V&A Dundee

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Creative block: Changing attitudes to play

A colourful installation exploring playful attitudes and ideas, our ‘Rules of Play’ installation was inspired by toy planks used by children all over the world. Jenny Kane explores the origin of the educational toys that revolutionised the industry.

The idea that play can help children learn is now so instinctive that we often take it for granted. Toyshops are crammed full of educational playthings, while toys targeted at young children are often designed with academic benefits in mind.

But we don’t have to go too far back to find a very different story. Before LEGO, Play-Doh and the i-Que Intelligent Robot (a talking robot that uses Bluetooth to link to smart devices), play was often viewed as a frivolous activity without much purpose.

It took pioneering educationalists and several decades to question that widely held view and begin harnessing the potential of having fun. And it’s the work of one of these early trailblazers, German-born Friedrich Froebel, which helped inspire our latest installation, Rules of Play.

Black and white archival photo of  Frederick Froebel.
Frederick Froebel believed that play could help children build a better understanding of the world. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress)

Froebel’s childhood was a difficult and lonely beginning devoid of the interesting toys children now take for granted. Born in 1782, he spent most of his early years in the garden of his father’s vicarage after the untimely death of his mother when he was a baby.

He later went on to live with an uncle who allowed the young Froebel to build on his interest in plants and nature. It was this close relationship with the natural world, as well as his Christian faith, that laid the foundations of Froebel’s ideas.

Froebel went on to become a teacher, setting up the first Kindergarten, or ‘garden of children’, in Blankenburg, Germany. Key to his work was the observation that play – which involves the imagination and the mind as well as physical movement – educates the ‘whole’ child and is an important part of early development.

“Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.”

Frederick Froebel

Frustrated by inappropriate toys for children, which at the time were often highly decorated and intricate, Froebel created a set of educational materials called ‘gifts’. These deceptively simple materials, which include multi-coloured balls of yarn and wooden blocks and spheres, were designed to encourage children to explore, build and experiment.

The popularity of these educational toys spread across the world, with American manufacturer Milton Bradley among the first to produce them for the US market.

Archival photo of two children playing with blocks on a table, accompanied by a nun.
Children playing with ‘gifts’, educational toys designed by Froebel. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress)

Alongside playing with ‘gifts’, children attending Kindergartens were encouraged to take part in games, sing songs and connect with nature through gardening and looking after animals. These institutions, places of learning for small children rather than simply somewhere they would be looked after, flourished and spread to counties including Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and the US.

As well as having a lasting impact on early years education, the influence of Froebel’s work can still be seen in the design of toys today. A recent report by technology research company Technavio estimates that the global educational toys market will grow by more than $34 billion by 2022. This is in part attributed to the huge demand for ‘smart’ toys which can communicate with a child through movement or speech.

But, despite the rising appetite for digital playthings, the apparent simplicity of Froebel’s gifts still holds appeal.

In the 1980s, KAPLA (a construction game made up of identical wooden planks) was invented by Tom van der Bruggen. Originally created to help the Dutchman fulfil his dream to convert an old farm into a castle (complete with carriage entrance, fountains and towers), KAPLA has proved popular with both children and adults.

Several bird-like structures built using small planks of wood.
Due to their unique size, in the ratio of 1:3:5, KAPLA planks can be used to create a wide variety of structures, like these birds built in the museum.

The endless possibilities of simple construction toys have also been placed at the heart of our installation, Rules of Play. Designed by Gabriella Marcella, founder of Glasgow print studio RISOTTO, it celebrates Froebel’s work by encouraging visitors of all ages to recognise the true value of play, especially when we embrace simple materials like those Froebel advocates. Made of 200 enlarged pine planks in bright colours, the installation also includes 10,000 KAPLA planks, with questions to inspire people to create their own masterpiece alongside Gabriella’s structures.

A woman sat on the floor playing with wooden planks in front of colourful huge wooden planks.
Gabriella and her installation, Rules of Play.

It’s been wonderful to watch visitors dig into the boxes of KAPLA planks and have a go themselves, with a look of total concentration and focus in their eyes. The things created have been remarkably varied, from towers so tall they eventually tumble to intricate patterns that stretch across the floor.

More than 150 years since Froebel created some of the very first educational toys, it’s nice to see that simple wooden planks can still hold the concentration of children and the young at heart, without a battery or plug in sight.

Jenny is the Media Officer at V&A Dundee.