Introducing Froebel’s Gifts (Ep. 354)

Of the many presentations available in the NOW Conference After Pass, one that stood out to a lot of people was from Ruth Byrne discussing Froebel’s Gifts. Today, she joins Tim to talk about Froebel’s Gifts and how she utilizes them with her youngest students. Listen as they discuss where she first learned about the gifts, how she introduces them in her classroom, and what her students can learn when working with them. Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

If you have been listening to the podcast over the past month, you probably know that we had the NOW Conference over the weekend, and I have to say it was spectacular. Amanda and I were down in Florida and did the conference. We did an in-person event with a bunch of amazing art teachers from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and a few spaces around there as well, and then on Sunday, we had a day of asynchronous learning, just a ton of great resources available and a plethora of wonderful presentations through the NOW Conference. One of the presentations that really stood out to a lot of people, one that we received a lot of great feedback on was Ruth Byrne talking about Froebel’s Gifts.

Now, I will let Ruth explain Froebel’s Gifts as she can actually give a much better explanation than I can, but I am fascinated by how she uses Froebel’s Gifts to teach her youngest kids. The idea of utilizing forms and blocks, breaking them down to help kids understand the space and form and further on down to shape and even further down to line, and then building back up from there, it’s just a fascinating concept, and I really love hearing Ruth talk about that. Again, I will let her give you the better explanation, but I think you’ll be intrigued by the conversation today, so let me bring her on now. All right. Ruth Byrne is here with me now. Ruth, how are you?

Ruth: Hey, I’m doing very well. How are you?

Tim: I am doing very well also. I guess, can we just kind of start today, since this is your first time on the podcast, with an introduction to who you are, where you teach, what you do in your classroom, and I guess just anything else you want to share?

Ruth: Absolutely. I’m Ruth, Ruth Byrne. I teach art to students from pre-K to sixth grade in Mansfield Township in New Jersey. It’s kind of a little rural place, but a little bit suburban, super cool place to be, best job in the world. I think a lot of your listeners probably already know that. One of the reasons we’re speaking, I think, is because my courses that I teach have a special focus on my students, especially my youngest students, learning through a series of blocks and sticks and crafts that systematically build this sort of spatial awareness while they’re also building up drawing skills. It’s a great way for the kids to be creative, and it’s a simple method and a really old method based on Froebel’s Gifts.

Tim: All right, so that’s incredible. First of all, I love everything you’re doing. I’m super excited to have everybody hear all about this, but we probably need to start with just Froebel’s Gifts. What are they? Can you give us an explanation of what they are? Maybe talk about where you first found them, first encountered them, and maybe talk about how you decided to bring them into your classroom.

Ruth: Absolutely. I mean, the gifts, the Froebel’s Gifts thing is all I ever talk about, dinner parties, you get me in an elevator, I’m telling you about Froebel’s Gifts, so absolutely my pleasure to be here sharing about it. Froebel’s Gifts are the blocks and sticks and tools and other things that were used in the very first kindergarten ever invented in 1837 by Friedrich Froebel. This was in Prussia, and it was a very different place, and at the time was having this sort of rebirth of liberal thought, and at the time was looking at different ways to school children. Froebel was kind of caught up in this movement of, “Well, what do we do with our youngest kids? How do we get them to really get the most out of their brains?” This kind of predates the formal schooling that kind of is bell-ringing, factory-worker schooling, it predates that a little bit.

Friedrich Froebel had this background in mineral structures that he then took into this ideas about educating young children, and he applied all this stuff he knew about the way crystals were built by breaking down the world into geometric parts for kids. So, he gives them cubes, he gives them a bunch of cube blocks to play with, then he gives them rectangular prisms to play with, and then he gives them flat shapes to play with and put together in geometric sort of waves, and then he progresses down from those 3D cubes to those 2D shapes to these sticks that represent lines, and I usually call it 1D to drive the point home for my kids, but cubes, shapes, lines. He gets all the way down to 1D and he lets the kids break the world down into parts and then build it back up again with the parts that he’s given them, and it’s all in their little hands, so it’s all very hands-on play. That’s the gifts in a nutshell. It’s very Euclidean, it’s very cool, and it’s very fun for kids to access. I first-

Tim: Yeah, I love all that. No, I didn’t mean to interrupt there, but yeah, I would love to know where you first found out about all these and when you brought them into your classroom.

