small children. Of equal importance, the world’s of art and architecture also experienced major changes from his work. Another coincidence is the ‘unity’ this Lutheran boy sought is very similar to the teachings of the Unity Church in the United States. Today’s Unity Church is a haven for many ‘former’ Lutherans [and Catholics, etc.]. Also one of Wright’s better known structures is the Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois, 1906.
In the late 1800s, the Impressionists startled the world with their new concept of color and reflected light. Back in the kindergarten, the seeds of a really major revolution were being planted in the minds of small children.
Brosterman, Norman, "The case for kindergarten - a call for another look at Friedrich Froebel’s amazing invention", Architectural Record, vol. 185 (March 1997), p.17 .
Brosterman, Norman, "Child’s Play", Art in America, vol. 85 (April 1997), pp.108 .
Shapiro, Michael Steven, Child’s Garden: The Kindergarten Movement From Froebel to Dewey, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983, 223 pp.
Plough Online, The Gardener of Children, Plough Publishing House of the Bruderhof Foundation, Inc. 1997. Germany [Originally, Plough #12, Sept./Oct. 1985].
Watson, Bruce M, Froebel Page.
Virtual World Classroom, Summer 1995: Froebel Blocks Assignment , Columbia University.
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