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Science Is Child's Play

by Jyllian Kemsley
September 21, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 38

Credit: C. W. Bardeen
Credit: C. W. Bardeen

A s millions of preschoolers, my daughter included, move up to the big leagues of kindergarten this month, let’s consider an interesting bit of history: Kindergarten’s origins are ENTWINED WITH CRYSTALLOGRAPHY.

Friedrich Fröbel, who was born in Germany in 1782, is credited with inventing kindergarten. Two things stand out about Fröbel’s career path. First, in 1805, he became a teacher at the Frankfurt Model School and spent the ensuing five years being indoctrinated in the pedagogical philosophy of Johann H. Pestalozzi, a contemporary educational reformer in Switzerland who believed that learning is done better with observation and hands-on experience than with lectures and recitations.

Second, after a stint in the Prussian army, Fröbel spent two years cataloging crystals for University of Berlin mineralogist Christian Samuel Weiss, learning an early crystal classification system based on the axial intercepts of developed facets.

“So thoroughly does [Fröbel] sink himself in this occupation that his soul gets a distinct crystallographic bent which lasts through life and is seen in all his schemes of education,” wrote Fröbel’s biographer Denton J. Snider in 1900. “He sees nature shooting into right lines out of chaos, thus she begins to take on her forms. He is working back to the primitive cosmical energy and beholding the universe organize itself. All of this he will hereafter apply to the unfolding of man, and specially of the child, who also begins with an inner chaos which must organize itself mainly through education.”

From 1816 to 1837, Fröbel established schools in Germany and Switzerland for older children and began publishing writings on his educational philosophy. He opened his first school for early childhood education in 1837 and coined the term “kindergarten,” or children’s garden, in 1839.

Early influence:
Credit: Beverly Kemsley
My daughter, when she was younger, examining block towers built by her engineer uncle.
Credit: Beverly Kemsley
My daughter, when she was younger, examining block towers built by her engineer uncle.

Key to Fröbel’s kindergarten were his “gifts,” or materials that children were to use in directed play. These included balls on strings; wooden spheres, cylinders, and cubes with holes bored through various axes so they could be spun on dowels; building blocks; flat square and triangular parquetry tiles; and sticks, rings, and small spheres that he called points.

Weaving, “pea and stick” work (the connecting of lines through points, akin to today’s molecular modeling sets), and molding clay were the next extensions of Fröbel’s approach.

The first kindergarten in the U.S. was established in Watertown, Wis., in 1856. The school happened to be near the childhood home of Frank Lloyd Wright, who credited his Fröbel-influenced early education as the basis for his later architectural success. Some historians argue that, beyond Wright, many of the pioneers of modern art and architecture were students in Fröbelian kindergartens.

And in a paper in Crystal Growth & Design , Bart Kahr, now a chemistry professor at New York University, suggests that perhaps the early relative success of women in X-ray crystallography compared with that in other fields of the physical sciences was due to the fact that “many girls were exposed to crystallography in kindergarten, before being systemically shut out of the study of the natural sciences by conventional schooling biases” (Cryst. Growth Des. 2004, 4, 3).

I don’t know how much Fröbel’s early lessons continue to influence today’s kindergartens, but I did spy some parquetry tablets in my daughter’s classroom. Perhaps this goes to show that at least some things scientists need to know, they did in fact learn in kindergarten.

Jyllian Kemsley wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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