Kindergarten and the Birth of Modern Art – Norman Brosterman

This episode features John, Jay and Scott interviewing Norman Brosterman at Blockspot Learning in Southampton, NY on October 6, 2015. We discussed the history of the Froebel Kindergarten and its impact on modern art, design and architecture. We’ve re-recorded the original questions as only Norman was mic’d at the time.

For more information about Norman visit his website at and click here to purchase Norman’s book Inventing Kindergarten.




Norman Brosterman: Learning how to learn, if this were possible, is dazzling. And if you don’t learn how to learn, how are you gonna learn anything? This is what Friedrich Froebel, this German crystal scientist and educator, set out to do when he invented Kindergarten, the garden of children, the children’s garden.

John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path to Learning podcast where three ordinary guys explore the world of education,

Jay Irwin: what’s working, what’s broken,

Scott Bultman: and what we can do to best advocate for children.

John: I’m John Pottenger.

Scott: I’m Scott Bultman.

Jay: And I’m Jay Irwin, and you’re listening to Path to Learning.

John: Hey, Jay, we’re back … tag team

Jay: back again.

John: Let’s do this. Let’s do this Jay

Jay: All right, let’s do us.

John: But first, let’s go to Scott because he has something to get off his chest.

Scott: Yeah, I’ve got a little confession to make. All right up in our last podcast, I was just sort of doing it off the cuff. And as I knew what happened, the real historians out there contacted me afterwards and corrected a few statements that I made. Now there were, there were five things that they called me on four of them five, yeah, four of them were simply I forgot to say “in my opinion,” so for example, in my opinion, I believe Froebel was a gifted child. But then, of course, there was nobody at the time that identified him as that. So that was one. But really, the only one of the five that I feel was egregious was that I conflated a couple of things that happened. So he had two nephews that he educated but that was after he went and study with Pestalozzi and that was with the children … the sons of a woman named Caroline von Holzhausen.

Jay: So those were not nephews.

Scott: Those were not nephews, no.

John: Changes the whole thing

Scott: It does it really does. Well actually the story about Mrs. von Holzhausen was quite an interesting story. So hopefully that will come out. In the upcoming podcast we’re going to have with Helge Wasmuth and with Tiffeni Goesel. Oh, they will both spank me publicly for the errors that I made. But I just want to say ….

Jay: Wait, are we talking possible scandal? Here’s

Scott: Oh, there’s scandal.

Jay: Oh boy …

Scott: I glossed over a few things that I shouldn’t have.

Jay: Fair enough.

John: Thanks for coming clean.

Scott: Yeah. Well, we’ll look forward to having the actual truth come out. In the next couple episodes.

Jay: Yes. May your shame be lifted but not too soon.

John: So Scott, who are we talking with today?

Scott: Well, today we’re speaking with Norman Brosterman, and I’ve known Norman for 23 years now. I was very happy that, not long after he and I met, he invited me to New York to look at his collection of historic Froebel Kindergarden ephemera and memorabilia. It’s just amazing. But at the time we did this interview, this was one of the very first interviews we did for the Garden of Children documentary. And I think it was the first time that john and Jay had met Norman.

John: The thing that sticks out to me is that I didn’t realize how much the Kindergarten and Froebel’s kindergarten had an impact on on art, and specifically modern art, and architecture. And Norman kind of jumps in with that as his lead in coming up here. So that was … that made an impression on me for sure.

Scott: Norman is an architect by training. He’s a painter, but he’s mostly known for collecting. He’s an art dealer and a collector. And he stumbled upon this Froebel thing, a number decades ago and ultimately wrote the book Inventing Kindergarten. With that. Let’s talk to Norman.

Jay: So, Norman, how did you first come across for Froebel?