Ruth: Of course. I found out through a podcast, of course. They’re the best, right? I was listening to 99% Invisible, great podcast, and it brought up just here’s Froebel’s Gifts, isn’t this weird that this happened, that it spread throughout all these different countries? Lots of super famous artists of the time used Froebel’s Gifts as children. Through this podcast, I kind of learned that, yeah, it brought about the audience and the artists of the modern era of art. Mondrian trained as a teacher after being exposed to the gifts during his teacher training, went on to break his pictures apart into pieces. Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee both went to a Froebelian kindergarten, and then they were famous for their abstraction of the world into shapes and colors and lines and things. So, it also is argued that the taste-makers that were viewing their art were also going to Froebelian kindergartens at the time and were used to breaking the world apart into shapes, and therefore were receptive to the abstractions that came along at that turn of the century point.

So, when I heard that, I was like, “Wait, art relied on kindergarten to succeed? Is my kindergarten doing that kind of thing for the art world in the future? What’s my kindergarten doing? Is it leaving a mark on kids that are going to be future artists? What’s the mark? Should I reexamine it?” I immediately knew I had to go investigate more and find out more about Froebel’s Gifts so that I could see if it could be applied in a modern art class and build up that visual language for the kids there the way it had done in the 1800s.

Tim: I think there’s just something cool about hearing a story or hearing something that you connect with so much and then it makes you sort of reexamine everything that you’re doing with teaching. Like you say, when I’m thinking to myself, “Is my kindergarten doing that?” that’s an incredible way to think about your teaching, and I think it’s amazing to, like I said, find an idea that inspires you so much and makes you think about, like I said, everything that you’re doing. So, let me ask you though, I’m very curious about what your students reactions are when you’re, I guess, first introducing them and then when they’re working with them a little bit more. So, in your experience, how do kids first interact with Froebel’s Gifts when you’re first introducing it, how do they respond when they have a little bit more familiarity, and then what does it look like when they’re more familiar and those interactions are starting to maybe evolve into more independent work or more independent play?

Ruth: Absolutely. Because that original kindergarten did have its prescriptive elements, so I try to interplay a little bit of the prescriptive parts at the front end of working with the blocks and then allow for a lot of independent exploration towards the end. So, to start with, I mean, when you bring out blocks in a kindergarten classroom, the kids are excited, generally speaking. They’re like, “Oh, great, this is right in my wheelhouse. I already know how to do this stuff.” So, when I bring them out, they’re already excited, and even these super simple 8-cubes, that’s all I give them is 8-cubes. They’re always asking for one more. They think they need nine. I don’t know why nine is the magic number and not eight, but I’m like, “No, guys, here’s eight.”

We always start out with the 8-cubes because if you stack those together, you could make a larger cube, and I give them this sort of really slow intro. We’re examining one cube and seeing what the faces of it are and running our fingers along the sides and finding the corners. It’s almost like having a horse held back by the reins. They want to go, but you have to hold them back just a tiny bit, and it gives them a moment to really do some deep looking at this object and what its possibilities might be. We take a moment to take those 8-blocks, split them in half so that there’s two sets of four, split them in half again, so we have four sets of two, this is sort of this holistic math lesson almost happening in the art classroom, and we recombine them to make the cube again.

Now they’re really comfortable taking apart and mending the blocks, this making everything whole again, which is another great attitude for the students to have. I can take things apart, but I can make them whole. I can go use all the crayons, but I can put them back. So, they start off with that really formal investigation with me, and then they start to build. I’ll say, “Hey, now, these are your blocks. You know them so well, why don’t you build with them?” And they start to build like towers, easy, castles, cool, chairs, beds, diner tables. It’s really neat to see. They get free rain for a little while, and they really come up with a lot of different stuff, and sitting together at tables, they see what other students are doing and are able to copy which gives them a lot of reading across the table skills as well.

Then finally, as soon as they’ve gotten into this stasis of, “Okay, I made a tower. I knocked it down. I made another tower. I don’t have another idea,” I give them a sheet of the original Froebel’s Gifts exercises that would have this is what it looks like when you build a well, and it’ll have a certain set of blocks, and the kids trying to copy from the picture onto their blocks what they see on the sheet. This, I almost call them puzzle sheets, I’ll give them these puzzle sheets and they try to figure out a couple of the puzzles. And then they’re really ready for it. They had the time to play, they had the time to investigate, and now they’re ready to build based on translation of a visual image into their hands.

