Froebel devoted the third through sixth gifts to building. In “The Education of Man” he wrote,
“Building, aggregation, is first with the child, as it is first in the development of mankind, and in crystallization. The importance of the vertical, the horizontal, and the rectangular is the first experience which the boy gather from his building; then follow equilibrium and symmetry. Thus he ascends from the construction of the simplest wall with or without cement to the more complex and even to the invention of every architectural structure lying within the possibilities of the given material.”
As a child American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) was introduced to the Froebel blocks by his mother who was a teacher. She had seen them at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia. (Taliesen East, Wright’s home and studio, is in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It lies about 60 miles from Watertown where the first American Kindergarten was opened in 1855 by a woman who had studied with Froebel in Germany.) The impact of the Froebel blocks on his development has been discussed in detail by architectural historians and critics. Wright described the gifts,
“The strips of colored paper, glazed and matte, remarkably soft brilliant colors. Now came the geometric byplay of those charming checkered combinations! The structural figures to be made with the peas and globes. The smooth shapely maple with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers: form becoming feeling.”
“small interior world of color and form now came within grasp of small fingers. Color and pattern, in the flat, in the round. Shapes that lay hidden behind the appearance all about.....” Further, he said the virtue of the materials “lay in the awakening of the child-mind to rhythmic structure in Nature-giving the child a sense of innate cause-and-effect otherwise far beyond child comprehension.....”
Art and architecture are a vital part of everyday living. As adults, students will be responsible for decisions which affect our communities. Although architecture is seldom taught is elementary schools, it deserves a place of importance in the learning process. The goal is not necessarily to create architects but knowledgeable citizens prepared to make practical and aesthetic decisions. It is appropriate also to present a meaningful, aesthetic education beginning in the early childhood curriculum.
The block area of an early childhood classroom is a logical place to introduce architecture as part of the math, art and language arts curriculum. A vital component of current reform is integration of curricular areas, removing the artificial lines that have been drawn in recent decades. Building blocks plus imagination could lead in any curricular direction. The curriculum might include basic elements of architecture, vocabulary, related careers, names of important buildings and architects, all of which can easily become part of a young child’s body of knowledge.
I taught Kindergarten for five years. I was surprised to find that many children showed no interest in the block area. One year, the corner was completely ignored for the first few weeks of school. I re-arranged the blocks to make them more accessible and attractive and waited patiently. Only a few children ventured into the area to play. Their lack of familiarity with blocks soon became obvious but what really caught my attention was the number of children who tried to build from the top down. Of course, the blocks responded to gravity and fell to the floor, the children then lost interest and abandoned them. George E. Trogler states in “Beginning Experiences in Architecture” “...children...have an intuitive sense of balance and a desire for organization in their designs.”
In “Why Buildings Fall Down,” Mario Salvadori says “Structural behavior can be understood by the uninitiated on the basis of physical intuition and without appeal to physics or math....”
These statements raise questions in my mind now, although I may have taken them for granted in the past. I don’t know if this knowledge is innate, it might be based on some prior experience. It seems that the children I observed had not developed an intuitive sense about building. What is the prior experience that leads to this sense? Which brings us back to my concern regarding the lack of traditional play experiences in the preschool years. We can no longer assume that our children have this knowledge when they come to school.
An appropriate place to introduce block building may be with the sequence described by Eleanor Robinson which begins with stacking. Indeed, I found it necessary to sit on the floor with my students to initiate the activity and to model building from the bottom up. (The bottom up concept was reinforced in other areas such as counting on graphs and with towers of blocks). I saw that once they understood this, they began to play with the blocks more often and to experiment on their own.