Forgotten Gifts

What’s the connection between this:

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water House

And this:

Fröbel’s Gifts (19th Century educational play materials)

You can go here (until 13th April 2020) to find out:

Or read on if you’re not in London before then…

All play means something.
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

In 1938 Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens in which he argued for the importance of play in society and for its role in generating culture. He gave play 5 characteristics:

  • It is free; freedom.
  • It is not real life.
  • It is distinct from real life by where it happens and for how long.
  • It creates order.
  • It is not connected to any material interest; no profit can be gained.

Huizinga’s thinking made play central to human development and to society’s success. But decades before, Friedrich Fröbel, a German educator, whom we can thank for the word ‘Kindergarten’ – and for a set of eponymous educational toys – firmly and formally embedded play into early childhood experience.

Fröbel’s Gifts

The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.
Friedrich Fröbel

Fröbel’s 20 gifts are a progression of play materials helping children to understand their environment and their relationships. For example Gift 3 is a cube made from 8 smaller ones designed for the hands of a 2-3 year old who can assemble, destroy and reconfigure the original shape. Under expert facilitation, the child is given opportunities to represent their experience, to make connections, to gain new knowledge and to develop a concept of beauty.

So profound was the effect of the gifts that it directly inspired abstract art, the Bauhaus movement and several modernist architects – all of whom had experienced Fröbel’s materials as young children.

The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which afterwards never leaves the fingers: so form became feeling.
Frank Lloyd Wright

So there you have the connection. Fröbel’s gifts in part inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural thinking. But where are the gifts now?

I recently visited the Wellcome Trust’s engaging and superbly curated exhibition. From Fröbel to Huizinga to Barbie to Fortnite it tells the story of play and includes some surprisingly forward-thinking historical artifacts – and also some culturally awkward ones.

I left inspired but then reality dawned.

I see superb practice in the ‘Kindergarten’ settings in which I work. I see play and laughter and frustration and resilience and failure and success. I see humanity nurturing humanity with skill and love and intelligence. I see adults playing ‘for’ young children. But then these little bundles of curiosity and furious, furious creativity turn 6, then 7, then 8. They are made to sit and to write and ‘behave’. They are tested on the thinnest sliver of the world’s rich knowledge and judged, labelled, condemned because of it. Play becomes playtime and equates to ‘running around a bit’ and ‘not working’.

When play is designed out of curricula, health is designed out of society.

Something to think about:
How did you play as a child?
How do you play now?
Where is play in the lives of the children that you teach?
What are your gifts to the next generation?

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