Pioneer spirit brought to early years

Five headteachers are driving a Froebel revival, claiming that the 19th-century German educationalist is as relevant now as ever before
24th September 2010, 1:00am


Pioneer spirit brought to early years

“Shh!” rosie says to us, podgy finger pressed against pursed lips, a serious expression on her face. She is keen to spot a rabbit, but quite sensibly fears noisy adults are drastically reducing her chances.

A birdcall breaks our newly-enforced silence. “A pigeon?” five-year-old Rosie asks, ears pricking up, eyes scanning the tree tops.

The children listen and wait as Donna Begg, forest schools leader, does a final check of the Sir Patrick Geddes garden, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, to make sure all is well before they are let loose.

Once inside, they set about clearing the site of any litter, examining flowers and insects through binoculars and magnifying glasses, and scrutinising the contents of the pond.

Two-year-old Ben wields a litter-picker. The claw hovers threateningly over a bee, until Donna suggests it probably wouldn’t like that.

In the end it is Basia who gets stung, but by a nettle. She holds back the tears, picks a dock leaf and bravely rubs it into her palm.

The children are from the Cowgate Under-5s Centre in Edinburgh, which caters for infants aged six weeks to five years. It is a local authority nursery, run on Froebelian principles, Lynn McNair, the head of centre, proudly states. So nature, the outdoors and natural materials are vitally important here - hence, the nursery’s commitment to its garden and to forest schools.

The line between inside and outside is blurred, says Ms McNair. Going into the garden is not a great expedition; it is just one of several areas children move between with their shoes on or off - it’s up to them.

“I love the sound of the pitter patter of feet,” she says.

The centre has made magical use of its outdoor space. There is a two- storey Wendy house - Willow Cottage - which is surely better than anything Peter Pan and the lost boys constructed; and a corner where children can make music with large outdoor xylophones and chimes.

Soon 12 tonnes of silver sand and over 100 tyres will be delivered. These will be used to make a deep sandpit, but also to create flower beds and grow vegetables. When Friedrich Froebel developed the first kindergarten in the 1800s, all children had their own vegetable plot.

Indoors, there is little sign of plastic. Resources tend to be made from natural materials and have more than one use, so the children can engage their imaginations. No Froebelian nursery would be complete without wooden building blocks.

Froebelians believe strongly that learning should stem from the natural inclinations the child shows through play. Skilled adults then help them to develop their talents and interests, but children should be allowed to take risks and should be given responsibility for using real tools and implements, once they have been taught to use them safely.

“It’s about believing in them and their capabilities, instead of believing they need us all the time,” says Ms McNair.

The child is, therefore, at the centre but not seen in isolation; relationships with parents are important, as are connections with the wider community.

It all chimes well with contemporary thinking. All schools are being encouraged to embrace active learning and eco principles, to promote health and well-being, make use of the outdoors, create responsible citizens and confident individuals, and engage with parents.

Nevertheless, Ms McNair and her colleagues believe “a lot of people are lost”, which is why they are pushing for a Froebel revival.

The five heads - Ms McNair, Stella Brown of Tynecastle Nursery School; Chris McCormick of Cameron House Nursery School; Jane Whinnett of Balgreen Nursery School and Maureen Baker, retired headteacher of Children’s House Nursery School - have started a network to promote the approaches used by Friedrich Froebel.

They have already run a couple of well-received conferences and now they have launched a 30- hour CPD course, beginning in October, at Edinburgh University, endorsed by the National Froebel Foundation.

The course will plug a gap for nursery teachers, who are finding it increasingly difficult to track down accredited courses relevant to them, says Ms Baker.

More importantly, perhaps, it will help early-years practitioners to establish an underlying philosophy, which will prove invaluable when it comes to making sense of all they are expected to deliver, say the heads. New initiatives are announced and people jump on board, but too often the passion is lacking and compliance is the name of the game, they say.

Cowgate has chosen to take part in Eco-Schools, because it fits very neatly with its Froebelian philosophy - they “live and breathe” the environmental action initiative, says Ms McNair.

“Froebel may not be for everybody, but I would suggest that people do need to know why they are doing what they are doing,” she continues. “You can’t just do it because it’s come from above; you’ve got to do it because you believe in it.”

