Froebel's Principles



  1. That the primary business of school is to train children in co-operative and mutually helpful living; to foster in them the consciousness of mutual interdependence; and to help them Practically in making the adjustments that will carry this spirit into overt deeds.

  2. That the primary root of all educative activity is in the instinctive, impulsive attitudes and activities of the child, and not in the presentation and application of external material, whether through the ideas of others or through the senses; and that, accordingly, numberless spontaneous activities of children, plays, games, mimic efforts even the apparently meaningless motions of infants-exhibitions previously ignored as trivial, futile, or even condemned as positively evil-are capable of educational use; nay, are the foundation stones of educational method.

  3. That these individual tendencies and activities are organized and directed through the uses made of them in keeping up the co-operative living already spoken of; taking advantage of them to reproduce on the child’s plane the typical doings and occupations of the larger, mature society into which he is finally to go forth; and that it is through production and creative use that valuable knowledge is secured and clinched.

So far as these statements correctly represent Froebel’s educational philosophy, the School should be regarded as its exponent. An attempt is making to act upon them with as much faith and sincerity in their application to children of twelve as to children of four. This attempt, however, to assume what might be called the kindergarten attitude throughout the whole school makes necessary certain modifications of the work done in what is more technically known as the kindergarten period-that is, with the children between the ages of four and six. It is necessary only to state reasons for believing that in spite of the apparently radical character of some of them they are true to the spirit of Froebel.


Play is not to be identified with anything, which the child externally does. It rather designated his mental attitude in its entirely and in its unity. It is the free play, the interplay, of all the child’s powers, thoughts, and physical movements, in embodying, in a satisfying form, his own images and interests. Negatively, it is freedom from economic pressure-the necessities of getting a living and supporting others-and from the fixed responsibilities attaching to the special callings of the adult. Positively, it means that the supreme end of the child is fullness of growth-fulness of realization of his budding powers, a realization which continually carries him on from one plane to another.

This is a very general statement, and taken in its generality, is so vague as to be innocent of practical being. Its significance in detail, in application, however, means the possibility, and in many respects the necessity, of quite a radical change of kindergarten procedure. To state it baldly, the fact that “play” denotes the psychological attitude of the child, not his outward performances, means complete emancipation from the necessity of following any given or prescribed system, or sequence of gifts, plays, or occupations. The judicious teacher will certainly look for suggestions to the activities mentioned by Froebel(in his Mother-Play and elsewhere), and to those set forth in such minute detail by his disciples ; but she will also remember that the principle of play requires her carefully to investigate and criticize these things, and decide whether they are really activities for her own children, or just things which may have been vital in the past to children living in different social conditions. So far as occupations, games, etc., simply perpetuate those of Froebel and his earlier disciples, it may fairly be said that in many respects the presumption is against them-the presumption is that in the worship of the external doings discussed by Froebel we have ceased to be loyal to his principle.

The teacher must be absolutely free to get suggestions from any and from every source, asking herself but these two questions: Will the proposed inside of play appeal to the child as his own? It is something of which he has the instinctive roots in himself, and which will mature the capacities that are struggling for manifestation in him? And again: Will the proposed activity give that sort of expression to these impulses that will carry the child on to a higher plane of consciousness and action , instead of merely exciting him and then leaving him just where he was before, plus a certain amount of nervous exhaustion and appetite for more excitation in the future?

There is every evidence that Froebel studied carefully-inductively we might now say-the children’s plays of his own time, and the games which mothers played with their infants. He also took great pains-as in his Mother-Play-to point out that certain principles of large import were involved. He had to bring his generation to consciousness of the fact that these things were not merely trivial and childish because done by children, but were essential factors in their growth. But I do not see the slightest evidence that he supposed that just these plays, and only these plays, had meaning, or that his philosophic explanation had any motive beyond that just suggested. On the contrary, I believe that he expected his followers to exhibit their following by continuing his own study of contemporary conditions and activities, rather than by literally adhering to the plays he had collected. Moreover, it is hardly likely that Froebel himself would contend that in his interpretation of these games he did more than take advantage of the best psychological and philosophical insight available to him at the time; and we may suppose that he would have been the first to welcome the growth of a better and more expensive psychology(whether general, experimental, or as child study), and would avail himself of its results to reinterpret the activities, to discuss them more critically, going from the new standpoint into the reasons that make them educationally valuable.


