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Building Blocks

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In a world of tablets and screens, wooden toy blocks may get passed over as quaint or boring. But as I recently learned, they remain one of the best ways to encourage children’s imaginations and spatial skills. In fact, playing with wooden blocks started the career of one of our nation’s most renowned architects – and he wasn’t shy about crediting the blocks’ creator, who also invented the modern kindergarten.

While recently touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West home and studio, I admired the compound’s creativity and whimsy as well as the groundbreaking techniques for which the architect is known.

Because I work in a place dedicated to the pre-K and kindergarten crowd, my ears pricked up when our guide informed us that Wright’s life was forever changed when his mother gave him a set of maple-wood blocks designed by Friedrich Froebel that she purchased for him in 1876.

Prior to Froebel, very young children were not educated. He was the first to recognize that significant brain development occurs between birth and age 3, something of which we’re now acutely aware.

His teaching method combines an awareness of human physiology and the recognition that people, at their essence, are creative beings. Both Maria Montessori, who developed the Montessori education system, and Rudolf Steiner, who founded the Waldorf schools, acknowledged their debt to Froebel.


In the 1830s, he also developed the educational toys known as Froebel Gifts, which included blocks that introduced children to the elements of geometric form, mathematics and creative design. These geometric designs were everywhere you looked at Taliesin West.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not a modest man. He once said, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.” But even this self-proclaimed genius never stopped paying homage to the sense of form and feeling that came from handling Froebel’s blocks. At age 88 he said: “The maplewood blocks are in my fingers to this day.”

Froebel was right. Play is the engine of real learning; it’s not idle behavior, but rather a biological imperative to discover how things work.

With a Perspective, I’m C.J. Hirschfield.

C.J. Hirschfield is executive director of Children’s Fairyland in Oakland.

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