from A Short History of Education 1904.
Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel was born at Oberweissbach, in Thuringia, in April, 1782. In his youth he was much neglected. His mother he lost while very young. His father, although pastor of the village, took little care of him. The pastor having married again, young Froebel was taken care of by his late mother's brother, by whom he was sent to a village school. Of an extremely intuitive and imaginative nature, wrapt in observation and thought, the boy had earned the reputation of a dunce, and was apprenticed to a forester in 1797. His open-air life was a training far better adapted to the development of a mind like his than the education of a school. For two years he lived among things. Every object of nature was to him a thing to study. All his knowledge was gained therefrom. The self-culture and natural training he received in the glades of the Thuringian forest formed the lasting groundwork of his life's work. For a short time he went to Jena University to study the natural sciences, but his means were scanty, and he ended there by receiving nine weeks' imprisonment for a small debt.
He lost his father in 1802, and was thrown entirely upon his own resources. It was not until 1805 that he found his real vocation and became a teacher at Frankfort-on-the-Main. Up to this time he had made a living in various ways surveyor, accountant, architect, or private secretary. While there he was offered a post as assistant-master in a model school, which he filled for two years with conspicuous success. His leaving this to undertake the private tuition of three brothers was probably the turning point in his career, as it took him to Yverdun, where he came under the direct influence of Pestalozzi. Two years of this sufficed to imbue him with the feeling that he was destined to carry on, to a much nearer degree of completion, the work which his master had initiated.
Natural science he regarded as the underlying basis of all knowledge. With this in view, he went to the University of Göttingen, but war interrupted his studies. Military service had its compensation, for, while actively engaged, he made the acquaintance of his lifelong friends and most ardent disciples, Langethall and Middendorff, who, a year or two later, joined him at a school which he had opened at Griesheim, in Thuringia, in 1816, after serving for some time as curator of a Berlin museum. A year or two afterwards, the school was removed to Keilhau. Here a regular education centre was formed, the fame of which rapidly spread through several European countries. Other schools were formed as offshoots of the central foundation. At the invitation of the Swiss Government he went to Burgdorf, where elementary teachers were sent to receive their training under him. Thus was the influence of Froebel spread.
In 1836 he actively assumed the work upon which his fame rests, and with which his name is still closely associated. In that year he opened at Blankenburg, not far from Keilhau, his first Kindergarten School (children's garden). Here, as the name implies, was a large, well stocked garden, with plots for each eligible pupil's care. Pleasant, well-ventilated rooms surrounded it. Most of the day was spent in the grounds, no teacher having the supervision of more than twenty-five children. The system may be summarised as one of organised and well-directed play. The leading idea was to keep the child amused, while all the time he was, almost unconsciously, acquiring useful knowledge.
With this aim, Froebel prepared his Gifts, which form the basis of all modern Kindergarten. Each of these gifts was accompanied and cheered by appropriate songs and music. The first gift consists of a string of rainbow coloured halls, by the aid of which ideas of colour, form, size and motion were formed by the children. In the second, a solid cube, cylinder, wooden ball, stick and string are used to impart ideas of form, size, sound and movement. The third gift contains eight cubes of equal size, forming, when properly combined, one perfect cube. Properly applied, the combinations of these supply the child with ideas of division into halves, quarters and eights. This gift may to a limited extent, be used incidentally to teach those letters of the alphabet which do not involve the use of curves. It may teach the whole by careful arrangement, but the real rounding of the alphabetical letters is a later development. In the fourth gift a cube is divided into eight equal oblong planes. In a four-inch cube this would mean eight planes each an inch thick and two inches wide. This gift is intended to further develop the power of combination.
Froebel would probably have asked his pupils to try and show, by the use of their blocks, what idea they had of some neighbouring building, and from this proceed to the construction of imaginary buildings, bridges and towns. The result might be appalling, but the effect would be purely educative. In the fifth gift the cube, to the use of which Froebel appears to have attached great importance, is in the first place cut up into twenty-seven smaller cubes. Of these some are cut from corner to corner into halves. This makes possible the closest approximation to the circle that can be obtained without the use of curves. This, too, makes it possible to construct symmetrical drawings and an entire alphabet. The sixth and seventh "gifts" are but extensions of the earlier ones, the sixth being really not a gift but a combination of the others, the cube being somewhat differently divided. From the various divisions of the cube, the properties of squares and angles, and the combinations of squares and angles can be amusingly made known to the pupil. A reference to his garden for older people, and the organised workshops, wherein his principles were translated into useful practicability, completes the sketch of Froebel's system.
Froebel was an idealist, but his idealism has made strongly for the success of education. His aim of a complete "play education," even if possible in his own day, is entirely unsuited as a system to the twentieth century. Still, no man has exerted a more beneficial and vivifying influence on the present than Froebel. In infants' schools his work, in its entirety, has been largely employed. Froebel died in 1852. At that time Germany, Belgium and Switzerland had adopted his system in more than fifty centres. The enlightenment of the British Isles came later.
This extract from A Short History of Education by G. Benson Clough 2nd ed., London 1904. You can read the full text online. It is as an example of how people viewed education history then.
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