Friedrich Froebel opened the Universal German Educational Institute in Gieshelm in 1816, relocating in 1817 to the nearby village of Keilhau. Froebel ran the Institute himself until 1830, then went on to found schools using his techniques in Switzerland. He later opened his first Kindergarten in 1840 at Blankenburg, Germany. Until this time there had been no educational system for children under seven years of age, nor recognition that young children were capable of learning social and intellectual skills that might serve as a foundation for their whole life.
Froebel challenged other conventions in education. In his day, intricate and decorated toys for children were the norm -- he found them completely inappropriate. As he formulated his curriculum for young children, Froebel designed open-ended instructional materials called the Gifts, with complementary Occupations. These were for use both in kindergarten and school, and gave children hands-on involvement in practical learning experiences through play.
A frequent misconception today is that the Gifts were designed primarily for use as math manipulatives. As Froebel’s insights from his categorization of crystals suggest, they represent in fact much more than that, opening a window to the child’s inner self and leading him to a deepening knowledge of the world and the interrelationships of things.
Foundational to the development of the Gifts was the recognition of the value of block play. Froebel believed that playing with blocks gives fundamental expression to a child’s soul and to the unity of life. Blocks represent the actual building blocks of the universe. The symmetry of the soul is symbolized as a child constructs with blocks, bringing them together to form a whole. Through proper use of the Gifts, the child progresses from the material to the abstract -- from the volumetric lessons offered by blocks, through the two-dimensional planar ones elucidated by play with parquetry tiles (flat, geometrically-patterned wooden shapes), to deductions of a linear nature drawn from stick laying, to use of the point in pin-prick drawings. Points, in turn, describe a line, and the child completes the logic by returning from 2-D to the 3-D realm of volume through peas work (joining small malleable balls with short sticks) and on to solid three-dimensional work in clay.