Kindergarten: the seed pearl of the modern era

Norman Brosterman describes kindergarten as “the seed pearl of the modern era” (p.7)

In his history of Froebel’s kindergarten, he writes: “Kindergarten has been around so long, and is so familiar, that it is natural to assume personal expertise on the subject. After all, kindergarten is … kindergarten. Memories of those sunlit days include drawing, paper-cutting, block-building, modeling with clay, singing and dancing, as well as observing the workings of nature – the growth of plants, the symmetries of crystals and seashells. One’s teacher was usually a woman and she led the class in activities that would have been considered play outside the schoolroom.
All of these have been conventions of kindergarten from the beginning, and that beginning is well documented. The word kindergarten may be found in the dictionaries of a host of disparate languages, including English, Spanish, German, and Japanese. It is one of life’s most familiar shared milestones. Although founded on classically democratic ideals, it is not a modern mutation of some ancient pedagogy. Only concepts and conventions of the world’s great faiths match it in linguistic and geographic breadth, yet kindergarten, initially spiritual in the purest sense, was not a religion.” (p.12, italics and ellipsis in original)

Its birth was the seed for cultural advances that were impossible to anticipate, and its presentation at the Centennial Exposition amid all that was up-to-date, modern, and prescient in society was entirely logical, for like the elevator and telephone, kindergarten, the garden of children, was a nineteenth-century invention, and it changed the world as surely.
Indeed, its early history is not obscure in the least: a German crystallographer and pedagogical revolutionary named Friedrich Froebel developed kindergarten and its play gifts in Germany during the 1830s as a teaching system for young children, opening the first one in the town of Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837. After Froebel’s death in 1852, kindergarten was successfully transplanted to most of the countries of Europe, their colonies, the United States, and the Far east. It became entrenched in Russian life before the Revolution, and, as with Marxism, its embrace there promised a better, more equitable world for the working class. Like Napoleon, it conquered Prussia and the Astro-Hungarian Empire, but its influence was greater and far more lasting. The first Japanese kindergarten was established in Tokyo in 1876, and by 1900 there were two hundred kindergartens in Japan.
Unfortunately, kindergarten for us, and for most of the generations born in this century, was a distortion, a diluted version of what originated as a radical and highly spiritual system of abstract-design activities intended to teach the recognition and appreciation of natural harmony. Kindergarten’s universal, perfect, alternative language of geometric form cultivated children’s innate ability to observe, reason, express, and create. Its ultimate aim was to instill in children an understanding of what an earlier generation would have called “the music of the spheres” – the mathematically generated logic underlying the ebb and flow of creation. The explicit, programmatic goal of the early kindergartens was to awaken the senses to what Froebel considered to be the God-given structure underlying all growth – [-p.13] animal, vegetable, mineral – in nature. The gifts intended to be nothing less than a model of universal perfection and the key to recognizing one’s place in the natural continuum. Froebel believed that learning the sacred language of geometry in youth would provide a common ground for all people, and advance each individual, and society in general, into a realm of fundamental unity.
That exuberant curiosity is children’s most important learning asset was not acknowledged until Froebel’s time. The twenty gifts and occupations he created were designed to harness and direct this natural impulse, all the while maintaining the impression that classwork was mostly fun and games. The swift dissemination of the radical, and curiously metaphysical, kindergarten system in the third quarter of the nineteenth century was due in part to the fact that in most countries at that time there was no prescribed early education whatsoever. The women who flocked to preach the kindergarten gospel eagerly grasped the opportunity to make what they hoped would be substantive, societal improvements for children and themselves, from two of the few acceptable power positions open to them – early childhood education and young motherhood. Although remnants of the original Froebelian system are still detectable in kindergarten classes today – particularly the emphasis on handicrafts and block play – the gifts, the solemnity in which they were used, and the spirituality they were designed to awaken are long dead.
During the system’s heyday – roughly the half century before World War I – Frank Lloyd Wright was merely one of millions of people, including most of the so-called “form-givers” of the modern era, who were indoctrinated, in effect, programmed, by the spiritual geometry of the early kindergarten.” (pp.12-13)

