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Home > Resources > Articles > Froebel Gifts: A Simple Introduction to a Complex World

Froebel Gifts: A Simple Introduction to a Complex World

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As introduction to his booklet about Friedrich Froebel and the Froebel Gifts, Scott Bultman writes, "At first glance, I did not see anything special about these plain wood blocks -- except the price." At first glance, I had to agree. Each Froebel Gift appeared to be nothing more than a simple set of wooden blocks in various shapes, sizes and colors. What exactly made them so unique?

It was only after delving further into Bultman's research and, most importantly, exploring the Froebel Gifts with my son, I began to understand how these beautifully constructed yet remarkably simple sets contained the very essence of an ideal early childhood education.

What Are the Froebel Gifts?
Developed by Friedrich Froebel, who in the early 1800s literally invented kindergarten, the Froebel Gifts encourage what experts agree is a child's most important work -- creative, open-ended play. From the simple act of exploring the Froebel Gifts as Froebel intended, children learn fundamental concepts of math, science, language, engineering, art and more. They learn to express themselves and develop confidence and self esteem, too, and all through the simple act of play.

"When you give a child a burger toy," says Pete Bultman, president of Lindenwood, Inc., the U.S. manufacturer and distributor of Froebel Gifts (and Scott's brother), "that basically has all the creativity taken out of it. It is the final thing it's supposed to be and it can't be anything else. That's very anti-Froebelian. A block can be anything, a motorcycle or a house or a person. That's what stimulates brain activity."

In addition to open-ended play and discovery, Froebel's educational philosophy stresses the interaction between adult and child. "Come let us live with our children," he invited, calling teachers "kindergarteners" for their role in tending and nurturing the garden of children. He and his followers instruct adults to guide children in their explorations, but always to let them direct the play.

"The adult should let the process flow naturally from the child," writes Bultman in the booklet accompanying Giftss 2 through 6. "Each child learns at his/her own pace. A child's confidence and self-esteem will be strengthened by doing for himself or herself." Like early childhood guru Stanley Greenspan's "floor time" practice, Froebel's system of gentle guidance allows children to remain in control of their play to most effectively nurture their cognitive and social development.

The First Gifts: Introducing a 3-dimensional World
With the early Gifts (Gifts 2 through 6), children are exposed to the three-dimensional shapes that make up the known world. Simple instructions help parents guide children in exploring, describing, comparing and creating with these shapes, building a solid foundation for basic and advanced math, science and engineering skills. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and R. Buckminster Fuller (the inventor of the geodesic dome) acknowledged being strongly influenced by their early experiences with Froebel Gifts.

"Mother found the ‘Gifts.' And gifts they were," Wright wrote in 1957, describing how his mother followed Froebel's system to guide him in his explorations. He recalls playing with the cube, the sphere and the triangle blocks, adding "All are in my fingers today." As a result, he notes, "I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw." As Froebel intended, Wright naturally made the connection between the simple blocks with which he played and the more complex world in which he lived.

Moving Into 2-dimensional Representations
Gifts 7 through 9 flow logically from the three-dimensional solids we see in the world to two-dimensional representations of the same shapes. These gifts also add vibrant color, allowing children to further explore the world of art and beauty. With all the Gifts, Froebel divided play into three general categories: Forms of Knowledge (math and science), Forms of Life (relating the Gifts to real-world objects familiar to the child) and Forms of Beauty (patterns, art and abstract design). It's important to note (and help your child understand) that a child's creation is never destroyed after play; it is simply returned to its original form (i.e., placed back in the hardwood box in which it is stored) awaiting future exploration and creation.

Come Let Us Play With Our Children
Adults play an important role in Froebel's system, but it's a supporting role that requires us to step back, slow down and allow our children to set the pace. "The role of the parent or teacher is to encourage the child's exploration," writes Scott Bultman. "They cannot ‘do' for the child, but instead they guide the child through questions or discussions." The important thing is for children to find their own answers, and with the open-ended discovery inherent in Froebel's Gifts, no answer can ever be wrong.

The instructions included with each Froebel Gift offer suggestions and guidance for parents, and the more you explore the Gifts with your child, the more eager and enthusiastic you'll become about exploring further. (In fact, when I brought out the Gifts for some children to play with at a dinner party recently, the adults became so enthralled that we all ended up designing and playing and discovering together for over half an hour. One guest, an architect, pointed out how the the patterns shown in Bultman's accompanying booklet mirror the floor plans of many Frank Lloyd Wright designs.)

"At first it's hard to see the potential," said one mother after using the Gifts with her two young daughters. "They just look like a bunch of little blocks. But once you get into it, there's like a door that opens and all of a sudden you see how much you can do with them and how much fun it all can be!"

Froebel's Enduring Influence
In his book, Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman presents a wealth of evidence showing a strong influence of Froebel's Gifts on modern art and architecture. In addition to Frank Lloyd Wright and R. Buckminster Fuller, Brosterman points to links between the work of many modern artists and the Froebel Gifts that were widely used when they were in kindergarten.

Wright acknowledged the influence on his own work, saying, "I learned to ‘see' (the constructive patterns in real-world objects) and when I did, I did not care to draw casual incidentals of nature. I wanted to design."

The Gifts are so well crafted -- including their sturdy, polished hardwood storage boxes -- you're sure to use them for years to come before passing them down to future generations. Visit Baby Classroom for more information about Friedrich Froebel and to order Froebel Gifts for your family.

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