Norman: In architecture school in America, you’re lectured on Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s the most important American architects really probably of certainly of the 20th century. And part of the lecture, they talk about these special building blocks, they called Froebel blocks. And then they don’t really talk about that. Or they didn’t … this is 30 years ago. And then, after architecture school, I became a block collector of all things. I would go to flea markets and buy construction toys. And I ultimately had 300, made out of all different materials. And I always wondered about these Froebel blocks. Turned out I had gotten them pretty early on. They were a small cubic box. That said “Gift 5 Occupation Material for the Kindergarten.” And I thought how awful. This is what they did to keep children occupied. And it led to more blocks. And one day I bought a bunch of books of patterns, beautiful patterns made out of colored paper in Oswego, New York, near Cooperstown, famed for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the fellow who sold them to me So these have something to do with education. And I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know what they were, you know. And then a very good friend of mine at the time found a book called the Paradise of Childhood, by published by Milton Bradley, famous American toy company. And I, it was filled with patterns and blocks. And it turned out that the Froebel blocks were part of a system of educational toys designed by this fellow Friedrich Froebel, who was a German educator in the early 19th century, who created kindergarten single-handedly invented kindergarten, the “garden of children,” the “children’s garden.” And I collected. I collected Kindergarten, I didn’t set out to collect Kindergarten. It’s not the kind of thing you decide in advance. It was a very abstract. It’s a very abstract collection. It’s always been a very abstract collection of photographs, documents, textbooks, and these Gifts that Froebel called “Gifts,” which were our play objects designed to be given to children by young teachers or women teachers. In his case, women teachers, it’s a long story. So I collected this beautiful stuff, and it led me into the world of the Froebel Kindergarten.

John: So why should we care about this stuff today?

Norman: Well, I, you know, having gone to art school architecture school and then immersing myself in the history of Kindergarten by writing a book about this subject. And it’s funny thing that, that I would be the person to write this book since I wasn’t a writer. And I, my background is not in education. But by forming this very large, very gorgeous collection, I had something no one had. I had access into a world of women and children that had been lost, essentially. Kindergarten, which we almost all go to in the entire world, the “garden of children,” as our first well used to be the first year of school. Now there’s pre-K, of course means pre-kindergarten, everyone in the world goes to kindergarten. And now in kindergarten, they do things like teach children, how to read And mathematics, you know, but after doing a lot of reading and research about this thing called Kindergarten, it was clear that that was not exactly or in any way what it was designed for. So there’s this fella Friedrich Froebel. And he’s trained as a natural scientist, and his and he comes out of the German Romantic era. His father was a minister. And he’s he lives at the same time as Goethe. People like that early 20s, early 19th century, Germany. He, after being a teacher for many years, realizes that the children who he was given to teach at age seven, had already had doors close to them in their minds and in their souls when it came to education. Age seven is a really good year to start teaching reading. And in Finland today, they teach reading at age seven, Finland being some of us know, the number one country in the world in education.

Norman: But in America, you read about kindergarten, or pre K, you read about pre k constantly. And one thing you don’t read is what are we supposed to teach these kids? What what are we going to do with them? Yes, we want them in, in school at age four, three, even, but what do we what are we going to do with them? So fibl had this in mind when he decided to invent kindergarten and kindergarten was really for three to seven year olds. And he said, Well, we could teach children how to learn of all things, how to observe and reason, and express and create. Of course, when I talk about these things today, with parents, you get a blank stare. And they wonder how this is going to help their children get into Harvard, and then do business in China. Because seems to be the focus of a lot of American education. But Froebel thought we could make children who are part of the universe in which they were born. That they would understand their position as growing things. At that time, of course, under God. This was the milieu of Kindergarten, all the schools in Germany were run by the church and he was actually shunted to the side by some of these people at that time. You know, so, learning how to learn, if this where possible, is dazzling. And if you don’t learn how to learn, how are you going to learn anything else? This is what Friedrich Froebel, this German crystallographer crystal scientist and educator, set out to do when he invented kindergarten.

Scott: So, Norman, you’ve amassed a large amount of really fascinating material. What have you been able to learn from it about Froebel?

