Make way for revolutionary ducklings
For a long time, encouraging toddlers’ emotional and intellectual development through play was considered unnecessary, a bit mad, and even a threat to the state. In the 19th century, the son of a priest from Thuringia challenged these convictions. His ideas are still influential today, as are his children’s songs.
By Viola Kiel
In 1840, a man caused a bit of a sensation in the Thuringian town of Bad Blankenburg, when he waddled across the street followed by a flock of children imitating this odd way of walking. This eccentric mimic was Friedrich Fröbel, the founder of the first German kindergarten, a pre-school educational institution for very young children. His idea of encouraging productive play to help children develop is an integral part of our educational system today. It was very revolutionary at the time though, and Fröbel met with both fervent support and serious resistance.
The first infant schools in EuropeThe need for childcare had risen sharply in the decades leading up to Fröbel’s innovations. Industrialisation had created new jobs and attracted people to the cities. To earn enough to keep body and soul together though, both parents usually had to work long days in the factories. In the early days of industrialization, many took their children with to work where even very young children were expected to earn their keep. In 1839, however, the Prussian government banned children under the age of nine from working.
This shift had taken place a few decades earlier in other European countries. So the first child-care centres emerged in Europe as early as the second half of the 18th century, though they had very little in common with the day-care centres we know today. From 1770 onwards, the children of destitute families received instruction in infant schools in France. A 1792 travelogue describes similar institutions in the Netherlands, where young children learned to read and do needlework.
Students at the kindergarten seminar at the Berlin Fröbel Association making toys for fine-motor skills classes in 1906. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/ullstein bild In Germany, Westphalian Princess Pauline zu Lippe-Detmold created the first children’s home in 1802. She had read in a French newspaper about how single, working mothers in Paris could place their children in the care of volunteer childminders and promoted the introduction of this “Paris fashion” in Germany. In Scotland, cotton spinning mill owner Robert Owen set up several facilities for his workers’ children and the first infant school opened in London in 1820. A Hungarian countess also contributed to the development of child care: Therese Brunsvik de Korompa founded the first infant school in Budapest in 1828.
Children’s songs and flower pressesTo return to Friedrich Fröbel’s ideas though: following an apprenticeship as a forester and a degree in the natural sciences, he began working as a teacher and met famous educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi saw comprehensive public education as the key to a functioning democratic society, an idea Fröbel took up and expanded. Fröbel posited that education should start at a young age, but be playful. He set up educational institutions, published his thoughts in books, and designed educational toys.
In 1840, his General German Kindergarten opened its doors in Bad Blankenburg. Instead of typical school-room lessons, Fröbel focused on learning through play. He wrote songs, including the German classic Häschen in der Grube (Little Rabbit in the Burrow) and picture books, and gave the children round, glass pebbles and flower presses to play with. He felt children from all walks of life should be encouraged to move around, sing, do crafts, and even waddle across the marketplace to see the world from a duckling’s-eye view.
Today many child-care centres in Germany still bear Friedrich Fröbel’s name, like the “Water Sprites” Fröbel centre pictured here in Wedel in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Axel Heimken / dpa Not everyone was enthusiastic about Fröbel’s advances. The authorities looked askance at what they saw as an undermining of school discipline, and were confident too much freedom of thought could shake up the existing social order. Civil and religious organisations countered by setting up reform schools designed to churn out obedient subjects. In 1851, Fröbel was made painfully aware of his opponents’ power and influence when the Prussian government banned his kindergarten. The authorities saw Fröbel’s principles as a threat to public order, arguing that his approach destroyed “the child’s sense of dependence” and contributed “to the moral decay of society”.
Fröbel would not live to see this ban lifted nine years later, but his ideas live on today. A few years before his death in 1852, Fröbel opened a training centre for kindergarten teachers.
When his students were forced to flee Prussian repression, they took his educational methods with them wherever they went. In 1856, the first kindergarten in the USA was opened in Wisconsin, and Fröbel’s teaching concepts travelled the world from there, even as far as Japan. Today 50 languages across the globe use the German word “kindergarten” for early-childhood education, though its precise meaning varies from country to country.