Monday, 16 May 2016

Experiencing Froebel's legacy

To arrive in Keilhau, Germany,  is to begin at the beginning:  the origins of the Kindergarten and of Froebelian education are there. Froebel famously surveyed the beautiful, lush green German landscape with its small and dilapidated village and said, 'Here is a valley for education.'

Much of what we now take for granted about early education dates back to Froebel’s revolutionary work there. It was Froebel who believed that young children should learn through play and through first-hand experiences with natural materials like sand and water, and that physical education was important in school.

Froebel put the relationship between educator and child at the heart of learning, and saw each child as in individual whose wishes and choices should be respected. These were revolutionary ideas – so revolutionary that both his school and his kindergarten were banned at different times by the Prussian authorities.

I am not Froebel trained, but I do hold a deep respect for his life and work, and I also believe in the importance of engaging with the past in order to understand the present. So, the opportunity to visit Keilhau with a study group, arranged by Community Playthings, was not to be missed. And the spirit of unity and fellowship that runs through Froebel’s theories was tangibly lived out in the little community of the Keilhau school, where we stayed for three nights thanks to the exceptional generosity of the school staff and the Community team.

A classroom with a view: the Froebel school in Keilhau


Keilhau lies at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in Germany, and some might feel that Froebelian education itself is a dead-end: historically interesting, but on a road to nowhere. After all, child-centred education is out of fashion in the English system now. Every day we hear people shouting about standards, skills and tests: the voices supporting the education of the whole child and emphasising each child’s unique spirit are quieter, and they are on the margins of the debate.

Whereas the Montessori and Steiner approaches to education have remained distinct and known about in England, Froebel’s ideas have largely been absorbed into mainstream thinking – meaning that, depending on your viewpoint, the tradition is largely forgotten, or the tradition lives on but without its name, especially in early years education and childcare.

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