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History of Spielgaben / Spielgabe


In the late 1700s, a young man named Friedrich Fröbel grew up wandering the dense forests of Thuringia Prussia. He naturally got into a forestry apprenticeship and worked for a time as a land surveyor. He was skilled at drafting and geometry, so he spent a great deal of time tutoring children. Eventually, he worked for a school based on Johann Pestalozzi’s principles. There, Fröbel evolved his own ideas about the way children should be taught.

Fröbel realized he wanted kids to go beyond just drawing lines on pages – he wanted them to learn through the physical manipulation of objects.  He wanted children to play with educational toys, which was a fairly unusual notion in the early 1800s. His later experiences, outside of childhood education, ultimately led him to determine the shape and function of these toys.

Friedrich Fröbel worked with one of the world’s foremost crystallographers in Berlin. Where most people saw nature in big flowing organic shapes, like hills and plants and animals, he zoomed in to study the straight lines and geometric forms of crystals, seeing these lines as the building block of reality.

Finally, in 1837, Friedrich Fröbel’s experiences across different disciplines crystalized into a solid vision. At the age of 55, he founded the very first kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg, Germany, as a school for very young students.

The word kindergarten (children’s garden) cleverly encompassed two different ideas: kids would play in and learn from nature, but they would also be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden.”  The real key to it all was a set of deceptively simple-looking toys that became known as spielgaben (“play gifts”).


The Gift of Observation

Spielgaben were meant to be given in a particular order, growing more complex over time and teaching different lessons about shape, structure and perception along the way. A soft knitted ball could be given to a child just six weeks old, followed by a wooden ball and then a cube, illustrating similarities and differences in shapes and materials. Then, kids would get a cylinder  (which combines elements of both the ball and the cube), and it would blow their little minds. Some objects were pierced by strings or rods so kids could spin them and see how one shape morphs into another when set into motion. Later came cubes made up of smaller cubes and other hybrids, showing children how parts relate to a whole through deconstruction and reassembly.

These perception-oriented spielgaben would give way to construction-oriented “occupations.” Kids would be told to build things out of materials like paper, string, wire, or little sticks and connecting balls that could be connected and stacked into structures.

In a very structured way, these kindergarten lesson encouraged very young students to think abstractly and to relate ideas, objects and symbols. A set of blocks could be used to teach counting, then they could be turned into a house and then be used to tell the story of a family living in that house. Kindergarten students learned to model the world in fundamentally different ways while using the same set of geometric forms, arranging and rearranging them to make new connections. Friedrich Fröbel’s kindergartens weren’t just schools – they were art schools that taught about shape, form and color. When kindergarten graduates went out into the world, the world changed.


Training Aesthetes

“The kind of art that was being made in the 19th century is really different than the kind of art that was made after kids went to kindergarten,” explains Norman Brosterman, author of Inventing Kindergarten. Expressionist, cubist and surrealist artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky attended early kindergartens. Others, like Piet Mondrian, encountered Friedrich Fröbel’s methods as teachers. The resemblance of much of their work to illustrations in kindergarten teaching guides is uncanny at times. In some cases, a person might be hard-pressed to guess whether a given work was created by a kindergarten student (or teacher) or an abstract artist.

Kindergarten influenced designers, too. Walter Gropius’s first hire at the new Bauhaus design school was a kindergarten teacher. The effects of Froebel’s work on design education rippled out beyond Germany as well, influencing some of the world’s most famous architects.

“Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect, is the great child of the kindergarten,” says Brosterman. “You can see the kindergarten in everything Wright ever did.” Wright was born in 1867, around the time kindergartens were gaining traction in the United States.

Wright’s mom actually took classes in kindergarten education, and Wright recalled that she brought him a set of spielgaben at a young age. This was the moment, he later claimed, when he began to be an architect. “For several years, I sat at the little kindergarten table ruled by lines about four inches wide. The smooth cardboard triangles and maple-wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day.” Growing up, Wright took courses in engineering, but he never formally studied architecture, but he wasn’t the only one to bypass a traditional architectural education on his way to fame.

European Modernist Le Corbusier never went to architecture school. He did, however, attend Fröbelian schools in Switzerland. The gridded geometries and repeated patterns of his modernist houses and apartments look a lot like exercises out of a kindergarten manual.

Buckminster Fuller, famous for pioneering geodesic domes, discovered his greatest engineering insight as a kindergartner while connecting spielgaben nodes and rods. He couldn’t see very well, but he could feel that triangular structures were stronger.

Obviously, not everyone who attended kindergarten became a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Le Corbusier or Bucky, but the abstract lessons of kindergarten tilled and fertilized the ground so the seed of their ideas could find an audience in the world. “Abstraction was accepted fairly quickly in Europe in Paris,” notes Brosterman, “perhaps because children had already been doing a lot of the same kinds of things for many decades,” paving the way for the acceptance of modernism.


Forgotten Educational Tool

These days, most kindergartens are a lot different from anything Friedrich Fröbel imagined, and few kids encounter spielgaben in any kind of sequence (if at all). Still, toy blocks never really went away. “The block is this … incredibly malleable toy that can be used in all of these different ways,” says Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood. She points out that other educators like Caroline Pratt and Patty Smith Hill saw the potential for blocks to do even more, creating interaction between children beyond their isolated, gridded desks.

In some ways, all modern toy building systems reflect the influence of Fröbel. Tinker Toys, Lego, Kinex — they’re all about understanding shape and form and making connections. They also represent a departure from Fröbel’s highly-organized and linear approach. 

These days, building toys are viewed more broadly as tools of the imagination — objects kids can use to assemble houses and castles and cities, learning collaboration and creativity through construction.