Friedrich Froebel

Who was Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852)

Born on 21 April 1782 Friedrich Froebel was a German educator who invented the kindergarten. He believed that “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.” According to Froebel, in play children construct their understanding of the world through direct experience with it. His ideas about learning through nature and the importance of play have spread throughout the world.

Froebel considered the whole child’s, health, physical development, the environment, emotional well-being, mental ability, social relationships and spiritual aspects of development as important. Drawing on his mathematical and scientific knowledge Froebel developed a set of gifts (wooden blocks 1-6) and introduced occupations, (including sticks, clay, sand, slates, chalk, wax, shells, stones, scissors, paper folding). It seems appropriate to mention Froebel’s gifts and occupations in conjunction with this new course. Particularly as the gifts and occupations are open-ended and can be used to support children’s self initiated play.

Froebel believed that it was important for practitioners to understand the principles of observation including professional practice, the multiple lenses through which they see children- and that children see their worlds, as well as offering children freedom with guidance and considering the children’s environments including people and materials as a key element of how they behave.

Because Froebel based much of his understanding of children on observing them this has changed the way we think about children’s play.

We have Froebel’s insights to thank for placing child initiated activity with adults working with children to give them freedom with sensitive guidance and symbolic and imaginative play at the heart of our curriculum


Froebelian principles as articulated by Professor Tina Bruce (1987, 1st edition and 2015, 5th edition).

  1. Childhood is seen as valid in it self, as part of life and not simply as preparation for adulthood.  Thus education is seen similarly as something of the present and not just preparation and training for later.
  2. The whole child is considered to be important.  Health – physical and mental is emphasised, as well as the importance of feelings and thinking and spiritual aspects.
  3. Learning is not compartmentalised, for everything links.
  4. Intrinsic motivation, resulting in child-initiated, self directed activity, is valued.
  5. Self- discipline is emphasised.
  6. There are specially receptive periods of learning at different stages of development.
  7. What children can do (rather than what they cannot do) is the starting point in the child’s education.
  8. There is an inner life in the child, which emerges especially under favourable conditions.
  9. The people (both adults and children) with whom the child interacts are of central importance.
  10. Quality education is about three things: the child, the context in which learning takes place, and the knowledge and understanding which the child develops and learns.

A Froebelian principled approach to early childhood education in practice

  • It is important that practitioners offer children what they need now. For example, some children may need to be allowed the autonomy, (to make choices and decisions and to use their skills and techniques) to mix their own paints. While other children may not be ready to mix paints for themselves, and will just waste expensive resources if they are allowed to ladle paint everywhere, and splash water onto it, but they may be ready to learn how sand, clay and gravel behave when in contact with water. They can learn about the properties of materials. Another child may be ready to mix paints, but may need a great deal of practitioner support as they are in the early stages of learning how to do this.
  • The practitioner must nurture the ideas, feelings, relationships and physical development and embodiment of children.  The practitioner needs to be able to recognise when children need personal space or need to be diverted into something appropriate for them without making them feel bad about using the paints inappropriately, because they couldn’t yet understand.  Children need to be given help sensitively, in a way which will build their confidence, skills and autonomy.
  • All children learn in ways which can be linked with The official framework documents of their country, such as the areas of learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage (England) or The Curriculum for Excellence (Scotland), The Foundation Phase Curriculum (Wales)  Aistear (Ireland), or Understanding the Foundation Stage (Northern Ireland) and also Te Whariki (New Zealand).
  • Children are self-motivated when they are encouraged to be so and their intrinsic motivation to learn is not crushed, but nurtured by practitioners that have an understanding of them.
  • Children are encouraged to develop self-discipline.  This helps children to concentrate well, and to learn effectively. It also relates 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 will help children to learn in ways which are right for each of them as individuals. In this way practitioners are supporting and also extending 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 or critical.  This Froebel believed builds self-esteem and confidence. In other words at every stage children  need to be 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 children also benefit from lots of talking with the practitioner about what they are doing and going to do. Language, talking and listening to each other, is an important and central way in which children become symbol users.
  • When it comes to taking a Froebelian approach to observing children. It might look as if the practitioners are only there in the background, but in fact they are central. Practitioners working with young children, either in group setting or in a home based setting, are key to helping children develop and learn. Practitioners create warm affectionate atmospheres, which open children up to learning and help children to know themselves, respect themselves, like themselves, and engage with their learning very positively.
  • Froebel believed that practitioners also create the physical environment both indoors and outdoors. He points out how important it is for children to learn without external pressures from practitioners. The people we meet, the environment and atmosphere, are as important as what we learn.  We do our best work with helping children to develop and learn when we observe what they find of interest, and what they show us they would be interested to learn.  This is the base on which we can build what we need children to know, understand and learn in order to participate fully in their community and the wider world.

Find out more

If you would be interested in finding out more about Froebel’s life and the relevance of his principles to contemporary practice, visit The Froebel Trust website.

For more about the influence of Froebel of contemporary early childhood education pedagogy and practice, see the Summer 2020 issue of the Early Education Journal.

Further reading

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Last updated Spring 2018. The preschools of the Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy inspire us with their pedagogy and practice in giving children rich encounters

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Cultural capital

This article by Early Education Associate Anni McTavish explores the term “cultural capital”, and what it might mean for early years practitioners and their settings.

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