Fröbel’s Gifts, Noguchi’s Playgrounds

Children playing on Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Piedmont Park, Atlanta. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

If you are not listening to the 99% Invisible podcast, I highly recommend that you start! Two of the episodes from their archives are specifically of interest to the discourse on the complementary relationship between pedagogy and art. The first is a discussion about how Friedrich Fröbel’s architectural wherewithal changed the shape of education; the second episode presents an informative analysis of Isamu Noguchi’s imaginative modernist playground designs. A follow up blog post by educator and pedagogical researcher, Dr. Louisa Penfold (I highly recommend following her as well!), cites both Noguchi and Fröbel as key innovators of playful learning and modern aesthetics. For those of you who are frequent readers of my blog, you know that I love to write about the benefits that play has on our social, emotional, cognitive and artistic development.

In Dr. Penfold’s response to the episode on the 99% Invisible podcast, she makes a connection between Noguchi and Fröbel, both of whom influenced modern thinking around art, design, object-based learning and play. Fröbel and Noguchi lived centuries apart, but they were both drawn to exploring ways people learn through their interaction with others, their surroundings and the material world.

Child exploring the 8th Fröbel Gift: sticks and rings

Fröbel was a leading figure for educational reform during the nineteenth century. His work with young learners led him to establish the first Kindergarten, as well as a curricula based on socialization and experiential discoveries (his work has been well documented on this blog). Fröbel was inspired by Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Pestalozzi is significant as a precursor to early childhood art education, because his pedagogical methods underscore the importance that drawing has on a child’s development. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional and embodied approach to educating children. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity and cognition. He took Pestalozzi’s aesthetic educational philosophy further by introducing three-dimensional objects, which utilize art and design as an active mode for interacting with the world.

Reproduction set of Fröbel Gifts. Photo by Kippelboy. CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fröbel realized that the way to educate the whole child is through mindful and tangible activities, which led to the invention of Fröbel Gifts, a set of material-based educational tools that inspire active learning through playful and critical thinking. Fröbel’s own term for this thoughtful action is ‘freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Fröbel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design, they are highly successful in their intended learning results. The Gifts were revolutionary concepts for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with tangible means to make insightful connections to the world around them. Fröbel Gifts are intended to be used sequentially and under instructional guidance, in order to build upon children’s prior knowledge and experience. Their three-dimensional and geometric design enables the child to construct realistic understandings of abstract spatial relationships by discovering the function of aesthetic forms within natural and material environments. As Penfold explains, “wooden blocks could be used to teach numeracy and counting. Then the same blocks could be used to build a house, allowing children to learn about concepts such as height and size. Finally, the block house could be used to construct a story and teach literacy and language skills” (Penfeld, 2020). This methodology and philosophy of turning abstract thinking into tangible results, is in line with the architectural credo “form follows function.” This simply means that the purpose of a structure should inform how it is physically shaped.

Image from page 53 of A practical guide to the English kindergarten (children’s garden). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The influence of learning via Fröbel Gifts is noted by the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set as a child and has mentioned how playing with the blocks encouraged his groundbreaking work: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (Hersey, 2000). Wright’s innovative concept for designing buildings that adhere to their natural environment, is testament to how using Fröbel Gifts can unlock creative and critical thinking.

Isamu Noguchi, Play Mountain, 1933. Photograph by William Taylor. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

In contrast to the directional and linear intent of Fröbel Gifts, Noguchi’s modernist playground, Play Mountain (created in 1933 as a sculptural model), was designed to be pragmatically challenging and open-ended. Despite the conceptual differences, the pedagogical impetus behind Play Mountain reflects Fröbel’s concept of freiarbeit, or free play. It also utilizes a combination of three-dimensional forms in order to strengthen children’s concrete understandings of the world around them. Unlike Fröbel Gifts, Noguchi’s playgrounds were not meant to be approached in an orderly fashion. Noguchi’s playscapes had none of the traditional playground equipment. He intended for the sturdy surreal objects and earth-like forms to inspire unbridled imagination. His philosophy was that a playground without any obvious guidelines would help children think critically, embrace ambiguity and become more open-minded in how they observed and interacted with their environments and each other (all these elements are habits of mind that the arts teach us, see: Burton, 2000 and Eisner, 2002). Noguchi’s pedagogical outlook is a key tenet of non-directive play, which is a method that educators and mental health professionals alike use to elicit children’s self-expression.

Blocks, reminiscent of Fröbel Gifts, form a play structure within Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Piedmont Park, Atlanta. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

Noguchi is well known for his abstract sculptures and his modernist furniture. While his fine art is largely non-utilitarian, he struck a balance between function and form through his world famous ‘Noguchi table.’ Noguchi’s liberal explorations into natural, synthetic, abstract and concrete objects, also led to the creation of very unique and astonishing playgrounds. Each of Noguchi’s playscapes are distinctive in that they provide an educational experience for people of all ages. For the youth, they are a whimsical source of unfettered activity, while adults can closely observe groundbreaking public works of art and landscape architecture.