So, that’s kind of the intro, nice and slow, a little free play, and then let’s try out a few things to see if we can expand your vocabulary of how these blocks can fit together and how space can be manipulated. After that, we’ve kind of done the full course of Froebel’s Gifts, and we’re ready to do how do we tie this into our art room situation. So, this is where we get the kids to evolve into a more independent play where, okay, we looked at Froebel’s Gifts, we looked at these cubes, now let’s look at a famous artist that kind of has geometric stuff going on inside of it and see if we can adapt to that. So, we’ll look at M.C. Escher and say, “Hey, these staircases, we just made a bunch of those. Why don’t we make them again?” or collaborate, “You put your 8-cubes with his 8-cubes, we’ll make the biggest staircase ever and cut paper dolls and go up and down them.”

So, we get into a little bit more like hands-on art making. We get into a little bit more of creative play where the kids are really storytelling with their creations and coming out with something physical because I know that’s important to them too. They really do love to have something that they walk away with.

Tim: So, I love hearing about all of that, and yeah, I like the idea of looking at Escher, building staircases, and then working with different media and adding even more to that. I think that’s really, really cool. I’m also fascinated by the idea of what you talked about earlier was starting with three dimensions, going down to two, going down to one, breaking things down, and then building them back up again. I guess that leads me to… Sorry, I’m asking very long questions here, but I’m fascinated by all of it.

Ruth: It’s all good.

Tim: But I guess what I’m trying to get at is how does artistic thinking evolve as students are continuing to work with the gifts, to play with the gifts? How does it progress? Thinking about that 3, 2, 1 and then back up, what kinds of things are they learning, and how are they putting that into action?

Ruth: Yeah, it’s fascinating to see and to actually implement as well. So, I just gave the example of the kids working with three-dimensional objects to make three-dimensional objects. Pretty straightforward, right? But every gift, so these cubes, again, can then be flattened out and you can kind of use them that all the squares have to be laying on the table and it almost becomes like mosaic, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Ruth: So, we’re taking our three-dimensional objects, now we’re designing things in two dimensions instead. If you continue with the gifts, and this is something, if I had my cubes, then I went to my rectangular prisms, which is something I love to do, but even if I skipped those, I could take my three-dimensional objects and then I could say, “Okay, what if we squish them flat? What can we do with them now? So, those beautiful staircases that we made in three dimensions, if you just had a stamp, a square stamp, could you still make a staircase?”

The kids are then able to take that, okay, I made a three-dimensional staircase thought to, okay, it can’t be that hard now to just stamp five squares in diagonal and I have a flat staircase that’s on a piece of paper. Traditionally two with the gifts, after you have your cubes, you’re given shapes, either triangles or squares, really any shape, and you are meant to kind of design with those shapes different patterns and different arrangements and be able to rotate them around and translate them around. So, students are getting, again, those translation skills, the visual translation skills. Their teachers are going to be overjoyed if you do this because that whole idea of being able to read on the board and write on your paper is so enhanced in Froebel’s Gifts because you’re looking at a paper and translating it into life, or you’re taking what’s in life and translating it back onto the paper.

So, those translation skills that are so good for drawing are being built up one little step at a time with the gifts because you are starting with your three-dimensional cubes, then you’re giving the students two-dimensional shapes that they can do similar things with, especially if you give them squares after they’ve used cubes, they can build similar pictures to what they did with their cubes, and then finally moving on to those sticks that we mentioned, they’re more like a representation of a line. My kindergarten students, after they’ve used their cubes, after they’ve used their shapes, they’ll go onto to using popsicle sticks and drawing with them, and it brings it all the way down to a single line which they can make any shape with. Since they’ve worked with so many different shapes at this point, it’s kind of easy for them to bring up those shapes again. Since they’ve made a giraffe out of triangles, they should be able to make it out of the sticks now.

It’s pretty cool to see that translation happen because it is really self-generated. The kids are doing the work. I’m not standing up at the front of the room and saying, “This giraffe is made out of triangles.” They did it. They wanted to make baby Yoda or a giraffe or whatever, and then they did it, and then when you give them the sticks, they did it again. It’s all that self-generated stuff that’s still like living inside of them at kindergarten or in the younger grades is just not being squelched, it’s allowed to survive, and it’s being supported where they may have wanted to draw these things and not had the skills. They were very gradually stepped into that process without feeling like they had to be going slow, because every step of the process is fascinating, is interesting, and is a creative expression that’s worth their time, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Ruth: So, that progression down to 1D, that line, is really cool to watch in kindergarten, and then I’d have to stretch it out. You know how the year goes. It’s over before you know it.

Tim: Right, right.

Ruth: Next is I go back up and we take that 1D line and the students are drawing with a 1D line with the popsicle sticks, and then they start drawing on grid paper. They start perforating the grid paper and creating points on either end of a line, so getting that sort of understanding that a line is actually just a connection between two points, and then they start sewing. They start embroidering between the points. They reconnect the points into lines. They start to fold papers and make lines turn into shapes, and then cut papers to make those lines turn into shapes. One of the other artists that was inspired or used Froebel’s Gifts in his early life was Buckminster Fuller.

