Best in Show, Edition 1: Blocks from Froebel and Uncle Goose

While a lot of you may have older kids and are looking for a more dynamic and less classic toy, I am obliged by a sense of first things first to start with a very basic staple of the nursery (as my English mother calls it). Blocks.

Not all blocks are created equal and two lines of blocks stand far and above the others in my view: the original blocks in gift sets by Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of Kindergarten, and the alphabet and decorative blocks by Uncle Goose. I’ll cover Uncle Goose in the next post.

A little connective tissue in the back story here, the main Froebel distributor in the USA is Scott Bultman, whose family started Uncle Goose, where he worked many years, and which is now run by his brother Pete Bultman. Scott started Red Hen Toys, and has teamed up with “Inventing Kindergarten” author and early childhood toy expert Norman Brosterman. Scott and Norman now make the excellent Froebel inspired Kaliedograph sets which I will talk about in a later post.

Froebel Gifts are cumulative learning spread out in sets of ever increasingly complex shapes. His concept matched kids’ cognitive development with manipulatives, which grew with them in infancy, toddler and early childhood ages, expanding from structure to pattern, a rich voacabulary of visual units to build with by hand. The gifts are loosely matched to each year of the child’s life.

Gift #1 is a set of colored knitted balls for ages 0-1 (too early for blocks).  Gift #2 introduces 1-2 year-olds to the cube, cylinder and sphere. Gift #3 is all cubes, which moves on to #4 with half cube rectangles, #5 with smaller cubes and cubes halved on the diagonal to make triangles, #5B has cubes with center half circles. You get the idea. The older the child the more complex the blocks get. Think this is easy? Try getting them to fit back in the box - they must be arranged just so. I love that putting them away is a puzzle in itself and adds fun to cleaning up. It also builds fine motor skills.

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It’s these ever dividing shapes that refine how kids see spatially and how they are able to build to show that skill. There’s a great continuum between building what you please from imagination and building to replicate what you see or have in memory. Understanding the shapes which comprise what you see is a key skill in understanding structure, and from all angles, not just one side. Spatial skills and 3D competency are usually better mastered by boys, mainly because it’s promoted more, and/or they hog the block corner at preschool. I am all for girls having more block time.

As Norman points out, in the newly crowdfunded reprint of his book, that many of our modern art, design and architecture masters were raised with Froebel sets, and it trained them to see in a very clear way how structure is built and the patterns within those structures not only as structural devices but and visually rhythmic devices. Froebel's Kingergarten system is known to have influenced Einstein, Frank Llyod Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Piet Mondrian, and the Bauhaus. I will post a conversation with Norman on this and other topics later. A key to Froebel’s success is the design toy aspect in which you build shapes from parts. Many modern toy manufacturers are happily moving back towards design. In my view this bodes well for supporting open ended play, which clearly makes for more creative thinking skills.

There are some basic structural premises which mirror early childhood development - a young child stacks, gathers, and lines up blocks which shows they know one, some, many, up and down. Yet they need to move to another stage to need a rectangular block. Why? Because the old Sesame Street “under, over and through” is about learning prepositions and a child won’t build a bridge much until “under, over and going through” are concepts they really grasp.

I have to add what I feel is a sad note here and which I hope is a trend reversing - Froebel sells better outside the US than in it. Why? It could be the toys are perceived as “too smart” or not kid-like enough for the mass market. It also reflects a lack of respect for the 0-5 years as the most rapid neurological development in our lives. Why the US in particular has a tendency to dumb down the intelligence we gather from from birth to five is beyond me. Experts I’ve talked to agree we should be talking up to kids during these years, not down to them.

Smart design toys like Froebel blocks are a way to respect these learning intensive years - these toys harness their growing understanding of structure and building and should be around for them to use for many hours of free play. Who knows - you may have a modern master on your hands!