“Before Froebel invented kindergarten, children under the age of seven did not attend school. There was, other than ubiquitous religious instruction, no general educational curriculum geared to young children and no socially recognized value in attempting to teach them. That one might, in the first stage of life when constant motion is manifested as play, be capable or focused enough to learn intellectual or emotional skills, as a foundation for real education and life to come, was not widely accepted.” (p.30)

Pestalozzi and Rousseau

Brosterman places Froebel’s kindergarten in the educational context of his times, describing his encounter with the Frankfurt Model School and the work of Pestalozzi:

“On the advice of a close friend (unnamed in his letters), Froebel cast aside his plans to pursue architecture and in the summer of 1805 accepted a teaching position at the Frankfurt Model School. … The Frankfurt Model School was fairly new in 1805. Its founder, a man named Gruner, was a protege of the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), and his school was one of the first based on Pestalozzi’s progressive pedagogy. Pestalozzi’s influence on education and society, through the eventual international dissemination of his techniques and attitudes toward children, was nothing less [-p.19] than revolutionary. At a time when the poorest children were systematically excluded from obtaining any education, the doors of his school in Yverdon, Switzerland, were opened to orphans and peasants. As the first practical proponent of “natural” education – where the innate desire to learn is nourished and curiosity is unfettered – Pestalozzi abandoned the tradition of interminable lectures followed by student recitation that characterized typical instruction for all age groups, in favor of more active, hands-on activities and what he termed Anschauung: “object lessons” or direct, concrete observation. The long reign of pedagogical terror, enforced by flogging, was to give way to voluntary obedience elicited by respect for the dignity of each beloved pupil.
Pestalozzi’s impetus for replacing the stultifying conventions of traditional European teaching with pedagogy that emphasized the personal experience of the child supported by loving encouragement (the basis for all modern educational theory) was the strange and radical tract Émile of 1762, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Émile – which was widely read for a century after it appeared – was an unequivocal attack on conventional French society, an attempt to capsize the status quo in the realm of education and child-rearing. The very first line of the book summarized Rousseau’s educational theories and served as a guide to action: “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man.”
Émile is an imaginary boy upon whom Rousseau can test his theories of education. The treatise follows Émile from birth to age twenty, liberally dispensing advice on all aspects of child-rearing, with an overall emphasis on freedom and the hitherto unrecognized strengths and capabilities of youth. Rousseau implores parents to observe nature as it tests and excites children to activity. At a time when play was generally dismissed as an empty waste of time, he urged his readers to love childhood and encourage its sports, pleasures, and “amiable instincts”: “Is it nothing to be happy? In no other part of his life will he be so busy.” Teachers in Émile are no longer information dispensers but guides, and the child’s willpower becomes the agent of his education, as he learns by doing. Books, evil repositories of secondhand opinion, are to be avoided until the child approached the age of twelve. Learning how to read too soon merely interferes with learning how to learn, reason, and be (as Pestalozzi later reaffirmed, “First form the mind and then furnish it”). Free from the meddling of lecturing teachers, children would absorb the lessons of nature (of which they are a part) immediately and in uncorrupted form. “Our first teachers of philosophy are our feet, our hands, and our eyes.”
Émile was a battle cry for educational reform from a man who made a career out of clashing with complacent society. Certainly, Rousseau made some perverse assertions in his tract that seem merely misguided now. never allowing a child to wear a hat, at any age, is funny; preventing the inoculation of a child with the recently perfected smallpox vaccine so he may “take it naturally” is obstinacy in the service of polemics. Yet the grand themes of Émile – that childhood is a sacred period of human development[-p.20], that the child’s own empirical explorations are the engine of the expanding mind – became the foundation for all progressive education to follow. With our late-twentieth-century sensibilities about childhood – shaped by Pestalozzi and Froebel, Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, universal education and child-labor laws – it is difficult to appreciate the shocking impact of Rousseau’s ideas, with their emphasis on natural equality and personal freedom.” (pp.18-20)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Norman Brosterman (1997) Inventing Kindergarten. Harry N Abrams, Inc. Publishers: New York


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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