Where does race or anti-racism show up in Froebel?

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Where does race or anti-racism show up in Froebel? A sideways look at Froebel’s writing.

Froebel is well known for emphasising that babies and young children are individual and as such unique, diverse, and complex human beings. An essential tenet of his approach is about starting with where the child is at.  This encourages practitioners to look at where the child is and not where they think a child should be in relation to development and learning. In many ways this should encourage practitioners to take a culturally responsive approach to the children that they are working with by allowing them to see the whole child as a capable learner. Unless practitioners truly understand racism, stereotypes and their own potential prejudices there is no guarantee that they will view Froebel’s work in this way. They may instead view the notion of starting with where the child is through a very narrow lens. For example, rather than using what the child knows and understands in teaching to help them to make connections, the child may be viewed as a blank slate.

To assess whether race and an anti-racist approach shows up in a Froebelian approach it is first necessary to explore what race, and anti-racist practice is. Race is about our physical characteristics and is a social construct. Without having an understanding about a child’s race, we cannot understand how race shapes their first-hand experiences. In all of Froebel’s translated writing race is not mentioned and whilst anti-racist practice is not explicitly promoted some of Froebel’s key principles about the adult role can be seen to support an anti-racist approach. Even though they do not specify race, they give us a starting point. Particularly his ideas about respect for the child and connectivity – that is the child, family and wider community. Anti-racist practice is about equity and inclusion- it is not about treating all children equally but it is about giving them what they need. It is also about diversity – acknowledging and supporting difference and not assuming that people that look similar have the same experience. Anti-racist practice is ultimately about how adults actively support children’s views of the world, encouraging them to respect others and understand difference.

Looking at Froebel’s writing it is clear to me that the Froebelian principles stand the test of time and are very applicable today.  More specifically Froebel’s ideas about interconnectedness can be linked to how children see meaningful images of people who look like them being represented in a positive way that celebrate and acknowledges difference and also about those who look like them but are different in other ways. But this requires reflection and conscious self-awareness from the practitioner as well as a knowledge of the facts of social justice and cultural history.  Froebel’s essential principle of understanding oneself, awareness of self and relationship with others and the universe can be linked back to his ideas about unity and connectedness. That is: children are whole people, their identity, ideas, feelings, actions and thoughts are interrelated. Froebel in Lilley (1967: 59) argues that ‘It is only if this threefold form of its expression – unity, individuality, diversity – is recognised that the essential character of anything can be completely known.’ Individuality is an Enlightenment idea and it’s important to note that not all communities and philosophies see it in the same way. However, Froebel placed great emphasis on the individuality and diversity of each child and his view is mirrored in his observations of nature. Froebel in Lilley (1967: 114) states that ‘children need encouragement as growing plants need warmth and light…’

I acknowledge that Froebel is one of my heroes and I may very well be prejudiced as a Froebelian – possibly my confirmation bias is at play here. However, in my practice over the last 12 years, I have worked in South Africa with indigenous communities, implementing Froebelian principles in culturally appropriate ways that recognise the children’s and staff experiences.  In a project lead by Professor Tina Bruce, Froebelian principles have been used to help us navigate our way around the South African curriculum. We have observed where children and staff are at and have supported their learning by providing meaningful opportunities that enable them to make connections with their experiences and physical environment. As Whinnett (2016:139) points out; ‘Ultimately this is about personal identity and locating yourself in a family, community and humankind. It is the unity of holistic experience that makes each one of us human.’ In addition, I have been involved in developing Froebelian pedagogy that is integrated with an Aboriginal cultural perspective in Perth, Western Australia. I have learnt that Aboriginal culture is not one but many – rooted in their deep knowledge of the land, plants, nature and the eco system spanning some 60,000 years. This has given me further insight into engaging with nature in daily real and meaningful ways and Aboriginal ways of knowing. The point here is about reciprocal sharing. Not only can Froebelians offer something to other cultures (which could seem patronising), but other cultures can give Froebelians a richer understanding of various concepts and offer examples of daily life that encapsulate Froebelian approaches which our own culture has lost. For me as a Black British woman, Froebel’s ideas have guided and influenced my work in post-colonial and post-apartheid countries. It may be more useful to view Froebel’s ideas on Unity and connection when considering race and anti-racist practice rather than merely looking for mentions of race in his writings.  If we look with an open mind at the connections between people, we can critique their ideas and consider if they support unity or if they undermine it.

BLOG BY STELLA LOUIS (on twitter @dr_sramlouis)

First photo by Saliha from Pexels. Second photo by Claude Piché on Unsplash


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Shaddai Tembo and Simon Bateson, supported by The Froebel Trust, are looking for Froebelian nurseries to help us examine how we perceive and address issues around race. Think you could help? Get in touch.