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close this bookProspects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1982 (Issue 43) - Educational Technology: Myth and Reality (UNESCO; 1982; 139 pages)
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View the documentProfiles: Friedrich Froebel
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Profiles: Friedrich Froebel

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Froebel on 21 April 1982 is an occasion for the German Democratic Republic and all Member States of Unesco to honour the memory of the great German educationist. Froebel was one of the leading representatives of the progressive bourgeois approach to the science of education, and the treasury of educational thought has been greatly enriched by his work. Friedrich Froebel played a prominent part in determining the development of educational theory and practice in his time.

His theories and his attempts to put them into practice were rooted in his empirical criticisms of the prevailing education system; they bore the stamp of his democratic bourgeois background. This is particularly true of his ideas on the general education of men and of nations, the all-round and harmonious personal development of all members of society and the universal right to education. He made valuable contributions to the science of education, for instance through his ideas on the aim of education, the fundamental importance of the child’s active participation in the educational process, the nature and organization of educational content. Froebel’s views reflected the social needs of his time. He had realized that the teacher’s task always consists in educating children primarily for living ‘in the present’ and for meeting ‘present needs’ and ‘present demands’ as they arise ‘at a specific time, in a specific place and in specific circumstances’. He was aware of the close connection between social development and education; recent research has shown that Froebel sympathized with democratic petty bourgeois forces, but this is not to say that he dissociated himself from democratic revolutionary demands and objectives. On the contrary, being possessed by an illusory enthusiasm for enlightenment and a blind faith in the unlimited power of education, he harboured throughout his life a Utopian belief in the feasibility of radical reforms. Although, of course, these hopes were disappointed, Froebel’s achievements were so remarkable that he is rightly ranked with Pestalozzi, Herbart and Diesterweg as an important representative of classic bourgeois pedagogics. His ideas and practical work in the field of pre-school education won him world renown.

Friedrich Froebel (21 April 1782 to 21 June 1852) lived at a time of great social change in Germany. He played an active part in important historical events, for instance in the Napoleonic wars in 1813-14 when he served in the Lutzen rifle corps. Bourgeois revolutionary forces began to emerge in his lifetime under the influence of the French Revolution and the pressure of popular democratic movements. He witnessed, on the other hand, the restoration of reactionary aristocratic rule in the German states and saw the promising beginnings of educational development curbed and reversed. Although Froebel did not often comment on current events, his whole work reflects his interest and involvement in social progress. With almost four decades of successful activity behind him, Froebel declared in a letter written in 1848: ‘If you examined the essence of my educational activity you will see that, for a whole generation, I have been teaching and educating children for the republic’s sake, I have been preparing them for the exercise of the republican virtues.’

Froebel hoped that a marriage concluded between politics and pedagogics on the basis of their common human values would ensure that ‘the whole German nation will do as the whole body of German educationists and teachers does today and not only take an interest in German education for the people and its sound theoretical foundations’ but also ‘play a truly active and constructive part therein’, so that education would become everyone’s business.

By insisting that a system of universal education should be accessible to all German children, Froebel promoted a democratic approach to educational policy and found that this accorded with the national need for a better educated population which had arisen as a result of Germany’s rapid industrial and scientific development. Froebel conceived of universal education as an alternative to the traditional elitist education. Because his Utopian ideas led him to overestimate the real historical possibilities of his time, he thought that it would guarantee the enforcement of the right to education. But at the same time he gave a wider interpretation to the concept of universal education, viewing it not only as education for the people but also as education by the people, in the sense that the people would participate in the education of the rising generation and the whole of education would be bound up with the life and activities of the people. That was a far-reaching democratic demand which, like his whole educational policy and programme, was well ahead of his time. No wonder, therefore, that during Froebel’s lifetime obstacles were placed in his way by reactionary forces seeking to discredit his ideas on universal education and education for the people. After many years of dedicated effort, he was obliged to stop the educational work he had been doing at the school at Keilhau, which he had directed from 1817 to 1831; his schools in Switzerland were constantly under attack and kindergartens were finally prohibited in Prussia in 1851 and in other German states thereafter.

In Froebel’s view, the object of universal education (today we tend to speak of general education as the basis for further education) was to enable every child to develop a well-rounded personality, and not to prepare children at an early age to occupy their allotted place in society or to train them too soon for a particular profession. ‘In the final analysis, the education of man can have only one basis, one aim and one purpose: the all-round development of the individual through educational methods specifically designed to foster his threefold powers as an active (creating), sentient (feeling) and intelligent (thinking)... being.’

