In 2016 Blue Hills Press published my book Making Classic Toys That Teach, about the wonderful teaching tools developed by Friedrich Froebel (Fröbel), the inventor of kindergarten in the mid-1800s. The geometric toys that Froebel called gifts — including cubes, spheres, planks, cylinders, and prisms — were of enormous influence on the world’s culture, having directly shaped such notables as architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, toymaker Milton Bradley, and artists Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. Froebel’s gifts also influenced and predated the development of the Montessori educational method.

A reproduction set of “Froebel gifts.”


Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), educator, advocate of play-based learning, inventor of kindergarten.

As the son of a kindergarten teacher, I realized the importance of play as an instrument in education. My mother would explain to parents at school conferences that when they would ask their children what they’d done in school today and their answer was “Play,” that was the right answer.


At one time, under the inspiration of Froebel’s kindergarten, educators wondered how to extend instructive play into the upper grades, and manual arts education was introduced in Scandinavian schools as a result. Scandinavian manual arts training, also known as educational sloyd, became important throughout the world for an all too short period of time.


I think history is important for two reasons. One is to avoid the failures of the past. The other is to provide a path for renewal of those things we’ve forgotten. Kindergarten is one of those things that ought to be remembered and replicated. If we were to each look seriously at the times in which our own learning has been energized, we would design schools to engage the power of play in all subjects and at all levels.


My book, published after years of study, attempted to empower parents, grandparents, and fellow woodworkers to do what generations had done before: make the gifts of early childhood that once served as a pivot point for an international revolution in education, one that has been largely abandoned despite its obvious value. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his autobiography, recalled his years of playing with Froebel’s gifts: “These were smooth maple-wood blocks. All are in my fingers to this day.”

Super Size It


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In 2018 I began making super-sized Froebel blocks and placing them unceremoniously on the Clear Spring School playground. I knew of no one else doing such things and was curious what the student response would be. Even with just two or three blocks, before a full set was in place, the students knew immediately what to do with them: stack and arrange, just as they would do with smaller blocks. The complete set that Froebel had called Gift 3 consisted of eight cube blocks (though of much smaller size) that could be used to construct a larger cube, or be arranged as

Froebel advised into “forms of beauty,” “forms of life” (building representative forms), or “forms of knowledge” (developing counting and stacking skills).
With the first eight giant blocks completed and seeing students’ enthusiastic response, I began making Gift 4 at the same scale. This set consists of eight flat “tile” blocks that also can also be arranged into a large cube.

Figure A


The students at Clear Spring School keep the blocks in a state of continual rearrangement. One day they’ll be arranged as a fortress with space inside. The next they may be an obstacle course with kids taking turns to jump from one block to another.


Here’s how to build super-sized Gifts 3 and 4 for your playground, using just a few tools and basic carpentry skills. They’re made from ½” exterior plywood with some interior bracing to withstand rugged play and being left outdoors throughout the four seasons (Figure A).

Project Steps

Making the Cubes: Cut

 

Making Cubes (Gift 3)
Cubes are the simplest shape, measuring 2’×2’×2′.

Figure B

Cut the plywood to size as listed in the cut list and shown in Figure B . Then rip the 5/4″ (1¼”-thick) treated deck boards into 1¼” wide strips, and cut those to lengths described in the cut list.

Making the Cubes: Attach Strips

Figure C

Use construction adhesive and screws to attach strips to three edges of the box sides, leaving one edge to be connected to the next side (Figure C).

Making the Cubes: Assemble

Figure D

 

Use adhesive and screws to assemble the four sides to each other (Figure D), then to attach the top and bottom (Figure E).

Figure E

Making Flat Tile Blocks: Cut

Making Flat Tile Blocks (Gift 4)
The tiles, 1’×2’×4′, require additional reinforcing in the middle, so require a slight difference in approach.

Figure F

Begin by cutting the plywood to size according to the cut list and Figure F .

Making Flat Tile Blocks: Attach Strips

Figure G

Use construction adhesive and screws to attach the 5/4 strips to the edges of the end panels, as shown in Figure G .

Figure H

Then attach the strips to the side panels, leaving space for the internal support at the center and at the ends to lap over the end panels, as shown in Figure H, again using adhesive and screws.

Making Flat Tile Blocks: Add Reinforcing Panel

Figure I

Use construction adhesive and screws to attach the sides to the ends. Next, use adhesive and screws to attach 5/4 blocking to the center support panel, and screw it in place (Figure I ).

Making Flat Tile Blocks: Assemble

Figure J

Use construction adhesive and screws to attach the top and bottom panels (Figure J).

Conclusion

Finishing
For each finished block, use a router with a ½” radius round-over bit to smooth the edges.
Finally, sanding the corners is also advised.

Play Time!

Figure K

Just like the tiny kindergarten blocks, your eight giant playground cubes can be arranged into one humongous cube, and so can the eight giant tiles. To freshen ours up and protect against the elements, we recently sealed them with some recycled house stain (Figure K).
The advantage of the Froebel blocks over a conventional playground is that the continual redesign by the kids themselves keeps it fresh. The students use the blocks in the traditional ways — making representative shapes and “forms of beauty” — and make playgrounds of their own design. Their engineering skills and cooperative play skills all come into play. You can see the blocks in action below.

Adding More Gifts
Over the years other instruments of play have been added to our Froebel playground: wooden planks, plastic 55-gallon barrels (cylinders), and a cut-in-two tractor tire (arcs).

Learning More
Making Classic Toys That Teach: Step-by-Step Instructions for Building Froebel’s Iconic Developmental Toys, Blue Hills Press.
Froebel USA on Youtube
Froebel’s influence on art, design, architecture