Historical Foundations of Early Childhood Education 

Froebel's Kindergarten
Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel (1782-1852)
Froebel established the very first Kindergarten program in Germany in 1837. Froebel's views on education centered on the importance of play, games, and toys in the intellectual, spiritual, and social development of children, as inspired partly by his study of Comenius. Eventually he developed a a philosophy and program of education for children aged 4-6 that was meant to serve as a transition between home and school, infancy and childhood. Since his philosophy was to nurture and protect children, shielding them from outside influence (such as plants might be nurtured and sheltered in a garden), it was natural to call his school Kinder-Garten...or literally, Children's Garden. To this day, programs for 5 and some 6 year olds are called Kindergarten. Like his predecessors, Froebel believed children were social creatures, and learning was the most natural and efficient through activity and play was an essential part of learning. He believed that teaching methods between a younger and older child ought to be vastly different, and wished for children to have the chance to explore their positive whims.

Froebel recognized three forms of learning. !. Knowledge of forms of life, including gardening, caring for animals, and domestic tasks. 2. knowledge of forms of mathematics, such as knowledge of geometric forms and their relationships, and 3. knowledge of forms of beauty, including design, color, shape, harmonies, and movement. Play was teacher-guided, who facilitated sensory and spiritual development by providing special materials, known as 'gifts.' These gifts included balls of yarn, wooden blocks and tablets, geometric shapes, and natural objects. Froebel believed children were born with an inherent goodness, and like Plato, with an inherent knowledge that just need 'reawakening' through education...in Froebel's case, exposure to 'the fundamental principles of Creation." p67(Feeny, Moravcik, Nolte, Christensen 2010). Kindergarten curriculum included handwork called "occupations", including molding, folding, beading, threading, and embroidery. Singing, games, finger-plays, and stories were utilized to encourage learning. Froebel insisted that learning must start with the concrete and move to the more abstract, and that perceptual development preceded abstract thinking skills.

Froebel encouraged young women to study to teach kindergarten. Women traveled from the United States to German to study his methods, and brought their new knowledge home where they began their own kindergartens, usually taught in their own homes, often by German women who had studied with Froebel. The first English-speaking kindergarten was established in Boston, MA by a woman named Elizabeth Peabody, and after studying with Froebel in Germany, founded the first Kindergarten teacher education program in the United States. The first public Kindergarten opened in St. Louis, MO, in 1873 and was followed by a rapid growth of kindergartens throughout the country over the following 27 years. Along with the rapid growth of Kindergarten programs came the introduction of related professional associations. The American Froebel Union, or AFU, was founded by Elizabeth Peabody in 1878, and the IKU, or International Kindergarten Union began in 1892. The IKU eventually merged with the NCPE (National Council of Primary Education) in 1930, and them became the Association for Childhood Education International, or ACEI, which is still an active organization today. The NKA or National Kindergarten Association was founded in 1909 and disbanded in 1976.

Issues with the Kindergarten Movement:

Although Kindergartens were a radical change from the structured school system prior to the Kindergarten's inception, the program has been criticized for being far more structured than the loose, free-scheduled programs that would come to be advocated years later, and was a far cry from what we could consider a developmentally appropriate program today.
"Progressive educators expressed the concern that kindergarten practices were rigid and didn't reflect their ideas about how children develop and learn. They challenged supporters of Froebel's approach. By 1920, the progressive approach had achieved dominance. The reformed kindergarten curriculum reflected many of Froebel's original ideas but added a new emphasis on free play, social interaction, art, music, nature study, and excursions. New unstructured materials, including large blocks and doll houses, encouraged children's imaginative play. Books and songs reflected children's interests, rather than conveying a religious message, and activities were inspired by events in the children's daily lives." p.69 (Feeny, Moravcik, Nolte, Christensen 2010) Patty Smith Hill (1868-1946) founded the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Columbia University Teachers College, and brought innovation to Froebel's Kindergarten when it was attacked and criticized for being too rigid and teacher-dominated. She blended ideas from various approaches and helped push kindergartens into a direction that was more compatible with the more progressive ideas of the time. She went on to found the National Association for Nursery Education (NANE) which is now known as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or the NAEYC.