Monday, February 15, 2016

Froebel's Gifts: Gift 2

I explored Froebel's second gift along with Josh. As you can see in the picture below, the second gift consists of a sphere, cylinder, and cube with loops for hanging so they can be suspended from a frame with string, and holes drilled in them so you can put them on a rod and slide and spin them. Our box came with an extra set of the solids, without holes or hanging loops, to explore their "pure" forms.

I hadn't known much about Froebel's Gifts before reading about them in the Inventing Kindergarten book. I had been expecting the cognitive and aesthetic dimensions, but not the spiritual ones. That made quite an impression on me, as someone who also believes that the divine can be encountered in nature. With Gift 2, we begin to see the natural harmony inherent in geometric forms. A cylinder sort of looks like what would happen if you morphed a sphere and cube together. And when you spin a suspended cube, you can see a cylinder form within the spinning after-image. When spinning a cylinder on its side, a sphere appears. These solids are all intimately related to one another, and are the basic "building blocks" (a metaphor that would not exist without Froebel) of solid geometry.

When playing with Gift 2, we tried the spinning as suggested by the instruction booklet. But we also explored physics concepts by hanging the shapes up and making them swing like pendulums or hit each other to see how every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We explored rolling to see how things move. I found the sound that the sphere made when it knocked against the box to be very aurally satisfying. We further explored sound (which is both aesthetic in the form of music and physics in the form of sound waves) by seeing how the different pieces sounded when knocked against each other. I wondered what I would have done with these shapes when I was a child. I told Josh I probably would have tried to turn them into people. I then proceeded to stack the sphere on top of the cylinder on top of the cube, in the iconic column that's pictured above. I had a sudden flash of insight and passed one of the two rods through the cylinder, giving my figure "arms." I concluded that it now looked like a person.

I'm kind of glad that the forms of nature, knowledge, and beauty are not huge deals in the second gift just yet. They become more prominent in subsequent gifts. As is clear from the description of Josh's and my play above, we regularly blended symbolic play (forms of nature, e.g., the "person" I made) with aesthetic play (forms of beauty, e.g. in the musical sounds we made) and play with natural properties (forms of knowledge, e.g., in the physics of movement and forced that we explored). It was hard to tell the difference between these forms. I think this may be true with all the rest of the gifts too, which makes me wonder why Froebel and his followers were so keen on separating the forms. It's true that each form has something unique to offer: forms of nature provide an appreciation of ordinary objects and the beginnings of symbolic thought (Vygotsky!). Forms of knowledge bring attention to scientific and mathematical properties. Forms of beauty bring an appreciation for aesthetics, symmetry, and relationships between parts and wholes. I just think it's hard to truly draw the line between the forms, and wonder if they were ever negatively constraining to the first kindergarteners.

It's interesting that the order of Froebel's gifts seems to follow a progression that begins with solid, 3D geometry, and only later introduces 2D geometry in the form of flat tiles, then lines (1D) in sticks, and finally points in the form of perforating paper (then, of course, the progression reverses in the remaining gifts). By beginning with solids, which are the most concrete and the most likely to resemble real objects that children would encounter in their everyday lives, and progressing to more abstract 2D and 1D forms, Froebel was foreseeing Piaget's progression from concrete to abstract. But then by reversing the progression, and ending once again with 3D forms in peas-work and clay, Froebel "re-valued" the concrete, as called for by Papert. Froebel truly was way ahead of his time!

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