Imagine drawing a single cube—a straightforward task for an art teacher. Now imagine drawing another cube so it looks like it’s on top of the first. This will activate your brain to search for experiences handling real cubes before you draw. Now imagine our youngest students who can hardly hold a pencil when we first meet them. By guiding them through the process of investigating and engaging with the real world, we can have a lasting impact on their ability to successfully express themselves.
Student Ohemaa, grade one, beams with pride.Matteo, block mosaic in progress.Cristian, Double Stairs.A student bridges the gap from 3D to 2D.
Current research shows that proficiency in literacy and math instruction improves with experiential learning and real-world interactions, so it should come as no surprise that students benefit from inquiry that focuses on building visual literacy before they make art.
This is not a new concept. In fact, it appears in the first Kindergarten established by Friedrich Froebel in 1837. Froebel had the beautifully simple idea that students must interact with their world to understand it. His philosophy focused on scaffolded play with manipulatives. He developed a series of structured “gifts” (see Resource) to guide these interactions and create repeatable progressive learning experiences.
What sets these gifts apart is the way they progress. They lead a child from familiar 3D forms, like what you encounter in real life to challenging 2D shapes, like we see in picture planes to the abstract lines and points that are foundations of drawing.
Artists were heavily influenced by the introduction of these gifts, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, who went to early Kindergartens. Piet Mondrian received training in Froebel’s methods at teacher college. Maya Lin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Buckminster Fuller all used Froebel’s gifts in their early life. Wright promoted the philosophy of Froebel’s gifts throughout his life.
Working with Cubes
With just eight wooden cubes, you can harness the power of these gifts in your own art room. I start by giving each student eight cubes and asking them to make one larger cube. Right away, students begin an investigation of how parts make a whole. We practice splitting the cube in half, first vertically then horizontally, creating a mental portfolio of spatial patterns that students will access later in class and possibly throughout their lives.
If a student finds these manipulations difficult, peers jump in to show different ways to arrive at the eight-block cube. Students who have trouble writing or drawing or who speak a different language have a chance to be leaders in the art room because concrete objects speak for themselves. This builds confidence in students whose leadership and creativity are sometimes overlooked because of the fine-motor focus of the art room.
Next, students build and play, making and naming constructions that model everyday life. We pause our block exploration to look at M. C. Escher’s impossible buildings and make little toys or paper dolls to expand the scope of our imaginative play and storytelling. Imagination is what children do best, and blocks feed the imagination, so art-making becomes autonomous, authentic, and self-directed.
Collaboration extends this gift even further, encouraging bigger and more complex stories. For a final product, students use square stamps, papers, and crayon drawing to make staircases, doors, windows, and characters. When they share their work with the class, the stories just pour out of them!
Forms of Beauty
After representative building, we use the same eight blocks to create Forms of Beauty, a challenging puzzle-like way of using blocks to make flat designs as though they were tiles. Creating mosaics after this exploration produces inventive results. Again, the repeated process of play and investigation empowers peers to be resources for each other.
When the work with the cubes is complete, we move to the next gift, rectangular prisms. Students discover that eight rectangular prisms take up the same amount of space as the cubes. The constructions become taller and more complex. The repeated routine of playing, looking at art, and making artworks expands students’ creative process.
As the gifts progress, the possibilities for expression increase. After introducing Froebel’s gifts to my art class, there was measurable improvement in students’ spatial reasoning, physical ability, and independence.
Using Froebel’s gifts in your classroom can cultivate a student-centered environment that focuses on motor skills and visual arts literacy without being rote or boring. It gives students choice and autonomy blended with the scaffolding and constraints that leaves them feeling safe and successful.
Ruth Byrne is an art teacher at Mansfield Elementary School in Hackettstown, New Jersey. RuthCByrne@Gmail.com
Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
Art teachers encourage students to develop visual and digital literacy skills. Young students learn about Froebel’s Gifts and participate in a series of scaffolded lessons, elementary students explore the concept of unity in art-making and photograph compositional designs, middle-school students use surprising materials to construct hyperrealistic food items, and high-school students create imaginative Doodle Art inspired compositions.