In an interesting bookshop in Weimar, I discovered a book that was published in 1957 in Knabe’s Jugendbücherei (youth bookshop) and recently re-issued by the same publisher. The youth book deserves our attention and is worth reading not only for young readers.
On the basis of the life story of the girl Ulrike the life work of Friedrich Fröbel (1782–1852) is presented in an impressive way. Friedrich Fröbel, a pupil of Pestalozzi, was the founder of the kindergarten. His pedagogy encompassed the holistic approach to educate pre-school children. Fröbel emphasised the importance of childrens’ play, which was considered revolutionary in his time. Previously, children had mostly been treated as small adults, and small children were merely kept, if necessary, in depositories without adequate support.
The little booklet begins with an episode from the year 1813, when Napoleon ruled, Europe was shaken by war and later in the Battle of Leipzig countless people lost their lives. Fröbel was on the move as a soldier with the Lützow Freikorps and meet a horde of ragged children begging. A gaunt boy ran off with some bread he managed to grab without giving any of it away. During the commotion, a little boy fell unnoticed into water while his sister Magdalena tried to pull him out and almost drowned herself. Fortunately the children were rescued by Michael, Fröbel’s comrade, with Fröbel’s help.
After this experience, Fröbel reflected on his own childhood, his professional development in becoming an educator and his time in Switzerland with Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. With his comrades he discussed at length what should be done to enable children to have a better, carefree life and how to prevent such neglect they had just encountered. It became Fröbel’s goal to do everything in his power to better the children’s lot after the end of the war.
His comrade Michael, later married Magdalena, the girl he had rescued during the war. They had four children, lived in a gloomy basement flat and they both were forced to work out of town to make ends meet. While their children helped along according to their means to secure a sparse livelihood, no one had the time to look after the youngest girl, Ulrike. At first she spent the days with a neighbour, who looked after numerous children without much skill and who Ulrike was scared of. Later, the girl was allowed to go to the “depository”, where she was more comfortable, but where the children are drilled militarily.
Friedrich Fröbel did not remain inactive after the war. He wrote articles and in 1837 founded an “Institution to foster the need for activities in early childhood and youth”. He, for whom nature was imminent to his heart throughout his life, realised: “As I wandered through the blossoming spring one day, it came like a revelation to me: garden ... paradise! Yes, the paradise brought back to the children shall be called kindergarten! And the children there shall feel light hearted and they shall thrive and grow.” Fröbel also trained young girls to become kindergarten teachers and gave lectures about his pedagogy in the nearby health resort.
Ulrike grew up and got a job as a nanny with “well-to-do” people. She loved the two children in her care, but she couldn’t cope. The parents blamed the nanny for all their offspring’s mischief thereby increasing the children’s lack of respect for Ulrike. With this family she travelled to a seaside resort to continue her work there.
In the hotel Ulrike became friendly with the footman Wilhelm, who told her about Fröbel. By chance, Ulrike made acquaintance with this man, about whom it was said that he was one to play along with children in the garden. Some just laughed about him but others admired the pedagogue, like Baroness Marenholtz, who also helped Ulrike along. Thus her greatest wish became true: she was allowed to train as a kindergarten teacher with Friedrich Fröbel.
Ulrike learnt as much as possible, she was visibly successful with the children and made friends with other young women. She greatly appreciated her teacher and his young wife. Ulrike couldn’t contribute any money to their wedding, which she deplored very much. To her distress, she was critisised by one of her classmates and hereupon withdrew. Friedrich Fröbel and his wife managed to reconcile the two young kindergarten students with much empathy und aptness by assigning them a shared task.
It is precisely in this way that Ulrike, in her profession as a kindergarten teacher, dedicated herself to the children entrusted to her. She strengthened the bonds among the little ones, she won them over for one another, even if their behaviour left a lot to be desired.
While the young girls learnt in their education to have a heart for the children and to teach them things conducive to their lives in a playful way, Fröbel was increasingly faced with hostility towards his pedagogy and his kindergartens were even banned in Prussia. He was accused of spreading socialist ideas and educating children to become atheists. As a result, Fröbel worked even harder. He did everything in his power to prove in his writings that his opponents were wrong, and his wife Luise comforted him: “Prussia is not Germany. They want to destroy your work, but they will not succeed. Your name will still be mentioned when no one will speak of the Prussian bureaucrats anymore. Friedrich Fröbel was happy about this act of faith from his wife. And he was just as happy about the visit of Ulrike’s father Michael, his former comrade. At that time, however, he was already ailing, and his strength was dwindling more and more. In June 1852 Friedrich Fröbel died.
As it turned out, the name Fröbel is still known today as the founder of our kindergartens. And the beautiful word “kindergarten”, which he coined and which has symbolic meaning, still exists all over the world, even in English speaking countries. The importance of kindergarten and playful learning have survived for decades now and have contributed much to the development of small children.
Unfortunately, in recent times, there have been increasing efforts to abolish the kindergarten as an independent level of education and to “integrate” it more and more into school. As a result kindergartens will become increasingly intellectual with contents formerly designated to school grades and do not benefit the children.
Reading this little booklet opens one’s heart, because it shows us, with the example of Ulrike, the importance of the relationship with the educators, delighting in children, playful learning and developing a sense of community, all that accounts for our successful kindergarten and at the same time it introduces Friedrich Fröbel, as the founder and “father” of these marvellous ideas. •
* The author has been working as a kindergarten teacher for many years.
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