This is the only way of laying the basis for the child’s future activity in life and for occupational specialization. According to Froebel, the all-round development of the personality is possible only if the educational process succeeds in ‘forging unbreakable links between thinking and doing, cognition and action, knowledge and ability’, providing both ‘the human body and the human mind with an all-round comprehensive education in keeping with man’s innermost nature’. This means that none of an individual’s aptitudes should be neglected because they are thought to be worthless or insignificant and all aspects of the child’s personality should be assiduously fostered since a true education leaves no gaps and knows no limits but is a lifelong process of perfecting the personality.

Given the aim of developing a well-rounded personality, educational content should reflect the diversity of human aptitudes and powers. The curriculum that Froebel drew up was representative of all the foremost social and cultural concerns of his time - ‘art’, ‘science’, ‘training in methods of exploiting natural resources’ and in the ‘simple and more complex processing’ of the products thus obtained, ‘a knowledge of natural substances and forces’, ‘natural history and the history of mankind and of nations; mathematics and languages’. ‘No subject of study that is relevant to man’s basic needs should be excluded.’ Froebel sought to carry out this ambitious educational programme in his schools, as is shown by their timetables and attested by former pupils and visitors. He attached the highest importance to laying sound foundations for mental, physical and aesthetic training and set great store on the teaching of languages, natural sciences and mathematics as part of a wide-ranging, useful general education. What he demanded was that his pupils should be equipped with ‘a comprehensive stock of thoroughly assimilated knowledge and the confidence to make use of that knowledge in their daily life, so that they are able to cope with any situation and meet any challenge, in other words, that they should be capable of ‘further developing their powers in any field of activity they may choose’. ‘It is only through the application of knowledge and learning that we can really confirm and expand what we have been taught.’

There is a direct connection between Froebel’s democratic idea of involving the whole population in the educational process and his insistence on the need to make education relevant to everyday life, on the oneness of school and life. He considered the relevance of knowledge to life as an essential criterion to be applied in selecting educational content and a crucial pre-condition for the full development of the individual’s aptitudes and powers. ‘Just as education, teaching and training and their subject-matter must never be dissociated but must be visualized as being so closely interlinked as to form an integrated whole, so also should education, teaching, training, school and what they stand for never be separated from life; still less should they come into conflict with each other, for school and life, knowledge and action are bound up together.’

This statement of what Froebel demanded of education implied criticism of the conditions prevailing in the schools of his day, their alienation from life, their insistence on the memorizing of lengthy religious texts, and their use of discipline and cramming to enforce blind obedience to the reactionary authorities.

In opposition to this, Froebel based his educational theories on the idea that man develops his powers through his activity and that the educational process must accordingly be rooted in ‘doing, working and thinking’. The whole of his education system - including pre-school education - is based on the activity of the children under the guidance of their teacher. ‘To link doing and thinking and to teach children to link doing and thinking: this is the source of all productive education.’

The educational process must therefore be designed to ‘cultivate the urge to be doing something’. This principle must underlie all efforts directed towards ‘the development of the child’s truly human qualities and the elaboration of a satisfactory all-round education’.

Froebel’s insight into the value of activity for character formation led him to show how all forms of activity - playing, learning and working - have their own special significance for the true education of man. He revealed the many ways in which they are interrelated, drew attention to their necessary interaction in the educational process and pointed out that they could contribute to the success of attempts at the all-round and harmonious development of the personality. ‘Thus, work, instruction and play are to form an indivisible whole which will become a sound basis for a contented, energetic, enlightened and happy life.’

Froebel always saw education as a reciprocal process affecting both teacher and student, a process in which the teacher, guided by educational principles, influences the development of the whole person mainly through many different activities, a process of inducing both student and teacher to make a conscious effort to change themselves. A true teacher and educator must always be capable, simultaneously, of ‘giving and taking, uniting and dividing, dictating and giving way, acting and enduring, being strict and indulgent, firm and adaptable’.

