How waves of migration, feminism and colonialism spread the cubic seeds of kindergarten

by Michael W. Rumbelow
PhD Student, University of Bristol

I like the way FreshEd makes the latest theories and academic debates in a wide range of fields accessible. My background is in mathematics education, but FreshEd helps me access contemporary ideas from other fields. Recently, the intellectual debate around feminism, migration and colonialism on FreshEd has opened up avenues in my own research.

For example, my current doctoral research is focused on young children’s block play. Today, block play seems ubiquitous – Lego is the biggest toymaker, and Minecraft is the most popular videogame – but its origins can be traced back to Friedrich Froebel’s invention of kindergarten two centuries ago in Keilhau in Germany, and his novel pedagogy of play with wooden cubes, inspired by his study of the cubic structures in crystals. I find it interesting how this model of block play-based education developed by Froebel, then a little-known pedagogue in a small German village, came to be embedded in education systems around the world.

Historically, the spread was driven and facilitated by migration – at the time of Froebel’s death in 1852, his kindergarten model had been banned in his own country as too revolutionary, a potential threat to the school system run by the traditional political and religious authorities, then re-establishing themselves after the quelled uprisings of 1848. But the political forces that closed his kindergartens also led to the persecution and migration of many Germans to other countries such as England and then the US. There some migrant women set up kindergartens, initially for migrant German-speaking communities, and then for the wider English-speaking community. And with kindergartens came play with wooden cubes.

Several episodes on FreshEd have helped me think about how this happened. 

In ‘Can You Hear the Subaltern Speak’,  Bhavani Kunjulakshmi highlights some of the tensions between colonial and caste structures in India and feminism. In particular, the paradox of women’s role in India’s Kerala state, where despite much-vaunted, soaring levels of education among Keralan girls, traditional patriarchal colonial and caste systems still conspire to impose arranged marriages and deny women many of the freedoms and opportunities that access to education is supposed to afford.  The ground-breaking way Kunjulakshmi tells her stories, blending recorded interviews, music and moving first-person testimony were electrifying. Though I first heard the episode over a year ago, there were vivid images conjured by it that have stayed with me, disrupting my habitual ways of thinking ever since. I think that these powerful and often uncomfortable images can be more affecting and enduring than elaborate arguments in a paper. And the podcast format, which facilitates creating your own mental images, means that the afterimages are stronger than pictures on a page. The discussion of resistance to arranged marriage and oppressive patriarchal mores resonated for me with Bertha Ronge’s then-scandalous decision to divorce her husband in Germany, whom she married when she was 16 years old, to marry her lover Johannes Ronge, a defrocked anti-establishment Catholic priest, and migrate to London, where they opened the first English-speaking Kindergarten in 1853.

In Lachlan McNamee‘s podcast ‘Settling for Less’, with interviewer Will Brehm, he explores the distinction between colonialism and imperialism, and compares the impacts of colonial and imperial projects on local settler and indigenous communities, for instance, in India, Australia and Myanmar, as well as the differences between the economic forces driving colonialism/imperialism in a given context and the – often post-hoc – justifications of it. For me, this problematises the educational traditions that settlers bring and imperial rulers impose – why are educational institutions for young children in many countries labelled with the German term ‘kindergarten’?

And in Aula Divergente – ‘Migración en contexto: Latinoamérica y el Caribe
Educación Migrante Episodio 3’,- Gioconda Herrera, Paulo Falcón and Javier Gonzalez discuss the migration of 7 million Venezuelans in recent years to neighbouring countries such as Colombia, as well as beyond to Mexico and the US and elsewhere, and the implications of this for the education of migrant children in particular, who may not be with formally documented adults. How can local communities and pre-school institutions engage with Venezuelan migrant children and vice versa? Is it possible to unpick the right to education from other human rights? Is there a right to play, and if so, with what?

These themes of migration, feminism and colonialism, which I have heard debated and explored on FreshEd, seem to both resonate and jar with my earlier concepts of kindergarten block play as a psychological activity, highlighting some of the social and geopolitical forces that have scattered these cubes, which children can use to model new worlds.  

November 3, 2023