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Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel

Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel




Life. The Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century included many advocates for the nurturing and education of children. One of the most important was the German educator and philosopher Friedrich Froebel. His mother died while he was still an infant in Oberweissbach, a small village of Thuringia. He had a rather strict Lutheran upbringing by his pastor father. After beginning his education at the local village school, Froebel was only ten years old when he was sent to live with an uncle and attend another village school in Stadt Ilm. When he turned fifteen, he became an apprentice forester but decided he disliked the trade after two years. From 1799 to 1816 he studied at the Universities of Jena, Göttingen, and Berlin while also working briefly at various jobs as a teacher and secretary. He also served in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars. Having become interested in education at the University of Jena, Froebel established his own school, the Universal German Educational Institution, in 1816, hoping it might become a model for a rejuvenation of education in Prussia. During the 1820s he was active publishing his educational theories, and in 1831 he ceded control of the school and traveled with his wife to Switzerland, where he helped found and develop a school for poor children. In 1836 he returned to Prussia with his ill wife. In these decades Froebel formulated his idea for a school for very young children. In 1837 in Blankenburg he founded the Child Nurture and Activity Institute, which he later renamed the Kindergarten (child garden), using the school as a model to encourage the opening of more such schools during the 1840s.

Educational Philosophy Froebel outlined the major components of his thought in Menschenerziehung (The Education of Man), published in 1826 and subsequently translated into several different languages, including English. (The book was widely available in the United States by the 1880s.) Deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Froebel believed that the self was developed through a combination of sensory experiences that begin immediately after a child’s birth. This development, he explained, was a continuous process that grew increasingly complex as the individual aged. Children, he said, needed special attention throughout their early years to insure later success. Believing that children learned by establishing relationships between themselves and the world, Froebel taught that doing so successfully was essential because the world was the ultimate, ever-changing manifestation of divine love.

Stages of Childhood While philosophers and educators had generally treated birth through age seven as a single life stage, Froebel argued that children passed through three stages between birth and age six: infancy, early childhood, and childhood. Because the child changed and developed so quickly during these years, parents and teachers had to be especially aware of the child’s surroundings and the kinds of sensory experiences to which the child was exposed. Texture, color, and light were all important for the young child, and play was the main activity through which the child could develop relationships to its surroundings. Froebel instructed parents and teachers to develop specific skills in their children even before the child could walk, such as having the child learn to grasp, hold, and pull on items in the infancy stage. Children left infancy when they became more interested in objects than in themselves, and they left the stage of early childhood as their intellectual capabilities developed, usually between the ages of four and six years.

The Kindergarten Movement Froebel’s name for his schools, Kindergartens, with its implications of cultivation and domestication, distanced himself from advocates of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s emphasis on developing the child in nature; yet, Froebel also rejected the established institution of the school. He taught that a child should be allowed the freedom to play and express himself or herself within protective confines created by specially trained adults who were deeply aware of the child’s needs. He popularized his ideas by appealing to groups of women to take seriously and professionalize their role as educators, maintaining contacts with these groups through a series of letters that outlined his general philosophy. The revolutionary fervor of 1848 hurt the Kindergarten movement in Prussia, where government officials believed erroneously that it was attached to radical socialism and outlawed it in 1851, the year before Froebel’s death. Despite the ban, the movement eventually spread across Europe and to North America. Proponents of Froebel’s philosophy emerged in England as early as 1856, and the Froebel Society was established there in 1874 to train teachers and parents in early-childhood education.


Robert Downs, Friedrich Froebel (Boston: Twayne, 1978).

Irene Lilley, ed., Friedrich Froebel: A Selection from His Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Jennifer Wolfe, Learning from the Past: Historical Voices in Early Childhood Education (Mayerthorpe, Alberta: Piney Branch Press, 2000).

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