Friedrich Froebel’s greatest achievement undoubtedly lies in the field of pre-school education. Within a few decades, his idea of kindergarten, as expressed both in theory and in practice, had spread throughout the whole of Europe, the United States, Japan and many other countries. Froebel took up the ideas on pre-school education developed by Comenius, Rousseau, the Philanthropists, Pestalozzi, Oberlin, Owen and Fourier. From the practical experience that had been gained in day-nurseries he drew new conclusions of great historical significance. He was already advanced in years when he worked out his theories on pre-school education. In so doing he anticipated latent needs, since Germany’s rapidly expanding industry had to be supplied with additional manpower, and one way of doing this was to employ women as well as men in the production process. Froebel founded the first ‘kindergarten’ in 1840 - the word was coined in the same year - and thus took the first decisive step towards the fulfilment of his educational mission. His work is of historical importance because the entire education system was reorganized thanks to his determination, and universal preschool education became, in accordance with his views, the foundation and substructure of a homogeneous system. As his nephew, Julius Froebel, once wrote, he thought of the kindergarten as ‘simply the substratum of an edifice of ideas, objectives and means so constructed as to encompass the whole education of man from earliest childhood to an advanced age’.1 Froebel’s thinking went far beyond the views widely held in his day regarding the significance, aim and duties of day-nurseries and their prevailing practices. He worked out a comprehensive and detailed system of pre-school education which met practically all the demands of his time, but which is admittedly difficult to grasp because his writings on the subject pursue many metaphysical trains of thought. In his view, the object of preschool education was to enable the small child to become an active, sentient and intelligent human being. The ‘Universal German Kindergarten’ should be an ‘establishment for the all-round care of the growing child’ and should provide every child with ‘all-round guidance for his all-round development’. This should be done by means of the activity best suited to a child of that age, namely play. Froebel perceived play not only as the principal activity of the pre-school child, but also as a ‘mirror of life’ that gave ‘the child a glimpse of the world for which he is to be educated’.2 Play, according to Froebel, always served a purpose. He saw it as the expression of the child’s innermost being, the reflection of his aptitudes and creative powers, which were revealed in the way he ‘processed’ a material or used an implement during play.

Every activity, every act of any individual, even of the smallest child, is the expression of a purpose proceeding from a relationship with something which has to be handled or represented. But in order to feel this urge the individual, and especially the child, usually needs a material, a separate, specific object, even if it is only a little piece of wood or stone, with which it can make something or which it can turn into something.

When the child is playfully active, when he ‘processes’ a material with a specific end in view and uses an implement for a particular purpose, he acquires the ability ‘to develop all his powers and aptitudes as freely as is appropriate at the stage he has reached in his life and education’. On the basis of this conclusion, Froebel worked out a self-contained play system, the principal feature of which was the handling of spheres, cylinders and cubes. Using the ‘gifts’ he had devised and various other materials, the child was to develop his mental and physical powers in the various games, discover the world and its inherent orderliness. It was through play and in play that the child’s personality could be fully developed in all its aspects, and therefore play ‘should not be a haphazard activity, it should not be left to pure chance’. It is clear that Froebel’s ‘gift’ system was influenced by the contemporary state of knowledge in the fields of natural sciences and mathematics, with which he was well acquainted. Many of Froebel’s ‘gifts’ can still be used to help pre-school children to discover the world. Having been rationally integrated into modern views on the educational process and its objectives, they are successfully used to this day in the kindergartens of the German Democratic Republic.3 It should be borne in mind, of course, that if it is applied onesidedly, as it has been by many of his successors and disciples, Froebel’s play system also encourages certain tendencies towards a formalistic organization of the educational process in the kindergarten.

Even at the infant and kindergarten stage, children should be able to assimilate all kinds of information, with the help of the ‘child leaders’ (later: ‘kindergarten teachers’) who introduce them to the world around them and to life in society. The subject-matter chosen by Froebel for the kindergarten syllabus shows that his first consideration was to lay the foundations for mental, physical, moral and aesthetic development. He stressed the need to bring out every child’s individuality and to take great pains to prepare all children for their future life in society. Froebel’s writings are therefore a source of valuable guidance for the social education of even the very youngest children. Having observed Froebel’s practical work at first hand, Diesterweg described it in the following words: ‘A child’s best plaything is another child. In the kindergarten the child lives in close association with other people; only in this way can he be prepared for living in society. In his play, the child can and should live in advance his whole future life instinctively, without realizing that he is doing so.’4

Friedrich Froebel was a pioneer of pre-school education for all the children of the nation. This progressive idea was taken up and propagated during his lifetime and in the second half of the nineteenth century by many democrats, for instance by Adolph Diesterweg. Froebel’s ideas were carried beyond the frontiers of Germany by democrats who emigrated after the failure of the 1848-49 revolution, for instance Johannes Ronge and his wife took them to England and Carl Schurz and his wife and Adolf Douai took them to the United States.5 Douai founded a German school in Boston in 1956, adding a kindergarten to it later on. His book entitled The Kindergarten. A Manual for the Introduction of Froebel’s System of Primary Education into the Public School6 was published in New York in 1871, and a Japanese version was brought out in Tokyo in 1876. It was due to this book that Froebel’s ideas began to be disseminated in the United States and Japan.

