My Froebelian Leadership Story

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Project summary:

Action research and reflection on leadership from a Froebelian perspective in an early earning and childcare community



The project explores my leadership role in the nursery to support a new colleague (JK) to whom  Froebelian pedagogy is relatively new. JK is currently undertaking a teaching qualification which will enable her to register with the General Teaching Council Scotland. The setting’s common thread is the principled approach of Friedrich Froebel. My colleague asked me after a few weeks in the setting: ‘Why Froebel? Is it just a cult’? This comment galvanised me, as a leader, to consider our pedagogy and Froebel’s relevance today. In the enquiry I examine the adult role as a key component to a Froebelian approach (Tovey, 2017), draw on the Froebelian principle of ‘freedom with guidance’ (Bruce, 2021) and reflect on my role as leader in mentoring a new colleague in the setting.   


I am employed in a small nursery setting with 8 staff members and 26 children aged 3 – 5 years. The nursery’s vision is a belief in the principled pedagogy of Friedrich Froebel. This approach is: 

 ‘not a formula, or recipe to follow, or set of equipment to purchase, rather, it is a whole way of thinking about children and childhood’  

(Tovey, 2013:2) 

As mentor and leader in the setting my aim was to provide JK with an understanding of Froebelian principles which were meaningful and to which she could relate. We are all leaders in the setting, this gives us a sense of belonging and connectedness. Nonetheless, despite a shared vision, Goleman (1998) notes that different leadership styles are enacted depending on who we are and with what we are working.  

One of JK’s teaching assignments was to lead a small group of children on a woodland trip incorporating elements of literacy and numeracy. I was asked to accompany her. JK planned the trip, and I supported, bringing clipboards and drawing materials. She was required to integrate elements of literacy and numeracy within the trip. She planned to ask the children to select a range of material for counting purposes and ask them to draw some of the objects they found.  

The woodland walk is familiar to the children, it was Autumn, the ground was damp and muddy. We stopped at one point to carry out one of the activities. The children were asked to collect a number of leaves and return to sit on a fallen log. There was great excitement in collecting the materials. As the activity unfolded it was clear that the children were also interested in what they discovered under the leaves; some wanted to collect sticks and small logs. Several unearthed some small creatures in the undergrowth and some jumped up high to pick a leaf from a tree, falling and getting wet. One child got his shoe stuck in the mud. This resulted in an animated discussion of why the shoe got stuck, the depth of the mud and how to remove it without getting the sock all muddy too! Whilst collecting the materials, a dog had appeared and some of the children had run over to it, others were not so sure. At this stage, I did intervene as the owner was still some distance away. 

When everyone had eventually returned to the log, the children were excited about their findings, rather than how many they had and they wanted to share their experiences. The muddy shoe was exciting and a conversation developed regarding how hard it had been to remove the shoe from the mud. Eventually the items were counted and some children recorded their findings on the clipboards, others stated that the coloured pens provided did not reflect the colours of their items. On the way back to nursery the children reflected on their trip and connected what they had seen to their own real life experiences: ‘I have a dog, he gets muddy and Daddy has to wash him’. ‘Will Mummy be angry because my shoe is so muddy? What will happen if the water goes over the path and into those houses?’ 

Process – enabling Froebelian characteristics 

Liebschner suggests that discovery is an important part of learning, ‘having hunches’ and presupposing (1992:132). Collecting leaves was a catalyst, the real learning evolved through the children’s self-activity. The adult skill is knowing when to step in and when to step back. This was a good opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of stepping back and letting the children’s curiosity and exploration lead them on a path of discovery. Opportunities to connect with nature were abundant and discussions ensued about falling in the mud, how it may feel, the spray coming off the nearby river and how high the water was.  

JK is a trained teacher who is keen to learn about Froebelian pedagogy; as a mentor/leader the learning process was a key factor in my role. I wanted to start ‘where the learner is’, and play to education’s strengths, by educating rather than training the learner. My colleague had a planned outcome for the walk, however, giving the children time and space enabled them to create knowledge and ‘cause thought’ (Bruce, 2021:147). JK was able to observe the children; I took this opportunity to share the language of the Froebelian principles to articulate our practice and explain the importance of self-activity and freedom with guidance with learning being a process, not an outcome. The planned outcome was to count a set number of items and record them. In adopting a participative rather than transmissive pedagogical standpoint (McNair et al., 2019), the adult role is ‘two-sided, both passive and active (Froebel in Lilley, 1967:55). This supports children to form their own understandings of the experience. Whilst looking for items to count, the children’s journey led them down different paths.  Froebel talks of children wandering in fields. Taoka (2019) compares Froebel’s concept of wanderings to Ingold’s (2007, 2011) view of wayfaring with the traveller (child) integrating knowledge along a path, to go deeper in their learning  without predetermined goals.  

