Friedrich Froebel’s Gift to the Occupation of Art Education
(I promise this title is at least a little bit clever. Keep reading to see if you agree.)
In this review I will first explain Friedrich Froebel’s philosophy of education and how it translated into the development of the first kindergarten and art education in America. Secondly, I will illuminate key points characterizing Froebel’s kindergarten and provide contemporary examples of their influence on the modern art classroom. Finally, I will share my personal reflections on incorporating Froebelian methods in my own practice as an art educator.
Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, believed deeply that in all human beings there were elements of the divine. He felt that his work as an educator was to cultivate these elements in children by encouraging them to discover and learn through play, creative self-activity, and the natural world (Strauch-Nelson, 2010). These beliefs caused him to develop a learning environment very different from the one room school houses famous for rote memorization and the severe, swift punishment of error. Friedrich Froebel founded the tender, colorful, and highly exploratory world of the kindergarten (Sienkiewicz, 1985).
Due to the passionate advocacy of Elizabeth Peabody, Froebel’s German kindergarten was accepted into mainstream American education (Sienkiewicz, 1985). After its inclusion, a very new and different view of what a classroom should look like and include began to take hold. During the turn-of-the-century, “the kindergarten room curiously resembles the nineteenth-century artist’s studio or art classroom. This similarity becomes more striking as one remembers the bare one-room schoolhouses so prevalent in the United States” (Sienkiewicz, 1985, p. 127). This embrace of Froebel’s enriched environment where students learn by creating and exploring made possible the introduction of art education into the modern American school curriculum.
The influences of Froebelian philosophy on contemporary art education are numerous and irrefutable. For example, in today’s art classroom, students learn by creating, and we believe that a student’s artwork reveals information about the development of their personality and internal world (Strauch-Nelson, 2012). Just as Froebel’s methods rely on engaging children in play to encourage growth, the contemporary art teacher relies on the students’ process of creating artwork to foster and measure their growth as artists. We believe students’ work is instrumental in their discovery and creation of unique identities and that the work itself communicates much to the world about who they are. Such a belief would not have been possible without the introduction of Froebel’s kindergarten to shift the educational norm in America from bare schoolhouses to the stimulating art classrooms of today.
Three key principles that characterize Froebel’s kindergarten include learning through play and creative self-activity, the Froebelian gifts and occupations, and study of the natural world. The first of these, learning through play, places importance on activities that children are naturally drawn to and maintains that children learn valuable lessons from creatively engaging in these activities. As such, it is “a basic tenet of his educational philosophy” (Strauch-Nelson, 2012, p. 63). Modern art education practices have been fundamentally influenced by this philosophy as evidenced by the tendency of contemporary art educators to encourage students to create original work rather than requiring them to study and copy the works of others. This child-directed approach finds it origins in Froebel’s methods (Sienkiewicz, 1985).
The Froebelian gifts are contained in “a set of twenty manipulable objects” (Sienkiewicz, 1985, p. 127) of various form, color, size, texture, etc. that stimulate the senses and lead to engaging students in the occupations, “a term given to a type of handiwork…such as clay modeling, the interlacing of paper strips, and building forms with sticks connected by softened peas” (Sienkiewicz, 1985, p.132). The purpose of the gifts and occupations is to “lead the child to an understanding of abstract relationships and concepts such as space, force and unity” (Strauch-Nelson, 2012, p.63). By employing the senses as a foundation for developing abstract ideas, Froebel mimics the experience of a viewer of art who takes in information visually and forms thoughts, emotions, and abstract experiences as a reaction to what they have seen. As such, the acceptance of the gifts and occupations as a teaching tool validates the presence of art education in modern school curriculum.
The study of the natural world is also essential to Froebelian philosophy. Rejecting the dark, one room school house of the 1700’s, Froebel’s methods embrace Rousseau’s charge to follow a natural course of learning rather than constructing artificial educational institutions. This can be seen in the naming of the kindergarten, a garden for children, not a school, but a place for natural growth (Sienkiewicz, 1985). Though this belief has certainly influenced art education in that it has encouraged plein aire painting, still life drawings, and leaf rubbings, Strauch-Nelson (2012) maintains that the primary Froebelian deficit in contemporary art education is nature study. Perhaps this is an area in the art curriculum that will expand in the near future.
Learning about Froebel’s kindergarten has strengthened my beliefs about teaching art in a way that truly benefits the student and puts their needs first. My students often want to talk about why they have made certain artistic choices in subject matter, color, medium, etc. or what they intend to do with their piece, for example, who they will give it to. Sometimes these discussions frustrate me because they can take up a considerable amount of time, and I want my students to make use of every moment they have in the studio. (This is especially true of my papermaking and stained glass students, for I know they do not have the tools to work on their projects at home.) Reading about Froebel’s philosophy has helped me realize that these social interactions are just as important for my students’ learning process as the creation of the artwork.
I would be interested in developing curriculum inspired by Froebel’s gifts and occupations for the purpose of teaching elements and principles of design. An art educator could use manipulable sensory tools to engrain an understanding of simple design concepts like point, line, shape, form, etc. and then build on those concepts to introduce more abstract design concepts such as harmony, dominance, and unity. This would be especially beneficial for developing two dimensional work in a way that illustrates and understanding of our three dimensional world.
I am greatly encouraged by Froebel’s spiritual convictions and feel that my own drive to serve a higher purpose in my work as an art educator has been validated by one of the field’s great contributors. His artistry and attention to detail in the development of the kindergarten coupled with his idealist mentality make him a highly desirable historical figure for me to identify with, admire, and emulate.
Sienkiewicz, C. (1985). The Froebelian kindergarten as an art academy. In B. Wilson &
H. Hoffa (Eds.), The history of art education: Proceedings from the Penn State conference (pp. 125-137). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
Strauch-Nelson, W. (2012). Transplanting Froebel into the present, International Journal
of Education through Art, 8(1), 59–72. doi: 10.1386/eta.8.1.59_1.