pics for guest blog

Elements of PLAY in American History: Did you know? The average American was introduced to the concept of kindergarten at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and World’s Fair in Philadelphia?

By Guest Blogger Stacey Swigart, Curator, Please Touch Museum

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”  -Friedrich Froebel

The Women’s Committee of the Centennial sponsored the kindergarten and wanted to introduce people to the concepts that had been developed by Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel (1782-1852) in Germany. Froebel’s ideas centered around three forms of learning including knowledge of forms of life (gardening, caring for animals, domestic tasks); knowledge of forms of beauty (design, color, movement, shape, harmonies); and knowledge of forms of mathematics (geometric forms/relationships). A trained teacher provided the guidance for children’s play through special materials, called ‘gifts.’ The gifts were wooden blocks, geometric shapes, balls of yarn and other to facilitate play and learning. Additionally, there were ‘occupations’ –handwork that was part of the kindergarten curriculum including beading, threading, folding, molding and embroidery.

In 1876 in Philadelphia, a small cottage was constructed dedicated to the Froebel system of education. The Kindergarten building was situated a few yards northeast of the Women’s Pavilion.  It was a one-story Gothic style cottage that was thirty-five feet high by eighteen feet wide, built of pine and polished and varnished to a “fine hue”. Inside, the building consisted of a main hall, with an alcove for spectators.

Sixteen (some sources say eighteen) children from the Northern Home for Friendless Children in Philadelphia were brought every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM to demonstrate the operations of a Froebel Classroom.

James D. McCabe wrote in The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, “The teacher was a lady from Boston, and the class composed of sixteen bright little ones…A more delightful sight than these happy children at their studious play can scarcely be imagined. The advantages of the Kindergarten are so well known that it would be useless to dwell upon them here.”

The central idea of the kindergarten (‘children’s garden”) was to provide a large, well-ventilated, well-lighted and pleasant space for learning that would open to a garden and play area. The garden would incorporate small garden plots that the children could cultivate on their own—flowers, useful vegetables, and even trees. Froebel did not use corporal punishment, but rather exclusion from play or gardening.

In 1876, there were a few Froebel classrooms to be found in major cities. The numbers increased post-1876. There are a number of educational institutions and programs focusing on the theories and ideas of Friedrich Froebel around the globe today.


Fun Facts:

  • Friedrich Froebel introduced his method of teaching to young children (primarily ages 3-6) in Germany in 1837.
  • The Northern Home for Friendless Children was founded in 1853 and still exists today as Northern Children’s Services. Learn more at:
  • Miss Ruth R. Burritt of Boston was the teacher.
  • Furniture and material for the school were contributed by a Mr. Steiger of New York.
  • $1,500 was raised for the construction of the cottage by the Rhode Island committee of the Women’s Centennial group.
  • A woman by the name of Anna Lloyd Wright visited the Fair, saw the Kindergarten and bought some ‘gifts’ for her son. That son was future architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.  The son of Frank Lloyd Wright would go on to be the inventor of Lincoln Logs!
  • Milton Bradley (of toy fame) began producing “gifts” for resale in the 19th century.