Norman: Well, at first it was inscrutable. That is that children would be given these toys that or tools to play with for educational purposes, because they were so simple. There are building blocks, which are cubes cut into cubes and other like simple shapes like tiles, you know, there are sticks in different lengths and they are pieces of paper cut into triangles and squares and little tiles, the kind of thing we think of for mosaics and paper folding. So is all this stuff, I mean that you would might remember from kindergarten. But he had a he had a reason, a pedagogy, a system in mind for the use of this material, which was last for a long time and is still essentially lost. The children weren’t just given this stuff and said play, they were led or guided to do certain things, to make pictures of things they knew to make designs, artistic designs, and to use them for preliminary exploration of geometry and counting simple things like that, that you would do with a child was fourm you know.

Norman: And I found, when I set out to look for this stuff … I mean, it’s very slow genesis. I started by buying these beautiful books and patterns, you know, because they’re so beautiful. I think anybody would buy them if they saw them at a flea market, you know? And then I had so much that people started to wonder about it. What did it What was it and I started to wonder about it. What did it do? What did it mean? What was it you know, what they do with it? And I started to realize these books, patterns were teachers books, they were too specific. To be made by children clearly, you know, they had grades in them B plus, they were they had schools so and so this woman went to this school in 1901, or 1892. And she got a B plus. So teachers being taught to teach how to make paper patterns and how to do origami to little children. Well, at some point, curiosity would force you with this wealth of beautiful abstract material to actually read a textbook and find out what it is they were doing with this stuff. And there were these simple but sophisticated and elegant lessons, as it were, where little children would use this material to find expressions of growth, and how they could connect to nature. So here’s a system of education based on something other than reading and writing. It was based … it’s based on Nature, the one thing that exists for all of us and we are part of. What a remarkable concept. And if it worked, you know, so. But in the 19th century, Kindergarten became enormous, by the end of the 19th century was in pretty much every country in the world. There are social reasons for that, too. I mean, people needed to get their kids in school when they started working in factories, and they weren’t working on farms. And Kindergarten was the first preschool. And it did play out over several years. And after learning how to learn, learning to read, for example, would be much simpler. You know, there are many children today who read early, and their parents are proud of that. But they don’t give them Moby Dick to read. They read, you know, simple books. There are many children who have problems learning to read at four and five and six when reading is really pushed. schools today.

John: So Norman, anyone who’s had the pleasure of looking at your book and see that you’ve made some interesting connections between modern art and these Froebel materials? Can you elaborate and tell us a little more about that?

Norman: My background is in art and architecture. So I went to art school and an architecture school. And when I got out of architecture school … very commonly in architecture … particularly 2008 – 2012 a lot of architects are out of work. So this is what happened to me. A lot of architects become graphic designers, they open restaurants. They become baristas. I went to flea markets, and my job was to find beautiful things to sell. And I and I love this job. I love going to flea markets at dawn.

Norman: So, having all this stuff and knowing about Frank Lloyd Wright and it was really clear, You can find Frank Lloyd Wright in kinder … everything Frank Lloyd Wright ever did you can find in the Kindergarten, and the story of his exposure to it is more well known than most modernists Who are we know. But you know, the Kindergarten looks like Kandinsky’s … Vasily Kandinsky’s Bauhaus paintings. It looks like the kind of things done at the Bauhaus, the German design school that opened in 1919 and closed with the Nazis. It looks like the work of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter who really was the almost the one way the most abstract artists of the early 20th century. It looks like Cubism.

Norman: So I started reading about all these separate people, and it turned out that most of them had clear connections in some ways to this kind of education, either personally, or they would teachers, or they had children. And it’s, it’s clear, well, it’s clear to me in any case, because I have all this stuff to wade through, that Kindergarten had an enormous impact on the development of the modern era in the modern mind. It’s easiest to see in things like architecture and art, because they are the plastic arts, but it also almost certainly affected modern music, modern science, modern thinking, digital thinking, a lot of Kindergarten gets done on grids. Froebel used grids to organize the symmetries of the Kindergarten plays. He thought that children recognize beauty and symmetry, more obviously, then, abstract. Although all the forms were abstract, a lot of the patterns were symmetrical

Scott: As you were uncovering all this what what did it lead you to conclude?

