Know your trade: The Froebel Approach to early education

Published on Tuesday, 08 September 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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In many ways, NZ kindergartens owe their existence to German educator Friedrich Froebel. In 1837, when few others were engaged in educating pre-school aged children, Froebel created a program for young children based on 'play and activity' and 'the nurturing of creativity' to help children develop and grow.

According to NZ History the Dunedin Free Kindergarten, established in June 1889, aimed to educate and care for children of the poor and was closely based on Froebel’s approach to early education.  

Froebel was the first to recognise that children experience significant brain development in their first three years of life and his kindergartens (children's gardens) were based on the philosophy that humans are essentially creative beings that need to be given the opportunity to experience, learn and develop on their own terms and in their own timeframe.

"Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in a community of peers," is a famous quote which captures Froebel's views.

Froebel's approach, methods and thinking influenced and inspired many of the more well-known early childhood education advocates including Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner.

Froebel believed that young children possess unique capabilities and needs, and that adults should serve as the "gardeners" of children's potential. Froebel asserted that young children learn best in settings that provide a stimulating and prepared environment where they can explore and learn from their own experiences and perspectives.

Because Froebel believed that a child's education begins in infancy he saw mothers as the best first teachers and women as the most appropriate teachers for his kindergartens. As such, Froebel kindergartens offered women a career option outside the home in a time when there weren't many options available.

Unsurprisingly, the kindergarten movement in NZ was championed by a number of high-profile female patrons. Dunedin resident and activist Learmonth Dalrymple petitioned Parliament to implement Froebel’s system and philanthropist Rachel Reynolds and private schoolteacher Lavinia Kelsey were instrumental in establishing New Zealand's first kindergartens.

Key Features of the Froebel approach to education

Froebel education stresses that parents are the first educators for children, and that there should be close links between home and school. The main goal of a Froebel education is to teach the whole child in all developmental areas: socially, academically, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

There are four main components of the Froebellian Approach: motor expression, social participation, free self-expression and creativity.

The Froebel Approach stresses that:

  1. Play Drives Learning
    Play meets the biological need to discover how things work. Froebel education believes that play is purposeful and not idle, and that meaning is created through hands-on play activities.
  2. Children can only learn what they are ready for
    Children develop differently and should be allowed to learn at their own developmental pace.
  3. The teacher should serve as a guide
    Teachers should not be viewed as the keepers of knowledge, but instead as guides who can help lead a child to understanding.
  4. The classroom should be a prepared environment
    Although Froebellian classrooms may look like they are designed for free play, they are very carefully prepared, presenting children with the tools and materials that are optimal for their level of development.
  5. Movement is imperative for young learners
    Froebellian classrooms are alive with finger plays, songs, and all forms of movement.

A unique component of a Froebel classroom is the use of the materials referred to as the Froebel Gifts and Occupations.

The Gifts are a series of sets specially designed materials with a fixed form, which provide hands-on explorations of solids, surfaces, lines, rings and points. The sets are comprised of blocks and balls which can be manipulated and stacked in open ended play to help children explore principles of movement, math, and construction.

The Occupations are a set of activities designed to provide further hands-on explorations and practice with skills like clay work, woodwork, lacing, weaving, drawing, and cutting. Again, these materials are designed to allow children uninterrupted periods of play where they construct their own meaning of how things work.

Another inherent aspect of the Froebellian approach is the study and appreciation of plants and nature. Froebel thought it was important for children to grow up with an understanding of the importance of the natural environment and the opportunity to experience nature in its many forms.

The Froebel Trust, a not for profit organisation in the UK committed to keeping Froebel's philosophies alive, summarises the key principles educators need to keep in mind to maximise development and wellbeing as:

  • The integrity of childhood in its own right
  • The relationship of every child to family, community and to nature, culture and society
  • The uniqueness of every child's capacity and potential
  • The holistic nature and development of every child
  • The role of play and creativity as central integrating elements in development and learning
  • The right of children to protection from harm or abuse and to the promotion of their overall wellbeing.

According to the British Association for Early Childhood Education, in practice this means:

  • It is important that educators offer children what they need now. For example, some children may need to be allowed the autonomy to mix their own paints, while others may not be ready to mix paints for themselves, but they may be ready to learn how sand, clay and gravel behave when in contact with water. Another child may be ready to mix paints but may need more support if they are in the early stages of learning how to do this.
  • Educators must nurture the ideas, feelings, relationships and physical development of children. An educator should be able to recognise when children need personal space or to be diverted into something appropriate for them without making them feel bad.  Children need to be given help sensitively, in a way which builds their confidence, skills and autonomy.
  • All children learn in ways which can be linked with Te Whariki.
  • Children are self-motivated when they are encouraged to be so, and their intrinsic motivation is nurtured by educators that understand them.
  • Children are encouraged to develop self-discipline. This helps them concentrate and learn effectively. It also relates to understanding of self, others and the universe.
  • Children need to be given choices, allowed to make errors, decisions and offered sensitive help as and when it is needed. This helps children learn in ways which are right for each of them as individuals. In this way educators support and extend their learning.
  • Practitioners need to place emphasis on what the children can do, rather than what they can’t do. The tone and atmosphere should be encouraging and not judgemental. This, Froebel believed, builds self-esteem and confidence. In other words, at every stage children need to be at that stage – with adults providing opportunities for them to practise and apply what they know and can do.
  • Children need to be given personal space to construct, build and model. However, they also benefit from talking with educators about what they are doing and going to do. Language, talking and listening to each other, are important ways in which children become symbol users.
  • When observing children, it might look as if practitioners are only there in the background, but in fact they are central. Educators are key to helping children develop and learn and create warm affectionate atmospheres, which open them up to learning and help children to know themselves, respect themselves, like themselves, and engage with their learning positively.
  • It’s important for children to learn without pressure from educators. Educators do their best work helping children learn when they observe what children find interesting and support them to explore what they are interested in.

References and further reading Comparison among Froebel, Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf-Steiner Methods – Part 1


The Froebel Trust

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