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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Froebel and the Kindergarten System.

by the Rev. William Burnet, M.A.
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 953-957


There can be no doubt that our infants' schools and those of other countries, as well as infant education generally, are deeply indebted to Froebel. That remarkably gifted and earnest man was throughout his chequered career singularly visionary and unpractical. Born in 1782, the son of a hard-working Lutheran pastor, he was a dull boy at his lessons, and was evidently misunderstood by those to whom his education was entrusted. He tried various occupations—wood-carving, farming, book-keeping, etc.—but could not settle down to anything and signally failed in all. At about the age of twenty-three he came under the influence of Gruner, a schoolmaster and former pupil of Pestalozzi. Under him he took a situation and there found his life-work. It is not our purpose here to trace out all the devious steps of his erratic course. He was well on in life before he developed those philosophical ideas on education which have since made him so famous, and his influence so powerful for good.

The germ of the kindergarten system is said to have been first suggested to him at Burgdorf, in 1836, by observing a group of children playing at ball. It occurred to his imagination that the ball's spherical form was an emblem of unity in nature, and that it should therefore be the first toy given to a child, to be followed by the cube as representing diversity in the material word, and later on by the doll as an image of life. These singularly fanciful notions led him to gather in the children of his neighbourhood, and, with the help of his wife, to form what he called the first "children's garden." Here they were at once amused and instructed by a graduated system of "gifts," games, songs, and exercises.

As to the real utility of these methods in the hands of his imitators, opinions vary much. In his own hands they must have been most effective; but the use of the symbolic gifts, unaccompanied by an insight into their mystic meaning, may be amusing to young children, but must fail to be educational. German minds may grasp their significance more readily than English; yet it would seem to be too abstract and transcendental for the intellects of infants and of even older pupils.

The real benefit of his system would seem to be derived from the efforts to make the training of the very young both attractive and instructive. It should be remembered that Froebel's leading principle was to draw out the child's power of observation and to develop its inner life. He said that "as a chief purpose of all child-life, parents and the family should give the child as much acquaintance with Nature and her bright colour-objects. This is chiefly done by means of play, by fostering the child's play, which at first is just its natural life. Play is the highest form of human development in the child-stage, for it is the free expression of the child's inner being." "The games of childhood," he beautifully remarks, "are the heart leaves of the future life; for in these the whole man unfolds and shows himself in his most delicate gifts, in his inner being." These are the keynotes of Froebel's system. His theories about the study of form in Nature hardly agree with the results, so far as they have yet gone, of the researches of Darwin, Huxley, and others, which came long after his days.

"He follows," as Mr. Harford in his Students' Froebel truly observes, "the working of matter and force as one through a wide variety of crystalline forms, and seems without conscious difficulty to step across that chasm below the realms of the inorganic and the organic as also that dividing inanimate and animate beings, before which science still halts." Still, apart from such scientific criticism, we cannot question the signal service he has rendered by training the minds of the youngest children in the observation of Nature and of the world around them and so preparing them for more advanced education and for their place in society. This we take to be the aim and object of all true kindergarten schools, when they are conducted, not in the letter, but in the spirit of Froebel's great principles. "The presumption," it has been truly said, "is that in many respects by the worship of the external things discovered by Froebel, we have ceased to be loyal to his principles."

Methods and games, very suitable in his time and country, may be most inappropriate for English children in this twentieth century. He rather counselled his disciples to follow him by the study of the contemporary conditions of each succeeding age, and not by blindly adhering to all his schemes. The symbols he employed may be very suggestive to highly cultured adults, but have no meaning at all for an untutored child. The domestic objects of every-day life, in which it is deeply interested, will better supply methods of amusement and instruction in endless variety. There is in these, larger opportunity for the free play of a child's fancy, and he consciously longs for information about them. For this purpose he needs a judicious and sympathetic teacher, who knows even better than the infant itself what it is thinking of and blindly groping after. To do this well is to prepare the little ones for the more advanced education of the primary school, and so, gradually, for the work of real adult life.

So Sir Joshua Fitch, in his Educational Aims and Methods, estimating the benefits of the kindergarten system, writes: "its value is best determined, not by speculating on the order in which the faculties are developed, but by taking two groups of children, at the age of ten or twelve, one of which has been subjected to this discipline and the other not, and then asking ourselves on which side the advantage lies in respect to general brightness and intelligence, desire to learn, and fitness to enter upon the studies appropriate to the later age. I believe," he says, "that the answer to such questions will be reassuring. I think it will confirm our belief in the value of the Froebelian training." This is an important testimony from an educationist of large experience and close observation, and so well qualified to judge about this matter.

