Pioneers: Robert Owen and Friedrich Froebel

Estelle Martin
Thursday, November 30, 2017

Among the key pioneers and influencers of early years education, Robert Owen and Friedrich Froebel have left huge legacies.

Key points

  • Robert Owen, a mill owner in Scotland, is credited with opening the first workplace nursery. He believed in social reform, the abolishment of child labour and the welfare of his wokers
  • Owen belived that outdoor experiences were vital for a child’s development and learning
  • Friedrich Froebel believed that children needed to be given the time to be children, and not to be pushed beyond their developmental stage
  • Froebel advocated free-flow play and for early educators to be trained

Note: This article was first published in the October 2007 edition of eye


This the first in a 12-part series examining the work and influence of the great pioneers of early years education. Each month, the series will feature two people who have helped shape our understanding of child development and learning.

Robert Owen (1771 - 1858)

Owen established the first infant school in Britain at New Lanark in Scotland in 1816, following a successful career as a draper, cotton mill manager and mill owner in Manchester. As an industrialist, Owen was not an academic, he was greatly motivated to improve the circumstances of his workers and their children, by developing a more humane society, where the poor were treated with respect and working conditions and housing improved.

He read widely and was interested in social reform. He was not religious and believed in the influence of nurture and that the way children were educated and treated were significant – people became a product of their environment. Owen was an early socialist and was a founder member of the Co-operative Society.

Owen set about improving conditions by establishing facilities for his workers at New Lanark. Opening the school for children in the community was an important milestone for early childhood education. This created a model of community living that Owen wanted to develop into an improved society that reflected greater social justice and improved quality of life for the poor. His vision led Owen to lobby for the reform of child labour for many years.

Owen had an education philosophy that highlighted the ways in which children were educated in their earliest years. He believed that the experiences provided for young children have a long-term impact on development and later outcomes.

Play, respect, kindness and affection

Owen believed children would flourish if they were shown respect and kindness in their nurturing, upbringing and educational experiences. Thee children were encouraged to always be kind to each other and to show respect to others – Owen placed a strong emphasis on these values. The quality of interactions between adults and children was reflected by a nurturing and tolerant ethos that was respectful to children, in the belief that children learnt to be social and respectful through role-modelling by the adults.

The environment included a playground area, and was designed to specifically allow the children to experience the outdoors. Owen advocated interaction with the environment to provide children with a more holistic education for overall health and wellbeing. e children were able to be outside and be involved in physical activities, incorporating music and singing and dancing. Natural materials and objects were available for the children to investigate, allowing them to discover the properties and possibilities of the materials and living processes through the use of their senses.

The importance of an outside area and garden for growing and nurturing living plants was integral to the school curriculum, facilitating children’s health and development, through the rich diversity of outdoor experience. It also provided challenges and curiosity in children, and facilitated social interaction.

Children were able to move freely between the indoors and outdoors, emphasising that the interaction between the two was important in young children’s learning. Play was central to the experience and was integrated throughout the school day.

Children were able to attend the facility between the ages of two and six-years-old, and would quite often stay on until the age of 10. The school community also provided instruction and learning for adults. Education for all embodied the whole-community approach to New Lanark society, advocated by Owen.

The care and education of children in groups,while parents worked, provided a safe and secure many years. environment for the children of the community. It has been described as the earliest form of integrated childcare. The influence of Owen was evident in the teaching and learning process that allowed children to explore and play in unison, learning together through concrete experiences. The role of creative arts and the natural environment were central to this process.

Owen lead the way in ameliorating child labour and pioneered the early school movement. He worked to improve conditions for the poor in society and shared his ideas about equality and social justice widely.

Friedrich Froebel (1782 - 1852)

Froebel initiated the kindergarten system of education for young children in the early part of the 20th century. The first kindergartens were established in Germany, and then throughout Europe and America, during the 1850s and 1860s, and soon developed as an international movement. He published The Education of Man in 1826.

Froebel still has considerable influence in the field of early childhood education in contemporary times, particularly with the importance he placed on play in children’s holistic development and learning.

Kindergartens were places where children could develop and integrate all of their abilities by means of play, and where they could instruct and educate themselves with the help of trained educators.

Froebel had a strong religious and spiritual belief, which appeared to underpin his way of perceiving the education of children. He believed that children needed to be protected in a way that allowed their natural growth and development to emerge within a context of tolerance and respect. is, he believed, would lead to an improved society.

