Gardeners of Children

Final Thoughts


Gardeners of Children

19th century scientist Fredrich Froebel designed a sophisticated, long-lasting learning framework for the youngest (and oldest) among us.


Gardeners of Children

WHEN IT COMES TO ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN, Frank Lloyd Wright is about as household a name as you can find. Widely celebrated as an American icon, Wright’s journey to genius was interestingly shaped by a much lesser known aspiring German architect. 19th century scientist and peda¬gogue, Fredrich Froebel, never produced a portfolio like that of Wright’s, but he did succeed in designing a sophisticated, long-lasting learning framework for the youngest (and oldest) among us. His passionate pursuit included the creation of a hands-on tool set known as the Gifts. These handcrafted wooden shapes were an integral part of Froebel’s larger ed¬ucational vision, the Garden of Children, and sat at the crux of Wright’s earliest design experiences.

As the Industrial Revolution gained speed, Europe was un¬dergoing social, scientific and economic transformation. Amidst the upheaval was a simultaneously increasing need for both childcare and more labor. Most schools at the time did not begin until around age seven and largely envisioned students as future factory workers, drawing more inspiration from the newly emerging assembly lines than nature or Ar¬istotle. Froebel’s mission was to build a different system of learning that could instill an early sense of unity in the world, encourage inquiry and strengthen children’s ability to test ideas through exploration, observation and manipulation. His approach felt like the necessary counterbalance to the strict, linear mode of education that was being engineered and delivered to the masses.

Mother found the Gifts. And gifts they were. Along with the Gifts was a system, a basis for design and the elementary geometry behind all natural birth of Form.FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT

After foregoing his architectural dreams and before embarking into education, Froebel assisted and studied under German crystallography pioneer Christian Samuel Weiss. Froebel was quickly enamored by the geometric forms found in early sightings of atomic shape and crystalline structure through Weiss’s work. When it came to education, rather than focusing on developing literacy in order to follow textbooks, Froebel encouraged educators to methodically introduce children to the geometry of the Gifts to cultivate a type of spatial literacy. Starting with different colored balls of knitted yarn that represented “the whole” and gradually moving on to the neatly organized boxes of smooth wooden blocks, cylinders and spheres — the Gifts served as early tools for scientific exploration, design and discovery.

In his autobiography A Testament, Wright describes the influence these simple, satisfying toys had in his early years. “Mother found the Gifts. And gifts they were. Along with the Gifts was a system, a basis for design and the elementary geometry behind all natural birth of Form.” Wright’s mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, had learned from Froebel’s disciples that “children should not be allowed to draw from causal appearances of Nature until they had mastered the basic forms lying behind appearance. Cosmic, geometric elements were what should be first made visible to the child-mind.” For Froebel, the adults — like Anna — who took on this approach to teaching were the original kindergarteners, a.k.a. the Gardeners of Children.

When looking at Frank Lloyd Wright’s most memorable works through this lens, it’s easy to see Fredrich Froebel’s fingerprints. There are crystal clear lines between his Prairie and Usonian styles and the smooth maple blocks which Wright noted, “all are in my fingers to this day.” The commonly used cantilevered roofs blur the lines between structure and nature and feel like a byproduct of his early engineering studies coupled with his time in Froebel’s Garden. In some of his most celebrated works, it’s the interaction with the rhythms of the natural world that stir our senses and point to the subtle interconnectedness that exists beyond what our eyes can see. Whether it’s positioning a new build so that intricate window patterns can dance with natural light and cast different shadows based on the seasons, or employing the same materials, like brick, for both interior and exterior enjoyment —there’s a constant attempt to turn our attention towards our relationship with the world around us.

Through his Gifts, Froebel sought to “awaken the senses” in order to help children perceive “the interconnectedness of creation”. While they were just one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s many influences, there’s no question they built a solid foundation for which his lifelong career was based on. Most of us were kindergarteners in the contemporary definition, but can we also still become them in the classical sense? Next time you find yourself gift shopping for a young one in your life, perhaps consider the enduring brilliance and beauty of Froebel’s Gifts — or if you’re like me, just get a set for yourself.