Norman: So I wrote a book about it the beginning. There were I had friends who said, “Well, this really looks like everything.” It wasn’t just me, you know. I was high on the Frank Lloyd Wright story at that time, and I still am a huge fan. But people would say, “well, this really looks like everything. Is it possible, it affected everything?” And it looks to me like it actually did. There’s a big break in the 1860s and 70s, where the children in America and in Europe, especially France, Germany, Holland, and south and north of there where the children were taught with this system of abstract toys. And their parents hadn’t been.

Jay: So why is it important to start with the abstract? Almost seems counterintuitive.

Norman: So you’re talking about a really primal primary kind of change in education for the young. And it was inadvertently abstract. The parts were designed to allow children to use their imaginations. The parts, the way it was taught, was designed to allow children to talk about it, to tell stories about it, to create things and to incite ideas in them, too.

Norman: So they were intentionally abstract that the kid the youngest kids got the most abstract stuff intentionally. And it allows therefore, for infinite responses. You know, if you give, if a child has a doll, it’s a doll. If it’s a train, it’s a train But if you make a doll, and if you make a train, you can then turn your doll into a train her and train into a doll, which is where education happens in people … the interconnectedness of things, to be able to find the patterns that you’ve made in your hand, and then find the same patterns in a flower, or in a crystal. It’s a remarkably powerful lesson for a young child. Inadvertently, though, of course, these three- and four- and five-year-olds are getting the tools to make modern art at a time when art was becoming modern.

Scott: So do you think this pre-literacy work is a precursor to design education?

Norman: Well, there have been over the centuries, ideas to have a visual language different people have wanted to make a visual language, but Froebel came up with his own system to make a visual language design languages, form language. You know, that you could be expressive with triangles. You know, in the end, it would be triangular, your whatever you made. But you could still say, well, that’s a kite and that’s a boy. And those are mountains. And those are flowers. You know, and this is all before you learn how to write. Now, when you learn how to write, you can say you can write out the word flower. But that’s not a picture of a flower. So there’s, that’s why children are given picture books, because they know how to read them. Children, of course, know how to read books with no words. So this is a language with no words, but words became the next were the next step words or the next step. So you make a picture of a mountain or a boy with a kite. And then the teacher will say, what did you make? And you say, I made a boy with a kite in the mountains, and then they say, Well, have you ever been to the mountains? Yes, I’ve been to the mountains, and it leads to everything. By using the simplest materials you can a good teacher can lead Everything. Kindergarten was designed to be infinite in simplicity.

Scott: So, what was Froebel’s contribution to modern art? What? Did he invent this stuff? Or why does all this work that children do seem to look like modern art?

Norman: There’s a tradition of drawing education in Europe, especially for the higher … the upper classes. And in the 19th century, there are a number of pedagogical drawing systems designed by different educators in Germany, and in France, and Froebel. Like most of the activities that he utilized for Kindergarten, he did not invent making mosaics. He did not invent building blocks. Of course he didn’t invent invent drawing, but he used them in new ways, and one of them was drawing on grids. Here the grid again to organize, organize ideas, expressions, you know. So when you draw on a grid, it winds up looking like you drew on a grid. But it really looks like Mondrian and Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and people like that. But these are the youngest children. You know, Mondrian was a trained drawing teacher in Holland in 1890. This is in his biography, but almost completely glossed over by everybody. Well, if you go back and you look at how they taught children to draw in Holland at 90, you discover they draw and graph paper. Just like his paintings. Exactly. They didn’t give. They didn’t have children sitting around a nude model, drawing. They didn’t draw from life at all. They created drawings, they built drawings, they built drawings out of parts, the things in Kindergarten were built, you build shapes at a box, you would build shapes out of out of triangles, you’d build drawings out of short segments of lines. This is Froebelian.

