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Who Was Frederick Froebel

Who was Frederick Froebel?

Frederick Froebel was a German educator who was born in 1782 and lived until 1852. He opened the first Kindergarten in 1837.

When we think about education reformers and ‘alternative’ approaches to education, some names immediately spring out at us, however, Frederick Froebel doesn’t tend to be one of those names. I wonder why that is, especially as Frederick Froebel is known amongst practitioners as the ‘inventor of kindergarten’. I had not heard of Froebel until relatively recently but when I did it was a lightbulb moment for me. It resonated strongly and inspired me deeply. Nature’s Little Wonders Forest Kindergarten here in North East Fife, will be a Froebel influenced outdoor nursery. All staff will be trained in Froebelian principles and all our children will receive the highest quality of care with a focus on unity and connectedness, quality relationships, autonomy, creativity, knowledgeable and nurturing educators, play and true engagement with nature.

What do we mean by Kindergarten?

The first recognised nursery for children under 5 was opened in Scotland in 1816 to care for the children of cotton mill workers. These children lived in cramped tenements and so their time at nursery was focused on providing as much fresh air as possible for their health. Over time, as the nursery school movement progressed, more indoor spaces started being used and outdoor nurseries became less common. However, nature plays a huge role in child development, and it forms a key part of Froebel’s philosophy.

I find the field of nature connection fascinating and I must admit, I’ve only really touched the surface with my own research into it. Put simply, what is apparent, innate even, is that nature is good for us. Fresh air is good for us. I think most of us have known this our whole lives. For those of us with our own children or who work with children, children tend to respond better to potentially challenging situations when they are outside. It makes sense then that Froebel took hold of this and spent most of his time outside with the young children in his care. He coined the term ‘kindergarten’ which translates as ‘garden for children’.


Froebel spent a lot of his own childhood in nature and his main interest could be described as play, learning and the natural world. All three of which in Froebel’s mind are interconnected and interdependent. As a sidenote, when I first heard this I got quite a jolt of excitement as it perfectly aligns with Nature’s Little Wonders sub-heading – Nature Learning Play – which I came up with before I’d even heard of Froebel. I think what that highlights, is that Froebelian philosophy is a very instinctive approach to education and that even if we had not heard of Froebel previously, his philosophy will likely ring very true to many of us.

I think young children have an advantage on most adults when it comes to nature-connection. As we get older a lot of us become disassociated from our instincts. For young children, and babies especially, their instincts are their primary source of incoming information. Once upon a time, connection to nature was all we had. Our biological programing is still designed for a primitive environment and yet we are quite far removed from it spending more time indoors in artificial environments. This is why I believe time in nature and connecting to it is so important – it’s what we are programmed to do. When we are connected to nature, our bodies and minds become more at ease because essentially, we are ‘home’. Nature is able to engage all of our senses at once but in a natural and balanced way which gives rise to creativity and a relaxed yet stimulated state of mind.

Unity and Connectedness

Froebel wanted children to learn that all things in the universe are connected. He believed that education should not be compartmentalised.

Children at Nature’s Little Wonders Forest Kindergarten will have access to a community garden that contains multiple fruit trees such as apple and pear trees. All these features will provide rich learning opportunities for the children and are referred to as whole child learning in the Froebelian philosophy. It enables the child to learn whole natural cycles e.g., a seed from an apple grows into a tree; the tree matures and bears fruit; the fruit can be harvested and eaten by us or other animals and the seeds then get dispersed and the cycle continues. The child also learns their connection to this cycle and to that of other natural cycles and from there, they learn that everything in the universe is connected.

Self-activity and play

Froebel has been quoted as saying play is “the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul”. Froebel came to realise from his observations of children, that through self-directed activity and play, children come up with their own ways of thinking and understanding. Froebel highlighted that children go through stages of development and each stage builds upon the previous stage. Most importantly, these stages cannot be rushed, they need to be lived fully and thoroughly.

Froebel was an advocate of many things, including training women to work as educators (in Froebel’s time, this was a male dominated area); recognising children as individuals; focusing on what children can do rather than what they cannot do; seeing children and all living species in the universe as connected; and allowing children to play freely. There is a principle in Froebelian education which is providing ‘freedom with guidance’. In other words, adults play an important role in guiding the child but we must not get in the way of their freedom.

Gifts and Occupations

Froebel was a mathematician and a very intelligent man. He created the concept of Gifts and Occupations and this is central to Froebelian practice.

The Gifts are educational objects and they are sequential, starting simply and progressively becoming more complex. Froebel believed that each child should have their own set of Gifts through which to explore and learn from. The gifts range from a set of colourful felt balls to a set of wooden blocks and prisms. And best of all, in my opinion, the Gifts are open-ended, there is no right or wrong way to interact with them, the child decides what is best for his or her own discoveries.

The Occupations are the educational activities which allow children to create, communicate, and problem-solve. These activities include paper cutting, paper folding, sewing, woodwork, cooking, clay and more.

The Froebel Trust has a wealth of resource on its website including pamphlets on each of the Occupations which are free to download.

Mother Songs and Finger Rhymes

Froebel recognised that women, and mothers in particular, had a strong ability to connect to the child and facilitate his or her learning. This is where the term Mother Songs comes from and relates to the songs that a mother can sing to and with her child which helps to engage them. Singing with children in this way forms the beginning of their literacy and numeracy journeys. Like the Gifts, they are sequential, starting with lullabies and progressing towards whole hand and body actions. A lot of the songs we sing with young children today have their origins in Froebel’s Mother Songs for example Tommy Thumb, 5 Little Ducks and Row Row Row Your Boat. I had a wonderful moment with my son when he was 2 which I will always remember. I was singing 5 Little Ducks to him, and I could see he was 100% engaged and it was almost as if I could see the little cogs turning in his brain! As we counted down from 5 to no little ducks, he was copying me with his fingers and since that precise moment he has become fascinated with using his fingers whenever we talk about numbers. Like recently when talking about his upcoming 3rd birthday, he’ll talk about how he is 2 but going to be 3 using his fingers. He’ll negotiate “2 more minutes” or “1 more minute” when I’m transitioning him to a different situation or activity. It was a real lightbulb moment and showed me first-hand how powerful these finger rhymes can be.

There is so much more to talk about with Froebel and his philosophy. It really is a testament to how valuable it is when it was created in the 1800s and yet is no less relevant today. If you would like to find out more I highly recommend looking at the Froebel Trust website which is jam packed full of wonderful resources. Another reason I love the Froebel philosophy so much is it is so accessible, the resources are available without having to pay hundreds of pounds to access and can be used within your own settings and at home. It promotes equality and a sense of community.

I hope this has provided an insight into Froebel, resonated with you and even inspired you to find out more.

Thanks for reading!


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