In giving this opinion he does not dwell on the peculiarities of the system, its gifts, plays, etc., but rather on the gradual effect produced by it in moulding the faculties, the exercise of eye and hand, and the introduction of activity and joyousness into the early school life.

It may now serve to illustrate the practical working of the system, if I offer a brief account of visits paid at different times to kindergarten schools, one in London and the other at Brussels, and of the impressions received from each. The first was at the "Maria Grey" Training College, Brondesbury, N.W.

This College was founded in 1878, by the "Teachers' Training and Registration Society," and has for its object the professional training of ladies who intend to become teachers in secondary schools and in kindergarten. Its history we need not here relate. It owes its inception chiefly to Mrs. W. Grey and the late Miss Shirreff, as well as to the Rev. W. Rogers, whose Middle Class Girls' School, at Bishopsgate, was used for some years for the practice of its students, until, in 1892, the college was removed to its present admirable buildings with its own practising school. It consists of two departments, one for teachers in middle and higher schools for girls, and the second for kindergarten for boys and girls. It is with the latter that we are now concerned.

A brief inspection sufficed to impress one with its high moral and intellectual tone. There is there no attempt at a slavish imitation of Froebel's methods, although the teachers are evidently imbued with his large and loving spirit. The children looked remarkably healthy and happy, under firm but gentle control, with sufficient freedom to allow them to quietly develop their inner life and to grow up without any undue constraint in obedience to the laws of God and Nature. On account of the variety of denominations to which they belong, there is no distinctive religious teaching, although the schools are opened with prayer and the singing of a hymn. In one room a lesson on English Grammar was going on to children of about seven or eight. This usually dry subject was taught in such a bright attractive manner that the children were thoroughly interested. Technical terms were wisely avoided.

The old nursery rhyme was written on the blackboard: "Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair," etc., etc. Each clause was analysed in such a clear and lucid manner that every child evidently understood its relation to the rest of the sentence. "Simple Simon" was so dignified as the subject, but spoken of as the person who met and spoke to the pieman, and so on. In another room the little ones were occupied in drawing with crayons copies of fresh snowdrops distributed amongst them. This they did very well, thus learning to observe for themselves the beauty and order of the natural object and to use their eyes and fingers in reproducing it. This was true Froebelian work, as was also the drill afterwards, executed in the large hall in a mild and lively style, though without a too military precision. There was, in fact, a joyous and healthy tone about the whole school which would have rejoiced the fatherly heart of Froebel. The "gifts," however, were not in evidence; and though singing is taught, that did not happen to be the appointed time for it.

Another visit, paid some years ago to one of the "Jardins d'enfants" [child's garden; i.e., kindergarten] in Brussels, presented in some respects a striking contrast to that just described.

There, on a large scale, Froebel's ideas were carried out thoroughly and literally. There were then in the Belgian capital eleven centres of the same kind. The authorities aimed at making them, not schools properly so-called, but "gardens," in which the delicate buds of infant humanity may be tenderly cultured and easily and naturally expand. The intention was declared by the Burgomaster in his report to be that "they should be places where the powers, the intelligence, and the moral sense should be cultivated after a rational manner, founded on the observation of infants." Accordingly, no books were there used. No reading or writing was taught. Drawing was learned from the blackboard, the design being copied on their slates by the scholars. This indirect method would hardly seem to be as true a form of teaching from Nature as that pursued at Brondesbury.

The walls of the class rooms were decorated with pretty tinted paper ornaments, made by the children in order to teach self-help and usefulness to others. Arithmetic was taught by means of little sticks, which the scholars were simultaneously taught to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Another class was engaged in weaving slips of wool or cotton into tasteful designs; whilst a third teacher was engaged in giving a lesson on the sheep from a toy model. Each lesson ended with a bright appropriate song. At intervals the children were marched into the covered playground, where they formed into concentric circles with their teachers as a centre, and, linked hand in hand, they danced round and round with light and nimble feet, although their heavy "sabots" must have impeded the movements of some. Suddenly, at a given signal, they stopped and prepared for actions, or rather action songs, in which they imitated to the life: sewing, sweeping, ironing, and other processes of domestic work. Amidst such varied occupations the children's day, though longer than in our own schools, passed quickly and happily. Everything seemed to be done to promote the physical, mental and moral welfare of the little ones, and to attach them to their teachers and each other. On the whole, this was an ideal kindergarten.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009