Scott: One of my favorite things about Froebel is the interconnectedness of all things. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Norman: When you read Froebel … I’m not a German speaker and I’ve read quite a number of translations in English. They were translated early on 1870s, you know 1880s. The word unity is the word you see most commonly. He came out of a romantic and a religious background and his early walks in nature, he kind of fabricated … and he was actually interested in Eastern philosophy as well, but he he created for himself and idea that there is a unity in the world that is of people to society, people to one another, people to nature, and within a person a unity within a person that is, that would be what you want to create when you educate children. Someone who is unified, who is comfortable in nature, comfortable in society. Unity, of course, is the kind of idea that leads to environmentalism and the fact that the world is a finite place and we’re all basically stuck together. So unity is, you know, unity, interconnectedness, these are the big words in the Froebel Kindergarten. And of course, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s vocabulary, as well as … Frank Lloyd Wright was Unitarian. His mother and her two sisters became teachers. They’re always going off about unity. He designed Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, one of his great early masterpieces, so it really fit for him.

Jay: Speaking of architecture, how did the connection between Frank Lloyd Wright and free will happen? What’s the story there?

Norman: So the story about Frank Lloyd Wright was that in 1876, his mother went to the Centennial in Philadelphia and she found these things called Froebel Gifts. And she came home all excitedly and gave it to young Frank. And the rest is history. But he was nine years old at that time. And this stuff is small and really for little children. And I wondered about this, and after doing more reading discovered that his mother, almost certainly and I would bet on this was a trained Froebel Kindergarten teacher in Boston, where he was living at the time, she knew all the people who taught Kindergarten in Boston, the women in Boston created a big part of the display of the Centennial Kindergarten. And I’m certain frankly, right got this stuff exactly at the right age 3, 4, 5, 6. And that’s why it became so profound and all of his work.

Norman: But, as I point out to people, Frank Lloyd Wright is the only person who became Frank Lloyd Wright. So he was an extraordinary genius given the tools to create an entirely new kind of architecture. Now, Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher was Louis Sullivan, Louis Solomon’s buildings which are fantastic, mostly in Chicago well, Chicago and St. Louis and New York and buffalo. He ornamented his buildings with extraordinary forms of nature, tendrils, sea life, which would be the in the tradition of Greek architecture where acanthus leaves us for capitals. But Wright, having been imprinted at a young age, with geometry, crystalline geometry, because Froebel was that crystallographer, said to himself, or realized … or just innately started to make designs that were crystalline: triangles, cubes, and gridded … everything he ever did was built on a grid. Almost all of his ornament looks like it was made out of prisms, triangles, cubes, in almost everything he ever did. He does not buildings on square grids, rectilinear grids, triangular grids, hexagonal grids, and even circular grid, which is the Guggenheim in New York.

Norman: But there was a spiritual component to Wright that also was expressive and expressed by this knowledge of Froebel, every house has a hearth. This is like the heart of the house, if you’ve ever been in his buildings they’re quite remarkable, They pinwheel out, just like the blocks and Froebel Gifts. If you look through old books of Froebel education, you see Frank Lloyd Wright’s floor plans, they just they’re pinwheeling. The swastika appears in a lot of the Froebel literature, because it’s, it’s it’s part of their radial symmetry, rotational symmetry that would be really easy for children to make out of a series of blocks. It does make you wonder why that became the, the emblem of the National Socialists in 1933. It was it was all over Germany, the swastika in these books.

John: So what was the impact of your book after You published your findings.

Norman: Well, my book wound up in all the places you want a book to wind up, it was sold in the Museum of Modern Art in the Metropolitan Museum and bookstores across America and won some awards. And it was reviewed favorably in the New Yorker in the New York Times. And if it had any impact, I’m not really sure what it is, except everyone who’s interested in Froebel seems to have my book. You know, it’s a very beautiful book, it was done by a company that put a lot into it. They really love this subject because it was new. Of all things. Here’s a new subject, you know, and it took a long time to write.

