Thinking Out Loud is where I stick my observations, opinions, and ideas that have not yet taken form in a project. I still want to give them some place to roam free and find a good life for themselves.

on my desk

Ways of Learning: Froebel Gifts

Friedrich Froebel was, among other things, a German educator who researched childhood development and learning in the early 1800s. We can thank him for building upon the ideas of previous education theorists1 to lead us to many of the fundamental ideas behind modern education (and architecture!), including kindergarten, learning through play, and the Froebel Gifts.

Froebel's Gifts were a set of educational toys intended to be "gifted" to children in a specific progression to develop their understanding of the world and their own innate "gifts".2 If you haven't heard of them before, you've more likely heard of those they influenced and inspired throughout life: the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Piet Mondrian, Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, and Wassily Kandinsky.3

The gifts look like pared down, plastic-free versions of the toys I'm familiar with from my own childhood (likely because they influenced them!) They help children learn cumulative and increasingly complex lessons through basic geometries, soft and hard materials, colorful shapes, and building blocks. The first gift is a set of soft, colorful yarn balls that embody concepts of being/not being, color, and motion: a gentle introduction to the world that the child has newly joined.


Froebel described all the subsequent gifts as enabling play in Life, Knowledge, and Beauty. When the child builds houses, towers, and trains, the gifts become imaginitive tools for representing things from the child's life. Through other forms of play, they are facilitators for learning geometry, counting, vocabulary, and concepts of abstraction. As the child discovers how the gifts can be arranged and transformed, they become materials for creating patterns, symmetry, proportions, and iterative designs.2

Mathematics, design, and art are allowed to blur together and coexist in these minimal toys - it seems almost as a direct product of Froebel's own life experiences. His path was winding and interdisciplinary, and his careers and aspirations included forestry apprentice, architect, teacher, and crystallographer.

It seems the latter job was the one that crystalized (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) Froebel's philosophy on learning and creativity. In studying crystals, Froebel saw how nature encompassed all disciplines: science, art, mathematics, social science, education. In his own words:

Geology and crystallography not only opened up for me a higher circle of knowledge and insight, but also showed me a higher goal for my inquiry, my speculation, and my endeavour. Nature and man now seemed to me mutually to explain each other, through all their numberless various stages of development.4

[1] Avoiding the hero narrative here. He didn't come up with it all from nothing!
[4] Autobiography of Friedrich Froebel, cited by Bart Kahr in "Crystal Engineering in Kindergarten,” Crystal Growth & Design 2004,