Creating the Future: Explore the History of Design-Based Education in America at KCAD

Posted April 5, 2017 in Public, Design West Michigan

When Friedrich Froebel created the design-focused system of preschool education known as Kindergarten in Germany 180 years ago, he fundamentally changed the course of human history. Yet today, few people in the United States know his name, let alone the story of the rise and fall of his influence on the American education system.

Veteran Grand Rapids toy designer and international Froebel advocate Scott Bultman is out to change that. On April 12, 2017 at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), Bultman will present the world premiere of an extended trailer for “The History of Kindergarten,” a documentary series he’s developing in collaboration with West Michigan visual communication company Match Frame Creative, that explores the role of Froebel’s revolutionary pedagogy in the evolution of education in America.

scene from The History of KindergartenScene from "The History of Kindergarten" (image courtesy of Match Frame Creative)

“Froebel invented Kindergarten, the first play-based system of education, and helped children develop design, creative problem solving, and critical thinking skills, because he saw those skills as fundamental to their success as adults, and to the success of society as a whole,” said Bultman.

Froebel’s ideas about leveraging children’s innate creative potential spread rapidly, as did the educational play materials – known as Froebel gifts – he developed as a way to introduce children to spatial relationships and concepts of time, speed, movement, color, contrast, weight, and perspective. In America, Froebel’s tools and methods were instrumental in shaping the country’s developing education system throughout the mid- to late-1800s.

“These ideas used to be core tenets of our education system in America, so how did we end up with the top-down managed, curriculum focused system dependent on standardized testing we have today, one that’s ultimately failing us? And more importantly, what can we do to fix it? These are the questions we’re exploring through this documentary series,” said Bultman.

Frobel’s influence can be seen in many other facets of American culture as well. The song ‘Happy Birthday,” for instance, was written in an American Kindergarten classroom. Then there are luminary designers and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles Eames, whose childhood exposure to Froebel’s methods and educational tools were instrumental to their career trajectories. The Bauhaus art movement of Germany, too, was greatly influenced by Froebel’s work, and in the wake of World War II would have a massive impact on art and architecture in the United States.

Bultman himself was largely unaware of Froebel and his influence until the mid 1990s, when the toy company he operated alongside his brother, Uncle Goose Toys, was approached to manufacture a large run of Froebel blocks, modern incarnations of the original wooden “gifts” Froebel had invented.

“As I learned more and more about Froebel, I came to see how incredible his contributions to the world really are,” said Bultman. “His ideas about education were so influential, and they made so much sense to me. I realized that not only was this the biggest business opportunity I would ever have, it was my best chance to positively impact people as well.”  

Bultman would eventually leave Uncle Goose Toys to found Froebel USA, a publisher and distributor of Froebel educational materials that he continues to operate alongside other ventures centered on developing design-based educational toys. He has also organized and hosted international Froebel education conferences in 2002, 2010, 2012, and 2013, with another planned to take place in Grand Rapids in August of 2017.

Along the way, Bultman and Match Frame Creative have been connecting with individuals, organizations, and educational institutions that are using Froebel’s tools and methods to stimulate creativity and innovation in the 21st century. The dozens of interviews they’ve conducted with educators, designers, and other professionals who share his concern for the state of American education, and see Froebel’s pedagogy as a pivotal path forward, form the backbone of “The History of Kindergarten.”

scene from The History of KindergartenScene from "The History of Kindergarten" (image courtesy of Match Frame Creative)

“Scott and Match Frame Creative have unearthed a fascinating story, one that really underscores the need for a return to learner-centered design education that develops critical thinking and creativity,” said Ken Krayer, executive director of KCAD’s Design West Michigan, which is one of five major sponsors of the documentary series. “With its rich history of design and innovation, West Michigan is the ideal place for us to begin sharing this story with the world.”

The world premiere of the extended trailer for “The History of Kindergarten” will be held in room 217 of KCAD’s Woodbridge N. Ferris building (17 Pearl St. NW) on Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm. Admission is free, but those interested in attending are asked to register via Eventbrite.