It must be remembered that much of Froebel’s symbolism is the product of two peculiar conditions of his own life and work. In the first place, on account of inadequate knowledge at that time of the physiological and psychological facts and principles of child growth, he was often forced to resort to strained and artificial explanations of the value attaching to the plays, etc. To the impartial observer it is obvious that many of his matters that may now receive a simple, everyday formulation. In the second place, the general political and social conditions of Germany were such that it was impossible to conceive continuity between the free, cooperative social life of the kindergarten and that of the world outside. Accordingly, he could not regard the “occupations” of the schoolroom as literal reproductions of the ethical principals involved in community life. The latter were often too restricted and authoritative to serve as a worthy models.

Accordingly he was compelled to think of them as a symbolic of abstract ethical philosophical principals. There certainly is change enough and progress enough in the social conditions of the United States of today, as compared with those of the Germany of his day, to justify making kindergarten activities more natural , more direct, and more real representations of current life than Froebel’s disciples have done. Even as it is, the disparity of Froebel’s philosophy with German political ideals has made the authorities in Germany suspicious of the kindergarten, and has made the authorities in Germany suspicious of the kindergarten, and has been undoubtedly one force operating in transforming its social simplicity into an involved intellectual technique.


An excessive emphasis on symbolism is sure to influence the treatment of imagination. It is of course true that a little child lives in a world of imagination. In one sense, he can only “make believe”. His activities represent or stand for the life that he sees going on around him. Because they are thus representative they may be termed symbolic, but it should be remembered that this make-believe or symbolism has reference to the activities suggested. Unless they are, to the child, as real and definite as the adult’s activities are to him, the inevitable result is artificiality, nervous strain, and either physical and emotional excitement or else deadening of powers.

There has been a curious, almost unaccountable, tendency in the kindergarten to assume that because the value of the activity lies in what it stands for to the child, therefore the materials used must be as artificial as possible, and that one must keep carefully away from real things and real acts on the part of the child. Thus one hears of gardening activities which are carried on by sprinkling grains of sand for seeds; the child sweeps and dusts a make-believe room with make-believe brooms and cloths; he sets a table using only paper cut in the flat( and even then cut with reference to geometric design, rather then to dishes), instead of toy tea things with the child outside of the kindergarten plays. Dolls, toy locomotives, trains of cars, etc., are tabooed as altogether too grossly real-enhanced not cultivating the child’s imagination.

All this is surely merely superstitions. The imaginative play of the child’s mind comes through the cluster of suggestions, reminiscences, and anticipations that gather about the things he uses. The more natural and straightforward these are, the more definite bases there is for calling up and holding together all the allied suggestions which make his imaginative play really representative. The simple cooking, dishwashing, dusting, etc. which children do are no more prosaic or utilitarian to them than would be, say, the game of Five Knights. To the children these occupations are surcharged with a sense of mysterious value attached to whatever their elders are concerned. The materials, then, must be as “real”, as direct and straightforward, as opportunity permits.

But the principle does not end here-the reality symbolized must also lie within the capacities of the child’s own appreciation. It is sometimes thought the use of the imagination is profitable in the degree it stands for very remote metaphysical and spiritual principles. In the great majority of such cases it is safe to say that the adult deceives himself. He is conscious of both the reality and the symbol, and hence of the relation between them. But since the truth or reality represented is far beyond the reach of the child, the supposed symbol is not a symbol to him at all. It is simply a positive thing on its own account. Practically about all he gets out of it is its own physical and sensational meaning, plus very often, a glib facility in phrases and attitudes that he learns are expected of him by the teacher-without, however, any mental counterpart. We often teach insincerity, and instill sentimentalism, and foster sensationalism when we think we are teaching spiritual truths by means of symbols. The realities reproduced, therefore, by the child should be of as familiar, direct, and real a character as possible. It is largely for this reason that in the kindergarten of our School th work centers so much about the reproduction of home and neighborhood life. This brings us to the topic of…