Project Outcome   

This section examines how Froebelian characteristics were enabled in the enquiry. 

Knowing when to step in and when to step back is pivotal in supporting both children and adults to form their own understandings of the experience and create their own knowledge (Liebschner, 1992; Bruce, 2021). My role as adult was relational. This relational role facilitated both the children and JK to have autonomy. This independence and curiosity however, does not mean that we, as adults are not involved; according to Froebelian pedagogy, adults have a key role to enable children. Adults need to engage with children, “tuning into what fascinates them”, then the adults can share and explore knowledge with them (Bruce 2021:120). One of the challenges of my role was, as a leader, relinquishing control, there were occasions when I wanted to step in and take control.  

Discussion on power and control within leadership roles is out with the word count of the inquiry,  nonetheless, I believe a brief mention is noteworthy.  White (2016) draws on the benefits of adopting a dialogic pedagogical approach which calls into question the authoritative pedagogical tenses of leading and adopting multiple, diverse dialogues which enable children to form their own ideas and knowledge. The trip is not about adults imparting knowledge but about children sharing and generating their own knowledge. This chimes with ‘freedom with guidance’, it supports a relational role of the adult and is in contrast to the assumption that adults’ knowledge needs to be transmitted to children. As adults we are facilitators and nurturers. Children need support and education; Wasmuth (2022) states that children need to be self-active but supported too in becoming part of their world. Froebel emphasised the significance of adult/child relationships (Bruce, 2021). 

Final Reflections  

Part of the rationale for the inquiry was exploring the relevance of Froebel today. Froebelian pedagogy interconnects with our national practice guidance Realising the Ambition: Being Me (RtA) (Education Scotland, 2020), with a considerable section covering Froebelian principles. This supports a slow pedagogical approach allowing children the ‘space and time to build, construct and take things apart over and over again’ (2020:31). This chimes and interconnects with Froebelian principles. 

In introducing a new colleague to Froebel, the intention was not to provide a manual of practical guidance, but use the principles to guide us, to articulate our practice and keep us true to what we are doing.  For many practitioners, RtA (Education Scotland, 2020) is a liberating document in contrast to many early years policies under which we are regulated. Wasmuth observes that ‘Froebel reminds us of what is lost’ (2022:28) in an early years environment where today’s emphasis on education is to ‘reform and improve’  (2022:24). This can result in teaching to the test where little room is given to ‘starting where the child is at’ (Bruce, 2021). Thus, as a leader in a Froebelian setting, it is important to provide an understanding of the reasons behind our approach. Selecting ‘freedom with guidance’ helped amplify aspects of a Froebelian approach where children, through self-activity, learning in and through play are facilitated by a skilled educator to provide guidance and nurture (Wasmuth (2022); Bruce, (2021); Tovey (2020).    

Taking part in the Froebel Leadership programme highlights that leadership is a lifelong journey that begins with self-awareness and an internal scrutiny of self (Albin-Clark and Archer, 2023), adopting a continual reflexive approach. I draw on Goleman’s (1998) five main emotional competency sets noting that the course has supported me to reflect not only on my leadership styles but indeed, how leadership styles influence culture and performance (Fullan, 2001). An increasing self-awareness, empathy and social skills (Goleman, 1998) illuminates the importance of when to step in and step back, both with adults and children. The Leadership programme has developed understandings of my own Froebelian approach and highlighted the importance of unity and connection with ourselves and our children and families. I align myself with Bruce’s comments that ‘Leadership is about sustaining a vision and sticking to bringing the ideas to fruition through adversity and challenge….bringing people with you’ (2021:148).  

Thus, the research has raised new questions and offers new considerations for analysis. It has enabled me to cultivate my own leadership skills. I view my leadership role as ‘in development’, a constant process of change. 




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White, E.J. (2016) Introducing Dialogic Pedagogy. London: Routledge. 


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