Noguchi created numerous models for play spaces, but only a few of his designs were actually constructed for public use. Play Mountain was one of the initial playgrounds that Noguchi imagined. Around 1934, Noguchi attempted to incorporate Play Mountain into New York City’s urban recreational infrastructure, however, he was unable to convince Robert Moses, the city’s Parks Commissioner. Play Mountain‘s design, which simulated environmental modulations and architectural wonders (like pyramids and ziggurats), would have seemed alien to Moses and other straightforward urban planners. As art historian, Shaina Larrivee explains, “playgrounds, a relatively new priority for New York and other urban areas, were decades away from a renaissance that would embrace experimentation and promote ‘creative play’” (Larrivee, 2011). Noguchi’s playground designs were also ahead of their time from an art historical perspective. The consideration and incorporation of the surrounding landscape within large scale sculptural art was not truly emergent until the Land Art movement of the 1960s (Ibid).

Isamu Noguchi, Kodomo No Kuni Playground. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

The first actual playground Noguchi realized was only a temporary structure, located outside of Tokyo, called Kodomo No Kuni or ‘The Children’s Country.’ It was built in 1965 for the national holiday, Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Year). In the mid-1970s, Noguchi’s Playscapes was established in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. (see: Lange, 2019). In his design for Playscapes, Noguchi envisioned an all encompassing educational landscape, complete with a shelter, a classroom, art studios and an office space. He intended for the space to be utilized throughout the year by school groups and summer camps, as well as the general public. The playground equipment is more akin to abstract sculpture than the typical jungle gyms, slides and swing sets seen in most playgrounds, however, every abstract and surreal form is highly functional in encouraging self-directed play. As writer Aria Danaparamita describes, “Rather than dictate a play activity, the structures invite creative interactions. Kids can climb, swing, and roll around in the Playscape’s spiral tower, play cubes and modernist geometric structures with integrated slides and swings” (Danaparamita, 2013).

Isamu Noguchi at the planning of Moerenuma Park in 1988. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

Noguchi’s last major project was Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. The park is a 454 acre amalgamation of Noguchi’s ideas and designs for playgrounds and land art, including Play Mountain. Although Noguchi passed away several months into the project’s planning, his friend, the influential Japanese architect Shoji Sadao, carried on with the logistics and construction. This monumental public space, which includes one of Noguchi’s most elaborate play spaces, opened to the public in 2005, 17 years after Noguchi’s passing.

Moerenuma Park’s Forest of Cherry Trees, Sapporo, Japan. © Moerenuma Park

Fröbel’s Gifts and Noguchi’s playgrounds are exemplary models for inspiring children’s development within the natural and material world. Their contributions are a testament to how creativity and compassion can inform and benefit social, cultural and cognitive transformation. Both Fröbel and Noguchi were compelled by an array of modern art, design and architecture during their time, and in turn they influenced future generations of artists, designers and architects who work with children and/or develop educational materials.

Education is a form of social architecture and adheres to the adage ‘form follows function.’ Educators are astute and adept in scaffolding instruction and supporting their students throughout the phases of their development. Educators also physically set up their classrooms in order to build strong social, emotional and cognitive frameworks. The tangible classroom space should be a place that welcomes social discourse, collaboration and both guided and self-directed learning. Educational infrastructures, which are essential for our society to operate and progress in a holistic and critical manner, are developed through the exploration of materials and aesthetic experiences, and engagement with scaffolded instruction and free play. Artists and educators have a unique position as designers of social and cultural blueprints for generations upon generations to explore, expand and renovate.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 41:4, 330-345, 2000.

Danaparamita, Aria. “Playing with Art: The Isamu Noguchi Playscape.” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 19 September 2013.

Eisner, E. (2002, September) What the Arts Do for the Young, SchoolArts, (pp. 16-17).

Hersey, George. (2000). Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 205.

Lange, Alexandra. “The Story Behind Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Atlanta.” WHY Magazine, 2019.

Larrivee, Shaina D. “Playscapes: Isamu Noguchi’s Designs for Play.” Public Art Dialogue, 1:01, 53-80, 2011.

Mars, Roman. “Froebel’s Gifts.” 99% Invisible, 9 April 2019.

Mars, Roman. “Play Mountain.” 99% Invisible, 23 April 2019.

Penfold, Louisa. “Froebel’s Gifts and Isamu Noguchi’s Playgrounds.” Art. Play. Children. Learning, 15 April 2020.


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