Teddy Roosevelt once said, "The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future." As teachers and parents, history can be an excellent tool to supplement the information absorbed by the formative minds we encounter every day. It can provide us with both positive and negative examples for our day to day conduct. It can provide our sons and daughters with powerful moral exemplars and infamous individuals to model ourselves on.
As educators and co-researchers in an Emergent Curriculum environment, it makes sense for us to familiarize ourselves with the history of foundational or revolutionary educational institutions and innovators. Since my youth, I have always found long lists of dates and events to be a dryer and less compelling form of historical narrative. As a result, the histories of specific people and the roles they play in the formation of cultural identity have been my favorite way to uncover the lessons the past has to teach us. I have taken a recent interest in the life of Friedrich Froebel, one such example of an individual surrounded by a rich and valuable educational history.
In 1817, Froebel founded a school for young learners in Keilhau, Germany. He chose to refer to it as a "kindergarten," a compound word comprised of the word "kinder" (which means child) and "garten" (a word used to refer to a garden or green space). It was the first school of its kind. Froebel intentionally avoided referring to his institution as a "schule" (school) because of his own personal educational philosophy. He was well-known for regularly describing students in the way of plants and teachers as gardeners charged with their cultivation and growth. As a result, the word "kindergartener" was originally used to refer not to the students of his school, but the teachers.
Froebel believed that deep and meaningful learning was best accomplished through an environment of play, not the top-down educational structure so common in German universities of the time. He encouraged his teachers to provide students with a variety of gifts, but to introduce them with no guidelines for usage or preconceived notions of their inherent educational worth. Personal discovery and a unified sense of community became two cornerstones of his educational philosophy. As the son of a pastor in early 19th century post-war Germany, his religious beliefs were paramount to his message of unity and personal responsibility.
While Froebel's philosophy towards the education of young children differed in some drastic ways from today's "traditional" learning models, reading about his life brought to light some striking similarities to our educational philosophy here at A New Leaf. Although Froebel's school predated Loris Malaguzzi's work and the existence of the Reggio Way by nearly 150 years, his revolutionary ideas bear a resemblance to Reggio Emilia's dedication to treating their students as not just learners, but fully-formed people on a journey towards self-discovery, responsibility, and uncompromising citizenship in their local and global communities.
To me, Froebel’s educational endeavors contain a few relevant lessons for us as educators and parents. First, I wholeheartedly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. Genuine respect for each member of an educational community, whether big or small, is the foundation of a healthy learning environment. Second, innovation is a wildfire, not a spark. Froebel’s work was revolutionary in his field at the time, but not an isolated, independent moment of education history. Great thinkers like Lev Vygotsky (commonly regarded as the father of Constructivist educational theory), Jean Piaget (a highly influential research scientist in the field child psychology), and Loris Malaguzzi (the founder of the Reggio Way) did not formulate their ideas in a vacuum. They digested and reinterpreted the research, successes, and failures of the pioneers who came before them.
Finally, Froebel’s philosophy of children as plants that should be carefully nurtured and cultivated is truer now more than ever. As people globalize, industrialize, and mass-produce our world, we run the risk of losing touch with our inner “kindergarteners.” Skills and hobbies like farming, gardening, animal husbandry, forestry, and landscaping are valuable not just for their visible or tangible results, but because they engender a certain mindset towards our environment. Generally caring for things smaller and more delicate than ourselves is not just a past-time, but an obligation stemming from a general sense of empathy for living things that grow. The study, observation, and care of the flora and fauna of this world is not a preoccupation of academia, but an investigation of what it means to show tenderness to those we love and protect on a day to day basis.
Attending training on child development, child psychology, and the Reggio Way are essential to my growth as a teacher, but in recent months I have started to look outside conventional means of education to change the way I think about children. I find that even the little things, like raising houseplants and watering the moss around my apartment complex, make a difference to me. They bring out in me a deeper sense of stewardship and interconnectedness to the aspects of the world I am sometimes too busy to even notice. More and more, I have come to believe that moving forward is sometimes just a matter of returning to our roots.