Kindergarten And Crystallography

As my daughter starts kindergarten this week, I thought I’d share an interesting bit of history that I learned recently: Kindergarten’s origins are entwined with crystallography.



Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852) is the man credited with inventing kindergarten. Two things stand out about Fröbel’s career path: First, he became a teacher at the Frankfurt Model School in 1805 and spent the ensuing five years being indoctrinated in Johann Pestalozzi‘s philosophy that learning is better based on observation and hands-on experience rather than in lectures and recitations.

Then, after a stint in the Prussian army, Fröbel spent two years cataloging crystals for Christian Samuel Weiss, learning an early crystal classification system based on the axial intercepts of developed facets. About Fröbel’s experience there, biographer D. J. Snider wrote:

Little society [Fröbel] has except the crystal, he becomes a crystal himself, and learns its speech. So thoroughly does he sink himself in this occupation that his soul gets a distinct crystallographic bent which last through life and is seen in all his schemes of education. … The crystallographer secretly works away in his chamber, like a crystal slowly and quietly forming itself. 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.(1)

From 1816 to 1837, Fröbel established a couple of schools in Germany and Switzerland for older children and began to publish his educational philosophy. He opened his first school for early childhood education in 1837 and coined the term “kindergarten” in 1839.

My daughter, age 2.5, examining block towers built by her engineer uncle.

My daughter, when she was younger, examining block towers built by her engineer uncle.

Key to Fröbel’s kindergarten were his “gifts,” which children were to use in directed play:
1. Brightly colored woolen balls on strings.
2. A set of solid wooden shapes–spheres, cylinders, and cubes–bored with holes through various axes so children could spin them on dowels.
3. A set of cubic building blocks.
4. A set of rectilinear building blocks with the ratio 1:2:4, able to form a cube when stacked together.
5 & 6. Sets of blocks of cubes cut along the diagonals in halves or quarters.
7. Parquetry tablets (sets of colored square and triangular tiles).
8. Lines (sticks).
9. Rings and half-rings.
10. Points (small spheres).

Braiding (weaving), “pea and stick” work (the connecting of lines through points), and clay modeling were the next extensions of Fröbel’s approach.

The first kindergarten in the U.S. was established in Watertown, Wisc., 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 and 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 to 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.”(2)

I’ll be curious to see this year whether my daughter’s kindergarten curriculum shows any sign of its Fröbelian roots. In the meantime, I’m eyeing a set of parquetry tablets for her birthday.

(1) Snider, D. J. The Life of Frederick Froebel, Founder of the Kindergarten; Sigma Publishing: Chicago, 1900, as quoted in Cryst. Growth Des. 2004, 4, 3.
(2) Cryst. Growth Des. 2004, 4, 3.

Further reading:
Brosterman, N. Inventing Kindergarten; Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002.
Rubin, J. S. Intimate Triangle: Architecture of Crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Froebel Kindergarten; Polycrystal Book Service, Huntsville, Alabama, 2003.

Photo credits:
Fröbel photo–C.W. Bardeen, at the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons
Blocks photo–Beverly Kemsley

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I am concerned about the early reading now in Kgn. During the years that I taught, research was showing that rdg so early put strain on the eyes, so this is what I believed.

    Interesting article!

  2. My mother-in-law was one of those early women crystallographers – I wonder if she she was a product of these kindergarten classes?!