Play, Interaction and environment

For his time, he pioneered a unique approach to the understanding of children’s activities and the way in which they learn. He showed that it was essential to give children a wide range of real and meaningful experiences if they were to arrive at an awareness of both themselves and the world around them.

These experiences should essentially be play-based, and allow children to develop their creative and expressive selves. Froebel believed that play was a serious and deeply significant activity for the young child. He also stressed the importance of play, imagination and relationships as central to a child’s learning (Bruce, 1997).

For Froebel, relationships and interaction with other children and adults were very important. A teacher who participated in children’s activities, talked to them and conversed with them, and who cared for their inner (mental, spiritual, emotional life) would soon be recognised by the child as a person to be trusted (Liebschner, 1985, cited in Bruce 1991).

The involvement of parents with their children in play activities was very much a feature of the Froebel kindergarten; he emphasised the mutuality in play activities where adults come to understand their children’s interests and learning by joining them in play, rather than directing the play.

Froebel did not believe that children should be pressured into producing certain outcomes when they played, or to develop particular abilities. He saw play as voluntary and self-initiated; allowing an integration of skills and reflective thinking through experimentation and learning. For Froebel, play-enabled an integration of learning and positive self-awareness in children. It also developed a unity between what is learnt, the self and unity with others – and ultimately with god.

The framework promoted by Froebel has three related aspects, which children could learn through experience – activity, emotions and intellect. Children learn through being active and these active experiences result in both emotional and cognitive responses. He believed that play facilitates an exchange between these aspects, producing in the child a sense of satisfaction and wellbeing.

Stages in development

The belief that children pass through developmental stages was a part of the way in which the approach was applied in practice; meaning that practitioners were required to observe and respond to the individual child’s level, or stage of development. The education for each of these stages was provided to match what he considered was most suitable for the needs of the individual child.

Froebel did create play objects for the children to use, these are known as the ‘gifts and occupations’. These materials were intended to promote a variety of opportunities, to develop abilities and exploratory play and to discover the properties of the gifts within each stage. The six sets of playthings (the gifts) he devised formed a sequence that started with a number of soft balls, and which led onto wooden spheres, cubes and cylinders and blocks.

Occupations would include painting, folding paper, designing, singing, creative expression and so on. The role of adults in kindergartens was to plan and supervise these activities. The gifts, occupations, singing games, stories and talk, all facilitated the child’s learning.

To some critics, this mixture of directed and free-flow play displayed a conflict in the curriculum. However, the philosophy and practice employed by Froebel evolved over time to provide an education that reflected the child’s development and interests rather than as a prescriptive curriculum.

The notion that children need to be given time to experience the stage they are in before being prematurely moved forward to the next stage was clearly an important principle for Froebel.

He promoted and understood the necessity for free-flow play for the children to realise their potential within their stage of development, especially outdoors in the garden – kindergarten translates literally as ‘the children’s garden’.

Froebel considered the study of nature, and the experience of nature by contact with plants and animals in the natural environment, as a powerful medium for learning, incorporating both moral and spiritual elements. He had a strong belief that the natural environment connected us with each other and god; that education starts with our relationship with the environment and the people we relate to in our world, leading towards improved unity.

The idea that educators of young children should be trained was also a key tenet of Froebel’s philosophy. His ideas about early childhood education led to a body of knowledge that could be understood and shared by both practitioners and parents and led directly to the establishment of the first teacher training college for women.

Froebel’s philosophy and his principles of early education are still relevant to early childhood educators. The child’s development and learning is viewed holistically and the child is respected and trusted to be intrinsically motivated through both self-initiated play and in relationships with others.

Reading list

Brehony KJ, Froebel F (2001) The Origins of Nursery Education: Friedrich Froebel and the English system. Routledge: London

Bruce T (1987) Early Childhood Education. Hodder & Stoughton: London

Bruce T (1991) Time to Play in Early in Early Childhood Education. Hodder & Stoughton: London

Donnachie I (2000) Robert Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony. Tuckwell Press: East Lothian: Scotland

Liebschner J (1991) Foundations of Progressive Education. Lutterworth Press: Cambridge

Liebscner J (1992) A Child s work: freedom and play in Froebel s educational theory and practice. Lutterworth Press: Cambridge

Owen R (1971) Life of Robert Owen by himself. Charles Knight & Co ltd: London (originally published in 1857).

Royle E (1998) Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millenium. Manchester University Press: Manchester

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