Tim: Oh yeah.

Ruth: This is amazing, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Ruth: The final gifts are the peas and sticks. That’s where you have the little pieces of clay and you stick toothpicks in it, and you can make three-dimensional objects with your toothpicks and your clay. What’s a Buckyball? It’s just peas and sticks. It’s just amazing. He and Frank Lloyd Wright as well, also big on his Froebel’s Gifts as well. His mother bought them from Milton Bradley and used them in their house all the time. These design thinking skills are proven kind of to work through these artists.

Tim: Yeah, that’s incredible. I don’t know, just as soon as you said Buckminster Fuller, I start thinking of a geodesic dome, and then I think of Froebel’s Gifts and everything you’re describing, and it just makes perfect sense. It all fits together so well.

Ruth: It falls into place.

Tim: All right. Well, as you can tell, I’m very excited about all of these ideas. I wish we could talk forever, but we can’t. So, just one last, I guess, final question for you. I’m hoping that everybody who’s listening also has sort of wheels spinning in their head about how they can incorporate this, but I would just love advice from you. For somebody who wants to try and work with for Froebel’s Gifts with their student, where can they find the pieces, the manipulatives, the gifts? How do you get started with them? What kinds of things should they know if they’re going to try and introduce this to their students?

Ruth: Absolutely. One of the easiest things to do is these cubes. They’re widely available on the internet. So, I have a bunch of wooden cubes in my classroom, and you can get them on most online retailers. If you search up like one-inch woodcraft cubes, it comes up all over the place, and you can get nice bulk, pretty cheap objects. On the other hand too, a lot of math manipulative closets have foam tubes that are one-inch as well. So, you might walk down to the kindergarten hallway and be like, “Hey, you got foam cubes?” and they’ll be like, “Yeah, we got a whole bunch.” You say, “Thank you,” and go on your merry way. You don’t have to spend a dime.

But yeah, you can get those cubes so easily, and then that is just such a great place to start. It’s such a wonderful place for kindergartners to start too because they can come into that confidence that they need in the classroom right off the bat. They don’t have to learn how to hold a pencil first or cut or whatever. They’ll get there, but you give them this confidence to start with. It’s incredible. So, go find those cubes online or in the kindergarten math closet, and then there’s so many ways to do the shape portion. If we’re thinking just of the 3D, 2D, 1D progression, get those cubes.

Then for shapes, you could cut them out of foam. You could make them out of paper. You could use stamping instead of having shapes to a range as blocks or manipulatives, although I highly recommend the manipulatives, but there are all kinds of… Even those shape drawing blocks that they have in kindergartens with the yellow hexagon and the red trapezoid, pretty ubiquitous. They’re useful too. Froebel had it all divided into just triangles today, just squares today, but you can mix it up a little bit and make it your own.

And then what’s easier than a popsicle stick? I have like 5,000 popsicle sticks in a bin, and it might have cost $5, and that’s what I use for my laying staffs. That’s the 1D line, and that is useful from kindergarten to 12th grade. It’s incredible what freedom the kids get when they’re brainstorming with popsicle sticks instead of a pencil. So, that’s the really accessible part of it is that these cubes might be a journey, go find those. The shapes, super easy to grab or make. And then Popsicle sticks, I swear, they probably have them in their classrooms.

Tim: I think every art teacher has 5,000 popsicle sticks in their classroom.

Ruth: Half of them donated by somebody feeling like they’re doing something really great.

Tim: Exactly.

Ruth: Yeah.

Tim: Cool. All right. Well, Ruth, thank you so much. I appreciate the whole conversation here, just bringing a lot of new ideas. I think what you’re doing is great in your classroom, and I’m really excited that we’re able to share this with everybody. So, thank you.

Ruth: Oh, thanks so much. I’m so excited to share.

Tim: All right. Thank you to Ruth for coming on. I love hearing about everything that she is doing. If you want to see more from Ruth, check out the NOW Conference Afterpass. You can find her video called Utilizing Froebel’s Gifts, along with two great resources that both explain the gifts and show how you can use them in your classroom, and of course, plenty of other presentations and opportunities for learning. That’s what makes the conference what it is. So, thanks for joining me on the podcast today. Thanks for joining us at the conference if you did that as well, and if you miss this one, make sure you sign up for the next one in July. NOW Conference is always a great opportunity, great time, and you don’t want to miss it. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we will talk to you next week.

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