What is Froebel’s Play Theory?

Who was Friedrich Froebel?

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) was a German educationalist. Credited with opening the very first kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg in 1837, Froebel believed that early education should consider the child’s physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual development. His ideas on the importance of play and learning through nature continue to influence  Play Theories in Early Years and nursery practice today.

Froebel placed great value on child-led activity and believed practitioners should work with children to allow them to explore, discover and create for themselves while offering sensitive guidance. This focus on observing development through play, rather than leading structured teaching sessions, is still a theme of early education today.

Froebel’s Play Theory                             

The key features of Froebel’s play theory stress the importance of developing the child in all areas: socially, academically, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The main components of this are the areas of motor expression, social participation, free self-expression, and creativity. You will certainly see some links between Froebel’s theory and more modern early education models.

Froebel’s play theory is made up of these principles:

  • Learning through play: Free play encourages the child to discover how things work through purposeful activities which are active, hands-on, and of interest to the individual child.
  • Respect the individual’s developmental pace: Children learn differently and at different rates. Therefore, development is most effective when the child can set the pace for themselves.
  • Practitioners serve as a guide: Rather than viewing practitioners or teachers as keepers of knowledge, Froebel prescribes a more guide-like approach to help lead a child to deeper understanding. Froebel believed that self-motivation would help children progress most effectively, and the child should be allowed to make mistakes so that they can learn through trial and error.
  • The classroom should be a prepared environment: Though the free play is at the heart of Froebel’s play theory, the learning environment is carefully designed with the appropriate resources that are optimal for each child’s level of development.
  • The importance of movement: Froebel placed great value on training in child development. Fingerplays, songs, dance, and training of objects are key features of Froebel’s approach.

Froebel also developed a set of materials known as the Froebel Gifts and Occupations. These were presented to children at certain developmental stages to encourage development with a focus on construction.

Froebel’s Gifts (Fröbelgaben)

Froebel drew on his mathematical and scientific knowledge to develop a set of six gifts, wooden blocks of different shapes, for children to explore. Despite being open-ended resources, these were introduced to children in a structured way. As a result, block play, popular in many nurseries today, has been heavily influenced by Froebel’s gifts. The gifts are described as follows:

  • Gift 1 (infant)

The first gift was a small soft ball or yarn ball in solid color, small enough to fit the hand of the child. Froebel believed that a child would begin to understand spatial relationships, movement, speed, color, contrast, and weight and gravity through their interaction with the ball by holding, dropping, squeezing, and rolling it or seeing a parent manipulate it.

  • Gift 2 (1-2 years)

The second gift, “the child’s delight,” consisted of a wooden sphere and cube. Froebel gave this gift its name when he observed each child’s joy as they discovered the differences between the two wooden objects. Later versions also included a rigid cylinder.

The idea behind these shapes was to enable the child to observe their different features. The sphere always looked the same when viewed from any direction, whereas the cube would look different. The globe could be rolled and make a noise when moving on a hard surface, whereas the cube would remain where it was placed.

  • Gift 3 (2-3 years)

As the first building gift, gift three was made of eight identical wooden cubes designed to be pulled apart and built back together differently.

  • Gift 4 (2-3 years)

Gift 4 appears the same as gift 3; a cube made of smaller pieces to be pulled apart and reassembled. This version, however, was made up of rectangular planks, twice as long and half the width of the cubes in the previous gift. Again, this allows for many new construction possibilities.

  • Gift 5 (3-4 years)

This building gift consisted of more cubes, some divided into halves or quarters. Froebel intended this gift to build further on maths concepts and help the child build more complex structures.

  • Gift 6 (4-5 years)

This set included more complex wooden blocks, including prisms.

Froebel’s Occupations

Froebel also used “occupations” with children to support their play, including sand, shells, stones, sticks, clay, and paper folding. These materials were designed to allow children uninterrupted periods of the game where they can explore concepts, express creativity and learn about how things work. Giving children a range of materials to choose from allowing them to explore different concepts and choose activities that are appropriate for their stage of learning. We often see this reflected in early years settings today, where a range of child-led activities is made available to children, with enhancement ideas usually made available to help deepen a child’s understanding of a concept.

Froebel also emphasized outdoor learning, particularly nature walks and gardening. He thought that children need space and light to learn effectively and develop their understanding of the world through direct experience. Outdoor learning also ties in well with the principle that movement is important to child development. But let’s take a closer look at this!

Froebel’s Outdoor Play

One of the most important concepts Friedrich Froebel had about education regards outdoor play. The pioneering educator thought a ‘kindergarten’ should offer a garden space for children to play, learn, and develop various skills. His idea was to allocate a small part of the garden to every child where they could grow something. Then, by taking care of a plant and watching it grow or struggle, the little ones learn a bit about hard work and what they can achieve, how to take responsibility for something, or how to accept if something doesn’t turn out well.

In a garden, children explore nature, learn about weather changes, meet new animals and plants and even face heavier subjects like life and death.

And he didn’t just have this idea; he also made it happen. His first garden for children was opened in Blankenburg, Germany.

In Froebel’s outdoor play theory, he saw children as curious, creative, and active beings who best thrive in an engaging and stimulating environment close to each other and nature. He thought that through gardening, the little ones could practice problem-solving via creative activities that are truly hands-on. In addition, playing and making discoveries in a garden allow children to learn about their five senses; they experience new colors, smells, shapes, substances, and energies.

These could not be found in a safe, indoor environment with less potential to tickle children’s creative side and their thirst for knowledge. Only outdoor play can offer valuable opportunities for the little ones to explore the natural world.

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