Inventing Kindergarten

- Introduction
- The Seed-Bed
- Gallery of the Twenty Gifts
- Gallery of Archival Images
- Gallery of Exhibition Images
- Links and resources














An Essay about Kindergarten, Modernism, and the Value of Women's Work

By the IFF director Margaret Wertheim

Stick Laying. Chromolithograph from Froebel's Kindergarten Occupation for the Family, a kindergarten teaching set for home use. E. Steiger & Company, New York, 1977
Jessie Georgina Varker is not a name usually listed among the canon of modernist art masters. Yet in Ms Varker’s work from the 1880’s we witness the essential elements of the modernist style. Petite, collaged masterpieces that call to mind early works of the Op-Art movement, the pieces consist of brilliantly colored paper squares cut and folded into gem-like assemblages and pasted into the pages of a concertina album. A series of these albums, each a miniature cosmos of handcrafted female labor, form the backbone of this exhibition. Some encompass more than a hundred pages and extend to more than seventy feet of shelf space. These dazzling exercises in geometric harmony are executed in humble domestic mediums including colored thread sewn onto cards and patterns pricked out with pins on sheets of white paper. None of these pieces, however, were created as works of “art” – they were teaching tools, made to inspire young children in the original kindergarten system of education.
The first two pages from Zum Nachzeichnen für Kinder (Copy Drawing for Children) by B.Adamek. Vienna, c. 1830
Like thousands of women around the world during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Jessie Varker had been drawn into the kindergarten classroom by the vision of the movement’s founder, Friedrich Froebel. Most of us today experienced kindergarten as a loose assortment of playful activities - a kind of preparatory ground for school proper - but in its original incarnation kindergarten was a highly formalized system that drew its inspiration from the science of crystallography. Properly conducted, Froebel believed that education for the very young would enable the flowering of human potential, for kindergarten was literally the garden of children where growing buds might unfurl and bloom. “By education,” he declared, “the divine essence of man should be unfolded, brought out, lifted into consciousness.” For Froebel, the education of children was nothing less than a holy duty, “a necessary, universal requirement” that was beginning to assert itself as the birthright of all humanity.

Under Froebel’s insight, the teaching of infants was given a theoretical framework that would expand the minds not just of children, but also of their teachers. Women like Jessie Varker who flocked to teach this system grasped the opportunity to contribute to what they hoped would be substantial societal improvements for children and themselves. Denied access to universities and other places of higher learning, women of intellect were also yearning for mental stimulation and Froebel’s system would provide an outlet of expression for hundreds of thousands of women the world over. From the oeuvre of early kindergarten, it is largely the teachers’ output that has been preserved and in this remarkable body of work we witness the stirrings of a new era. As this exhibition suggests, in the work undertaken by kindergartners of the late nineteenth century we may locate the seed-bed of Modernist Art
Winslow Homer. Blackboard, 1877. Watercolor, 19 1/2 x12 1/8". Gift (partial and promised) of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr. in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Not until the late eighteenth century were young children viewed as fitting subjects for systematic pedagogical reflection. Some scholars have argued that the very idea of “childhood” is an invention of post-Enlightenment Europe. In any case, following the Swiss innovator Johann Pestalozzi, Froebel took upon himself the task of developing a program by which young minds could be guided and formed. In his opus The Education of Man, Froebel laid out his conceptual mission: “The knowledge of life in its totality, constitutes a science,” he wrote, “the science of life. Referred by the self-conscious, thinking, intelligent being to representation and practice through and in himself, this becomes the science of education.”

