A. Solids. (Plastic clay, card-board work, wood- carving, etc.)
B. Surfaces. (Paper-folding, paper-cutting, parquetry, painting, etc.)
C. Lines. (Interlacing, intertwining, weaving, thread games, embroidery, drawing, etc.)
D. Points. (Stringing beads, buttons, etc.; perforating, etc.)
The core of Froebel’s ideas is seen in the Second Gift, a wooden sphere, a cube and a cylinder. These were not random choices, as all of the materials he created were expressions of his mystical and philosophical nature. He believed that a boy’s spiritual development resulted from an understanding of his world. (Froebel’s reforms did not extend to girls). The sphere with rounded sides is the opposite of a cube which has defined edges. The cylinder is a combination of the two. Opposites merged in one object, or in Hegelian terms, thesis and antithesis yielded synthesis.
The distinction between the “Gifts” and “Occupations” was that the gifts were “intended to give the child from time to time new universal aspects of the external world, suited to a child’s development. The occupations, on the other hand, furnish material for practice in certain phases of the skill..........nothing but the First Gift can so effectively arouse in the child’s mind the feeling and consciousness of a world of individual things; but there are numberless occupations that will enable the child to become skillful in the manipulation of surfaces......The gift leads to discovery; the occupation to invention. The gift gives insight; the occupation, power..............The occupations are one-sided; the gifts, many-sided, universal. The occupations touch only certain phases of being; the gifts enlist the whole being of the child.....each gift should ...aid the child to make the external internal, the internal external, and to find the unity between the two.”
The block systems that made up the Third through Sixth Gifts were the most widely used of Froebel’s materials. He described them;
“The material for building in the beginning should consist of a number of wooden blocks whose base is always one inch square and whose length varies from one to twelve inches. If, then, we take twelve pieces of each length, two sets—e.g., the pieces one and eleven, the pieces two and ten inches long, etc.- will always make up a layer an inch thick and covering one foot of square surface; so that all the pieces, together with a few larger pieces, occupy a space of somewhat more than half a cubic foot. It is best to keep these in a box that has exactly these dimensions; such a box may be used in many ways in instruction, as will appear in the progress of a boys development.”
“The character and purpose of these plays may be described as follows: They are a coherent system, starting at each stage from the simplest activity and progressing to the most diverse and complex manifestations of it. The purpose of each one of them is to instruct human beings so that they may progress as individuals and members of humanity is all its various relationships. Collectively they form a complete whole, like a many branched tree, whose parts explain and advance each other. Each is a self-contained whole, a seed from which manifold new developments may spring to cohere in further unity. They cover the whole field of intuitive and sensory instruction and lay the basis for all further teaching. They begin to establish spatial relationships and proceed to sensory and language training so that eventually man comes to see himself as a sentient, intelligent and rational being and as such strives to live......”
The Industrial Revolution and the need to teach children technical and industrially related skills led to widespread interest in Kindergarten education and the use of Froebel’s Gifts and Occupations. More than any other block system, Froebel’s contributed to the use of blocks as an integral part of early childhood education.
That these materials are so familiar to us now, nearly 170 years later, is a tribute to their creator. A glance at any of the current catalogues from suppliers of educational materials will confirm the influence Froebel has had on teaching in early childhood and mathematics. Texts about early childhood education commonly begin with a reference to Froebel.
During the late 19th century, blocks became one of the most popular toys in Europe and America. In the United States, the Crandall family dominated the block industry. They developed a system of blocks with a comb-like interlocking mechanism at each end of the block. Jesse Crandall’s Nesting Blocks were patented in 1881. They consisted of a series of successively smaller hollow blocks that fit one inside the other. This design is still one of the most popular block systems in use today. Many different types of alphabet and construction blocks were on the market in the U.S. and Europe during the late 19th century. Among them, the Richter Building Blocks, manufactured in Germany, consisted of various shapes cast in cement. The sets included a grid to guide even placement of the blocks.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the growth of psychology and child study. Educational theorists began to include block play into their curricula for early childhood. Italian educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952), invented a series of toys designed to encourage the child’s sensory, motor and intellectual development. She felt that toys should help the child learn to observe things, to make comparisons between objects, to form judgments and opinions, to reason and make decisions. An example of her block building exercise consisted of ten blocks which diminished in size from ten cm. to one cm. on a side. The child’s task was to stack the blocks in descending order to make a tower. After an initial positive reception and wide recognition of her work in the U.S. prior to the W.W.I, she was later criticized because her work did not encourage spontaneous activity for the child. In fact, free block play was not accepted as valuable learning experience until the early 1920’s.
Following Froebel, the person most responsible for establishing block building into the curriculum was as American, Caroline Pratt. She is best known for the Pratt’s Unit System consisting of blocks based on a proportion of 1:2:4, half as high as they were wide, and twice as long as they were wide. Pratt was inspired by the work of Patty Smith Hill who provided her Kindergartners with blocks for free play in her classes at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Pratt’s Unit System of floor blocks, designed about 1915, are standard equipment in most schools today where they are known simply as Kindergarten Blocks.