Gifts and Occupations - a Froebelian dilema?

Mark Hunter

When we talk about the Gifts and Occupations – it must be remembered that there was so much written about Froebel’s intentions for the Gifts and Occupations after his death,  that it is difficult to know Froebel’s original plan, indeed Liebschner (A Child’s Work) points out that Froebel himself, whilst giving detailed instruction on the use of the Gifts, left us no detail as to how the activities of the occupations should be carried out.

So what are the Gifts and Occupations? Froebel’s numbering system only extended to Gift 5 – other ‘numbers’ applying to the Gifts and Occupations have been added by those that followed.

Brosterman (Inventing Kindergarten) describes all that we would consider as Froebel’s original Gifts and Occupations simply as ‘Gifts’ numbering them from Gift 1 to Gift 20.

However Liebschner (A Child’s Work) clearly differentiates between the Gifts and the Occupations. The child ‘takes-in’ through the Gifts and is then able to give ‘external’ form to this understanding through the Occupations. Liebschner describes the link between the Gifts and Occupations as assimilation (through the Gifts) and expression (through the Occupations) (p100). Certainly something that could described as a good example of Froebel’s saying ‘to make the inner outer and the outer inner’ (p97).

 Liebschner explains that the Gifts are handed to the child, not so much as a gift TO the child, but as a tool for the child to demonstrate their OWN gifts in the way in which they explore and use the Gifts ‘so that the adult would know which area of the child’s interest and understanding to encourage most’ (p71).  The Gifts, Liebschner explains, allows for ‘freedom within certain laws” (p93)

The Gifts are those objects which can be returned to their original form. The Occupations, on the other hand, are those activities which involve the materials being changed to a form that cannot be returned to the original. Here the child uses the knowledge learnt through the Gifts and applies it to the Occupations.

Liebscher describes the progression of the Gifts from the three-dimensional objects of the blocks to the flat wooden tablets of different mathematical shapes, then to the line (sticks) and finally the point (beads). These would equate to what we now describe as Gifts 1 to 10. Gifts 3 to 6 (the three-dimensional building gifts), Gift 7 - the wooden tablets, Gifts 8 and 9 – the straight and curved sticks, and Gift 10 – the beads.

Liebschner goes on to describe Froebel’s ‘invention of the Occupations’ as a reversal of the process of the Gifts (p100). Starting with the point, the Occupation of pricking leads us to the drawing of lines. In turn the drawing of lines extends into paper folding and cutting out shapes. This then extends to the Occupation of paper and stick weaving. Pea work (stick and pea) brings together knowledge of line and point to recreate the three-dimensional. Finally moving to fully three-dimensional work in wax and clay.

Liebschner describes the Occupations as vehicles for ‘expression’ whilst the Gifts are predominantly means for taking-in and assimilation. Occupations provide for ‘invention and skill’, the Gifts for ‘discovery insight and ideas’ (p100). Liebschner goes on to describe the links between the Gifts and the Occupations. The first six Gifts connect with the occupations of clay, wax and other exercises in solid form. Paper folding and paper cutting connect with the tablets of Gift 7 (flat shapes), weaving and drawing with the sticks and rings of Gifts 8 and 9.

But what of our understanding of the Gifts and Occupations today? We must move forward from Froebel’s time to the early 20th century and to the United Kingdom in particular, where the break away from the traditional Froebel definition of Gifts and Occupations had its most profound and lasting effect. Following the First World War, Froebelians in the UK re-defined ‘Froebel’ and ‘Froebelian practice’ and created what we would now describe as ‘Progressive Froebelianism’. Indeed much of what we recognise today as ‘a Froebelian Approach’ grew from this new direction in Froebelian practice, and certainly moved the UK away from much of what could be described as ‘traditional Froebelianism’ which continued (and indeed continues) in Europe and the USA.

Liebschner describes this change in his book ‘Foundations of Progressive Education – the History of the National Froebel Society’. It was through whole-hearted adoption of a progressive approach by the Froebel Society in the 1920’s that led to this re-defining of what it meant to be ‘Froebelian’. Out went the Gifts – replaced by ‘blocks’ – no longer ‘played’ with on desk-tops, but larger and floor based. The unit blocks (designed in 1913) are indeed the same blocks that are produced today and which Froebelians would see as an essential ingredient of any good quality Froebelian setting.  These were the blocks used in the Froebel Block Play Research project (Bruce/Gura 1992).  

Out too, went the Occupations, replaced by sewing, cooking, gardening, basketwork and woodwork. Clay work being the only recognisable occupation from the original list.

The movement away from the more didactic ‘structure’ of using the Gifts and Occupations, which was often practised in the name of ‘Froebel’, meant that the Froebelian movement could focus and indeed lay claim to the progressive approaches  of the New Education Fellowship, a movement which Froebelians of the day were closely aligned to and indeed blurred much of what could be described as ‘Froebelian’ with the ‘progressive’ approaches promoted through the New Education Fellowship’s journal The New Era.  Thus the Progressive Froebelian’s moved the approach firmly away from the Gifts and Occupations and focussed on the importance of ‘’learning through play’ and ‘learning by doing’.  

And for the remainder of the 20th Century, Froebelianism in the UK was very much based on the ‘re-defining’ of the approach established by the Progressive Froebelians, Froebel’s original ‘Gifts and Occupations’ were consigned to the glass-cased cabinets of the Froebel Archive.

However with the re-introduction of the Froebel Certificate Course in Roehampton, followed by the course in Edinburgh and now by the Froebel Trust Short Course, there has been a resurgence in discovering more about Froebel and what it is to be Froebelian. This has, of course, included a re-examination of what we would now call, in the UK, the ‘traditional’ Gifts and Occupations.

However this has produced a dilemma for those discussing the ‘Gifts and Occupations’ with practitioners, particularly those who are new to Froebel. When we are discussing the Gifts and Occupations – are we talking about those activities we would hope to see in our Froebelian settings – the Gifts and Occupations of the ‘progressive Froebelians’, open-ended block play, cooking, sewing, weaving, gardening and woodwork? Or are we talking about the ‘traditional’ Gifts and Occupations – small cubes in wooden boxes, pricking, paperfolding, stick and pea and paper weaving? What would we expect to or want to see in settings today? What would we want to promote as good examples of Froebelian practice?