In the remarkable book Inventing Kindergarten, scholar and collector Norman Brosterman traces the development of this revolutionary system from its founding in Germany in the 1830’s through its dissemination to the rest of the world. As Brosterman writes, the ultimate aim of the kindergarten movement “was to instill in children an understanding of what an earlier generation would have called ‘the music of the spheres’ – the mathematically generated logic underlying the ebb and flow of creation.” Philosophically, kindergarten was grounded in Froebel’s belief in the Unity of all things and in the existence of simple laws and principles underlying nature’s apparent complexity. As Froebel saw it, the crystal was the archetypal form from which we could derive a model for all of nature. The child herself could be seen as a crystal. Drawing on his years as a curator at the Mineralogical Museum at the University of Berlin, Froebel wrote that the role of education was to guide the development of the nascent, crystalline mind from “one-sidedness, individuality and incompleteness” toward “all-sidedness, harmony and completeness.”
Intricately detailed sewing workbook by Auguste Cohn. Germany, dated 1880.
Froebel designed his educational experience around a series of physical and mental activities, among them singing, dancing and gardening. At the heart of this pedagogical universe were formalized exercises centered round a set of “occupational gifts,” what we today (with sadly diminished vision) might call educational toys. Twenty in number, the gifts were tools designed to encourage the exploration of form. How, for example, could lines or squares or cubes be arranged to produce the form of a bird or a chair or a tree, or a pleasing, snowflake symmetry. As a crystal grows from its molecular seed, so too animals, plants and buildings could be assembled from the primitive units of the Froebelian gifts. Cutting and folding paper, weaving together wooden sticks, sewing thread onto cards, and building with blocks of various sizes, teachers and pupils together would construct the world. The exercises focused on making three types of forms: forms of nature (or life, and things of the world), forms of beauty (art), and forms of knowledge (science, mathematics and especially geometry). In the course of their training, teachers fabricated sample exercises of “fancy work” that they arranged in albums, progressing from simple to more complex designs.

After Froebel’s death in 1852 kindergarten quickly spread throughout Europe and to its nation’s colonies, including America, where Susan Blow opened the first public kindergarten in St Louis in 1873. By the 1880’s Japan boasted dozens of kindergartens and the system was entrenched in Russia well before the Revolution. As with Socialism, kindergarten’s proponents saw it as a potential way to achieve “a better more equitable world for the working class.” But nowhere were the effects of kindergarten more widely felt than on the aesthetic front. Brosterman argues that children of the classic kindergarten era were in effect “programmed” to see the world in a new way. On the gridded surfaces of the special tables where they stacked blocks and pin-pricked patterns, these youngsters learned how to deconstruct and reconstruct representational space. Fertilized by the humus of kindergarten, the western aesthetic sensibility was reconfigured and Brosterman proposes that the visual revolution of the next century can be seen as an evolutionary outgrowth of this educational experiment.
Paper cutting album of Ina Getz. U.S., dated 1889.

Of the forces that supposedly brought modern art into being, a wide range of factors have been cited - industrialization, the “machine age,” and psychosexual emancipation. Though kindergarten has never been “fodder for argument over absinthe and Gauloises in Montmartre cafes,” Bosterman suggests that its influence on modern art “has been largely ignored because its participants were in the primary band of the scholastic spectrum.” To which we may add that the gender of its practitioners was overwhelmingly female. In the standard narratives of art-historical criticism, women are not only absent from the canon of modern masters, but female activities, interests and occupations have been cast as mostly irrelevant to the movement itself. This exhibition challenges that view, locating women and children at the origin of this aesthetic upheaval.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who grew up to Le Corbusier, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller are all documented attendees of kindergarten. Other so-called “form-givers” of the modern era – including Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky - were educated in an environment permeated by Froebelian influence. Prefigured in the workbooks of the nineteenth century kindergarteners, the artistic revolution of the twentieth century played itself out in painting, sculpture, graphic design and architecture, fundamentally altering our visual landscape. Affinities with kindergarten’s atomistic underpinnings may also be detected in the digitizing techniques of the computer age and in the structuralist perspectives used by Claude Levi-Strauss and Jean Piaget to understand the human mind.

Sadly, while the twentieth century has been permeated by Froebelian effects, the one place where Froebel’s trace can barely now be seen is kindergarten itself. What we experience today in infant school is a vastly diluted version of the rigorous and ultimately spiritual vision he laid out. Seeing the works in this exhibition we are confronted with the idea that as a society we have a choice to take the education of the very young as a sacred duty, or not. The Jesuits have always understood the point: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” they proclaim. The three-to-seven year olds who were lucky enough to be born at the right time and in the right places to attend Froebelian kindergartens grew up and changed the world. Imagine what further revolutions may yet await us if, to use Plato’s felicitous phrase, the soul of every nursling was nourished by the educational abundance witnessed here.

Suggested exercises with the first gift. From plate 1b. Practical Guide to the English Kindergarten by Johann and Berthan Ronge, London, 1855