In the last third of the nineteenth century representatives of the German labour movement became interested in Froebel’s humanism and defended it against all one-sided interpretations. This cause was taken up, for example, by Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the most outstanding figures of the German labour movement. As editor of the newspaper Die Gleichheit, Clara Zetkin helped to make Froebel’s theories more widely known, and especially his ideas on play and its importance for the development of the child’s personality.7

Froebel’s ideas have found a home in the German Democratic Republic. His heritage has become an integral part of the socialist approach to education and his work has greatly stimulated both the science of education and its practical application.8 Educationists of the German Democratic Republic gave expression to their appreciation of Froebel’s work and their fruitful interaction with his legacy in commemorative ceremonies in 1952, 1957, 1967 and 1977. Froebel’s bicentenary will be yet another occasion for studying his enduring achievements in greater depth and continuing his work at a higher level.

Director of the Institute for the History of Education,
Academy of Pedagogical Sciences
(German Democratic Republic)


1. Quotation from Gedenkschrift zum 100. Todestag von Friedrich Fröbel am 15 Juni 1952 [Commemorative Book to Mark the Centenary of Friedrich Froebel’s Death on 15 June 1952], Berlin, 1952, p. 108.

2. Fröbels Theorie des Spiels [Froebel’s Play Theory], 2nd ed.. Part 1, p. 16 et seq., Weimar und Langensalza, 1947.

3. Cf. Lore Thier-Schroeter, Friedrich Fröbel - seine Spielgaben in der Deutschen Demokratische Republik [Friedrich Froebel: His ‘Gifts’ in the German Democratic Republic], Berlin, Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag, 1977.

4. F. A. W. Diesterweg - Sämtliche Werke [F. A. W. Diesterweg - Collected Works], Vol. IX, p. 66, Berlin, Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag, 1967.

5. Cf. H. König, ‘Die Arbeiterbewegung und das progressive pädagogische Erbe Friedrich Fröbels’ [The Labour Movement and Friedrich Froebel’s Progressive Educational Legacy], in Jahrbuch für Erziehungs - und Schulgeschichte, Vol. 18, p. 39 et seq., Berlin, Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag, 1978.

6. A. Douai, The Kindergarten. A Manual for the Introduction of Froebel’s System of Primary Education into the Public School, New York, 1871.

7. Cf. C. Zetkin, Über Jugenderziehung [On the Education of Young People], Berlin, Dietz Verlag, 1957, and G. Hohendorf, Revolutionäre Schulpolitik und marxistische Pädagogik im Lebenswerk Clara Zetkins [Revolutionary School Policy and Marxist Educational Theory in the Work of Clara Zetkin], Berlin, Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag, 1962.

8. Cf. Gedenkschrift zum 100. Todestag von Friedrich Fröbel am 15 Juni 1952, op. cit.; ‘Fröbel-Ehrung 1977 in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik 1977’ [Tribute to Froebel in the German Democratic Republic], in Jahrbuch für Erziehungs-und Schulgeschichte, Vol. 18, op. cit., p. 11 et seq.


Friedrich Fröbel’s gesammelte pädagogische Schriften [Friedrich Froebel’s Collected Writings on Education]. Vol. 1. Section 1, p. 456. Berlin, Wichard Lange, 1862.

Friedrich Fröbel und Karl Hagen. Ein Briefwechsel aus den Jahren 1844-1848 [Friedrich Froebel and Karl Hagen. Correspondence: 1844-1848], p. 94. Weimar, E. Hoffman (ed.), 1948.

F. Fröbel: Ausgewählte Schriften [F. Froebel: Selected Writings], Vol. 1, p. 117. Bad Godesberg, Kupper-Verlag, 1951.

Fröbels Kleinere Schriften zur Pädagogik [Froebel’s Minor Writings on Education], p. 148. Leipzig, H. Zimmermann, 1914.

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