Blocked: Did Kindergarten Invent Modernism?

The maple wood blocks . . . are in my fingers to this day.
– Frank Lloyd Wright

I have recently rekindled my interest in the work of Friedrich Froebel – the educational pioneer often recognized as the inventor/ creator of the kindergarten.

One aspect of this story is the connection between the toys, blocks and shapes that were commonly found in nineteenth century kindergartens and the pioneers of cubism and modern art. Froebel’s methods taught children to recognize simple, repeating, geometric forms. These methods and their accompanying building materials were common when Georges Braque, Piet Mondrian, Frank Lloyd Wright and others began school. It’s the thesis of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten.

The maple wood blocks . . . are in my fingers to this day,” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright.

The blocks in question were the Froebel kindergarten blocks that Wright’s mother – a teacher – bought for him at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Froebel had developed the blocks in the 1830s for children to learn the elements of geometric form, mathematics and creative design. They were known as Fröbelgaben – Froebel gifts – and designed to promote the self-directed play of the child.

The blocks captivated Wright and much of his architectural design was influenced by the geometric shapes he played, built and experimented with as a child.

“These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects . . . which were ever got into the architecture of the world.”

The theory of the broader influence on cubism and modernism is not without controversy as this NY Times article illustrates, but it is a fascinating idea nonetheless. What happens in school has to have a lifelong effect. Otherwise, just what is the point?.

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