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Infinite Curiosity: Oberlin, Children and Art

Clarence Ward Birthday Party and Exhibition (2004)



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Johann Friedrich Oberlin and Preschool Education

The name usually associated with the initiation of early childhood education in modern times is Johann Friedrich Oberlin, an Alsatian Lutheran pastor in Waldersbach, who founded in 1767 the first salle d'asile (literally, "hall of refuge"), or infant school, for the care and instruction of very small children while their parents worked in the fields.


Oberlin College's namesake is known for his ecumenism and philanthropic work. His influence in education, especially of young children, is not as frequently cited. Shortly after arriving as the new pastor in the village of Waldersbach Johann raised funds to start a school. The conditions in the villages of the Vosages Départment were severe: the region was isolated, the poverty grinding. Violence and abuse were commonplace, as was a general sense of despair and resignation. Faced with such difficulties, Oberlin felt his first obligation was to the children, especially the youngest, and their education. He built schools while putting forth his idea of mandatory education for children and young teens. He energetically pursued systematic instruction for very young children, recommending that those as young as three and four attend school. Oberlin was also the first to hire women as teachers in public schools.

Oberlin's instructional methods involved several principles:

  • Expose children to clean, warm, cheerful environments (in contrast to their living conditions).
  • Provide a safe place - at least during the daytime - from abusive parents.
  • Keep children busy and teach them useful and practical skills. For example, knitting was popular since it was a new skill.
  • Teach about nature by sketching insects, plants, and stones.
  • Teach about the contours of the land and the wider world by making maps.
  • Teach manners, cleanliness, and hygiene to promote health and improve morale.
  • Awaken intelligence and stimulate imagination.
  • Create in the hearts of children a love for and gratefulness to God by teaching them to pray, giving them a sense of security, fostering an appreciation of nature, and giving them a sense of identity and self-respect.
  • Reduce isolation by teaching standard French, rather than the dialect spoken in the region.

Oberlin preferred to teach with objects rather than rely on abstractions. Oberlin collected reproductions of works of art and objects from nature, which the children would paint. He took them on nature walks teaching the names of plants and animals. He demonstrated printing with his press. He created maps of all the countries of the world to expand their horizons.

This "object-based" approach was later developed by Friedrich Froebel as the basis for his theory of the kindergarten system.

Object-based learning is an instructional strategy that is based on the idea that people can learn from an object by exploring the object itself and its context. Presently, object-based learning is a strategy that is most frequently used in museums, both in exhibits and educational programs. 2


Friedrich Froebel and Froebel Blocks

A German educator and the "father" of kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) opened the "Child Nurture and Activity Institute" in Blankenburg, Prussia, in 1837. The school, later renamed "kindergarten," provided an environment for young children that fostered self-direction, spontaneous play, and a close relationship with nature. Froebel's goal was an environment where children were not directly instructed but allowed to learn through play and imitation. His most substantial contribution to educational theory was his conviction that self-activity and play are necessary elements in a child's education.

Example of Froebel Blocks from the 2004 Exhibition

"Froebel blocks" are the first known building block construction set for children. Froebel's kindergarten was packed with objects designed for play, including a set of 20 "gifts" and "occupations" - such as blocks, balls, and sticks - of his own invention. Froebel created these gifts to assist children in noticing and appreciating familiar forms and patterns found in nature. Froebel developed his blocks in the 1830s for children to learn the principles of geometric form and function, as well as to foster creativity. He started with a wooden cube and added other blocks. The complete set is contained in a wooden box and intended for children aged 3 through 8. Froebel blocks were spread throughout the world and continue to inspire the creativity of children today.

Froebel's Connection to Anchor Stones

Froebel blocks fascinated Gustav and Otto Lilienthal, but the brothers felt the wooden blocks did not provide the feel of a real building. The Lilienthals discovered a formula for producing imitation stone made from a mixture of sand, chalk, and linseed oil. They reproduced Froebel's blocks using the new material; the first sets appeared in 1879.

Example of Anchor Stones from the 2004 Exhibition

The toys caught the attention of entrepreneur Friedrich Richter, who improved and expanded the concept and marketed it as an educational tool. Richter created 1,200 stone shapes and sizes and presented them in a system of 400 basic and extension sets. Richter created the Anchor Stone trademark and, by the 1930s, anchor stones were known around the world.

Clarence Ward and Anchor Stones

Clarence Ward (1884-1973) was a professor of art and architectural history at Oberlin College. In 1917, he founded Oberlin's art library, which bears his name. He began building the library's collection, which, by the 1950s, had expanded to almost 25,000 volumes and was one of the largest art libraries in the United States. He was also Art Department Chair and Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum from 1917 to 1948. In his spare time Ward was a practicing architect and designed several buildings in Oberlin, including an addition to the museum, the East Oberlin Community Church (where he served as Pastor), and the Samuel R. Williams house, the residence of the President of Oberlin College.


When he was six, Clarence Ward received a set of anchor stones. He slowly built his collection over the years and his passion for architecture was partly inspired by these educational toys. He used his anchor stones both as a child and as an adult to construct replicas of buildings. In the classroom he used the stones to construct medieval buildings, concurrently introducing his students to architectural structure and the thrill of creating a built environment.

Clarence's set of 50,000 anchor stones was left to the college and is housed in the Art Department.


1. "Preschool Education." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 20 Nov 2003.

2. From George Mason University, Instructional Technology Program Learning Theories and Instructional Strategies Matrix.

Researched and written by Barbara Prior, Oberlin College Art Librarian, and Denine Del Balso, Kent State University graduate student in Library and Information Science.


Last updated:
July 03, 2018