Froebel: an introduction


Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) was a German educator and founder of the kindergarten. He is widely considered one of the most influential educational reformers of the 19th century.



Froebel’s mother died when he was a baby, and he was neglected as a child until an uncle took him in and sent him to school. He found solace in the natural world and became a keen student of it, as well as of maths and languages. After a stint as a forester, he took a teaching post at a progressive school in Frankfurt and quickly became convinced of his vocation.

Froebel opened his own first school in 1816 and soon moved it to Keilhau, in Thuringia, where he began to put his educational theories into practice and to publish them: most famously, in The Education of Man (1826).



In the 1830s, after being invited to run an orphanage for a time in Switzerland, he became convinced of the importance of a child’s earliest years which had until then been sidelined as “preparatory” and “women’s work”. In 1837, with male and female colleagues, he opened his first infant school in Blankenburg, which he came to call the Kindergarten, or “garden of children”, in part because it prioritised the powerful relationships of children with the natural world around them. His experiments there attracted widespread interest, and soon other kindergartens were created in its image.

In 1851, the Prussian government – conflating progressives like Froebel with revolutionary socialists like his nephew – banned the kindergarten. Froebel died the following year, but his work and principles lived on, travelling outside Prussia in order to survive, notably to the UK, France, the Netherlands and later the United States. His influence is now recognised around the world – though his principles are not always deeply understood.



Froebel was influenced by the idealist philosophers of his time including by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Pestalozzi. Perhaps his single most important contribution to educational theory was his belief in “self-activity” and play as essential (not trivial) factors in children’s development or “becomings”. For Froebel, the teacher’s role was not to drill or indoctrinate the children but rather to encourage their self-expression and self-directed learning in play both individually and communally – right through education.

To support this, Froebel famously devised a range of elemental wooden play shapes —which he referred to as “gifts” or “occupations”— to stimulate learning often accompanied by songs and music. But his practice was much more wide-ranging, underpinned by the following general theories of childhood.


Unity and connectedness

Young children learn in a holistic way as whole beings whose thoughts, feelings and actions are interrelated. Learning should never be predefined into compartmentalised goals or narrow boundaries. Froebel’s key principle was “freedom with guidance”. He believed everything in the universe is connected. The more we foster this awareness in children, the deeper their understanding of self, others, nature and the wider world.

Great harm is done if, within the… formative years, such sharp divisions and contrasts are made that their sequence and connection, their living core, are forgotten. (Froebel, 1826)


Autonomous learners

Each child is unique and what they do, rather than what they cannot do, is where real life and learning begin. Indeed, children learn best by doing things for themselves. In this way they become more aware of their own gifts, needs and aspirations. By noticing and valuing these, the adult can support self-reflection, a key feature of a Froebelian education.

It is of course easier for them to have an answer given by someone else but it is far more valuable and stimulating for them to find it out for themselves… [so] we should rather put them in the way of finding answers… (Froebel, 1830s)


The value of childhood in its own right

Childhood is not merely a preparation for adulthood or for the next stage in learning. By focussing on achieving a pre-defined set of benchmarks for progression, we risk devaluing children’s lives and gifts in the here and now. Learning begins at birth and continues throughout life.

[Children] have a certain spontaneous insight and judgement, an immediate response, which is for that very reason all the more likely to be right. (Froebel, 1830s)