Jay: So what did you learn from your work collecting tribal

Norman: You know, I have this collection. And it’s the best collection. It’s the best collection. It’s about children, growth, women’s empowerment … because a big part of Kindergarten was about young women who found work that they never had before. Because men at the time didn’t care about the young. They said to the women, sure, you can work with these little kids, they know us to us because they don’t know how to read, you know, and when they can read, then we can actually teach them something. As if all education occurs from books, that it doesn’t get to the book somehow, in advance. And this is what education was like in the 19th century. You know, so just by wading through or sifting through this collection of photos and designs and creativity, and documents, a world emerges, that most people are shocked to learn exists or existed. A really large world of women and children that had gotten so big by the turn of the 20th century that disappeared. Because it was everywhere. It was hidden in plain sight, Kindergarten is hidden in plain sight. Some of the activities are still done, like the same activities from 150 years ago. There’s no reason exactly given for why they’re done. At the beginning, children would cut out paper to make crystals, because that’s a creation of nature. And then sometime later, they were making snowflakes. And then maybe a decade or two later, they’re making winter. And then inevitably, a couple of decades later, they’re making Christmas. So some people might consider that in advance. But Froebel would have considered that a declension. That is it was going downhill from something pure and infinite to something made by humans.

John: So you obviously have this fantastic collection, you know all about this stuff, but have you actually ever tried to use it

Norman: I have a daughter, and people ask me to I use the Froebel Kindergarten materials with my daughter. And of course, no one has more of this than me. And I did. I did. But I often tell people that I would take our mushroom hunting. And somehow this seemed to be the same activity. Because we were looking for things observing, and finding geometry in nature. And then going back to the house with the mushrooms, and drawing them, maybe cutting paper, things like that. That’s what Kindergarten … that’s what Froebel had in mind. The Gifts are not sacrosanct. They’re very simple. Then he didn’t want them to be special. He wanted people to make them locally. Everybody could make them if they had a saw. You know, they’re not sophisticated. They’re sophisticated in what they what you do with them, but they’re intentionally extremely simple. Universal.

Jay: So that was one of our very first interviews, I think one of our first three interviews that we ever did on this project.

John: Yeah, that to see Norman’s collection was just simply fascinating. He had these albums that you have to just go to our site to check out, but they were just absolutely incredible some of the things that he had in his collection.

Scott: Yeah, and it’s the it’s the breadth and the depth of what he has. I mean, for those that have read his book, Inventing Kindergarten, there’s a lot of beautiful photography in there. But his collection has been donated and will be likely on exhibit within the next couple of years.

John: Yeah. And another thing that he kind of brings up that we’re going to be doing future podcasts about is is architecture and design education. He brings up the Frank Lloyd Wright connection. There’s a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright material that we’ve collected throughout our documentary series, so definitely stay tuned for those.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. The Frank Lloyd Wright is the reason why I got involved in all this. Obviously, Buckminster Fuller is covered in Norman’s book. And one of the things that he did say was that he at the time did not know the connection between Charles Eames, who had a tribal kindergarten training in St. Louis. But it’s really a fascinating subject. And we’ll explore it in more depth in later podcasts.

Jay: Yeah, and just to talk a little bit more about Inventing Kindergarten, it was amazing. For us on this journey, probably 80% of the people we’ve interviewed first came to fry ball or were exposed to Froebel through that book, so it’s definitely worth it check out we’ll have it linked in the show notes.

John: Yeah, and if you want to follow us on social media, we have several, you know, Twitter, Instagram, all those places, but really, if you want to join the conversation, come to, which is about our documentary series, and if you want to tune into other podcasts, We’ve done and learn more in depth. We do blog posts about each of these episodes with lots of additional information. So that’s at

Scott: And John, if they want to support what we’re doing, how can they do that?

John: Thanks for bringing that up. I still looking for that, that Patreon So if you’re enjoying these, we’d love your support.

Scott: Yeah, that’d be great. And you never know what kind of Thank you You will receive for something like that.

Jay: Excellent. Well, thank you, everybody.

Scott: Yep. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you on the next podcast.

Jay: “Path to learning, path to learning, become a Patreon

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