Ms Baker agrees: “As with any other profession, you have to base your work on something; you have to know where you’re coming from and what your own thinking is.”

The Froebelian approach also gives them the strength to resist change, say the heads. Not every idea is a good one, Ms Whinnett stresses.

A case in point is the new focus on literacy and numeracy. These are both vital, but the Froebelians would rail against any effort to teach them separately in the early years.

“I would never segregate these things,” says Ms McNair. “You take the child as a whole. It’s about knowing your children, looking at their interests and building on them. So if a boy is interested in block play, you bring the books there or perhaps suggest making a plan.”

Curriculum for Excellence could have been written by Froebel, says Ms McNair. But the new curriculum alone is not a firm enough foundation. “If people are no longer going to be guided by content, then they have to be guided by principles,” argues Ms Whinnett.

The Edinburgh heads’ passion for Froebel stems from their own training. Some were graduates of the early-years specialist course at Moray House, which, in the 1970s, was known as “The Froebel”, and others attended the Froebel Educational Institute in London.

Ms McCormick says: “This isn’t about going backwards and being stuck in the past. The relevance of Froebel today is great. We want to share it and have others coming on board with the same level of passion.”

With Edinburgh City Council also sold on Froebel, it seems a new generation of Froebelians could be coming soon to the capital.

The city’s education leader, Marilyne MacLaren, says: “The philosophy behind Froebel teaching has a real resonance with Curriculum for Excellence and developments in early-years teaching methods. We have a great tradition of early-years education and development in Edinburgh, and I am proud to say that Froebel underpins our approach.

“Part of the emotional appeal of Froebel is that he was keen to allow children to be children by encouraging natural curiosity, the fun of play and the desire to learn. In an increasingly complex, materialistic and highly commercialised world, this is more important than ever.”


Cowgate Under-5s Centre in Edinburgh hopes to become the first council-run nursery to establish a nature kindergarten, where children will spend anything from a full day to a full week outdoors.

The nursery hopes there will be space initially for six children to attend daily. All the nursery children will be offered the chance to go to the nature kindergarten, but criteria may be set to find those who would benefit most, says Lynn McNair, head of centre.

These could be kinaesthetic learners, those lacking in confidence, children who are struggling with the inside environment, and those who may not have much contact with the natural world outside the centre.

Ms McNair hopes to have the nature kindergarten up and running soon and is looking at Bonaly, to the south of Edinburgh, at the foot of the Pentland Hills, as a potential site.

The children would be bussed daily from the city centre. The nursery also hopes to evaluate the success of the nature kindergarten, once it is up and running.


Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) began his working life as an educator in a secondary school in his native Germany, but came to believe the most important phase of schooling was the pre-school period.

At this stage, activities should not be dictated to the child, he believed, but their interest should be engaged and their intelligence and character developed through play. He established the game as the typical form that life took in childhood; he also established its educational worth.

In 1837 Froebel opened his Play and Activity Institute in Bad Blankenburg, in Turingen, which he later renamed “Kindergarten”, or child garden, in 1840.

Activities included singing, dancing, gardening and self-directed play, often with wooden building blocks, which Froebel called “gifts” because they were given to the child.

To his critics, these activities seemed more like play than school work, but Froebel argued that children were not pieces of wax or lumps of clay that adults could mould as they pleased. Like plants and young animals, they needed room to unfold and develop; “arbitrary interference” was to be avoided, he said.

The Froebel in Early Childhood Education course will be delivered at the Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University, via lectures, study days, group tutorials, and visits to innovative early years settings. Classes will be delivered through day, twilight and weekend sessions, allowing those taking part to balance their professional and personal commitments. Core topics will include:

- Froebel and the historic legacy;

- working in a community school with under-5s;

- Froebelian principles: practice today;

- a Froebelian perspective on the nursery garden; and

- Froebel and inclusive education.

Tutors will include Tina Bruce, professor of early childhood studies at Roehampton University; Maureen Baker, retired head of Children’s House Nursery School; Stella Brown, head of Tynecastle Nursery School; Lynn McNair, head of the Cowgate Under-5s Centre and associate lecturer at Edinburgh University; Jane Read, a senior lecturer in early childhood studies at Roehampton University; and Jane Whinnett, head of Balgreen Nursery School.The course starts on October 30 and finishes on May 11, 2011, running for a total of 30 contact hours.

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