Froebel, Steiner – Early Years Learning

Have you come across these two methods of teaching children in their early years – Froebel, and Steiner? Irene Mawer was interested in both methods, but I don’t yet know to what degree.

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) was born in Germany and established a method of allowing children to learn, particularly through play. He was the inventor of the ‘kindergarden’.

The political situation in Germany at the time was unstable, and the Prussian government were afraid of anything new and so they banned Froebel’s work in 1851. As a result, many strong-minded women who worked in the kindergardens left Germany and spread throughout the world, where they established Froebel’s work.

A hundred years later came another early-years practitioner: Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Born in what is now Croatia, he is sometimes regarded to have been quite a strange person and his image is marred by his racist comments which would be out of keeping with modern times. However, it is generally agreed that the method itself is not affected by racism. He was a philosopher who emphasised spirituality and believed in clairvoyancy and was quite a controversial figure.

Both Froebel and Steiner placed a lot of emphasis on learning through being outdoors. This fits in nicely with Irene Mawer’s love of the Classical Greek Dance, which found its greatest release when danced outside.

The link with Irene Mawer comes via the Institute of Mime. Irene Mawer founded the Institute of Mime in 1933. Very little is known about the Institute and I believe it must have closed its doors during the Second World War (1939-1945).

In 1937 the Institute of Mime focused on the artistic and stage side of things, and by 1938 it had increased the focus to include education. To this end, lectures and demonstrations were given to various organisations including to the Froebel Society, and at the Rudolf Steiner Hall (London). I have not yet been able to find out the content of the lecture demonstrations.

In addition to the lecture-demonstrations, there was a second strong link with the Froebel Society, though Katherine L. Johnston who is listed as being on the Council of the Institute of Mime (year unknown). In brackets next to her name, it states she was an Associate of Girton College, which is part of the University of Cambridge.

The archives at Girton reveal one possible woman who fits the bill, though her name is spelled differently: Katharine L. Johnstone (1878-1960), daughter of Major William Johnston RHA and Mary Russell.

Although there is nothing in her University records to show why she would be associated with the Institute of Mime, her obituary in The Times states that she was a scientist, a teacher and a head teacher and that her students could work for the Teachers’ Certificate of the national Froebel Foundation, for which they could obtain government grants. The Froebel course was extended to three years. She was also an examiner for the University of London, in Principles of Education.

So there are two ways of looking at Irene Mawer’s involvement with both Froebel and Steiner. Either she believed in both of them and wanted to be further involved, or she neither believed nor disbelieved, but wanted them to use mime in their methods because she herself passionately believed that children greatly benefit from learning mime both as a means of expression, and a method of increasing self confidence.

Thank you to Valeria Scacchi of the Froebel Society and to Hannah Westall – Archivist and Curator at Girton College, for their help with this.

Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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