Monday, November 21, 2016

Building Blocks of Creativity

By C.J. Hirschfield

In a world of tablets and screens, wooden toy blocks may get passed over as quaint or boring. But as I recently learned, they remain one of the best ways to encourage children’s imaginations and spatial skills. In fact, playing with wooden blocks started the career of one of our nation’s most renowned architects – and he wasn’t shy about crediting the blocks’ creator, who also invented the modern kindergarten.

While touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West home and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week, I admired the compound’s creativity and whimsy as well as the groundbreaking techniques for which the architect is known.

The design of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West was inspired by the architect’s early use of children’s blocks

Because I run a park dedicated to the pre-K and kindergarten crowd, my ears pricked up when our guide informed us that Wright’s life was forever changed when his mother gave him a set of maple-wood blocks designed by Friedrich Froebel that she purchased for him at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Anna Wright was impressed not only with Froebel’s blocks, but also with his whole approach to teaching the young. Prior to Froebel, very young children were not educated. He was the first to recognize that significant brain development occurs between birth and age 3, something of which we’re now acutely aware.

His teaching method combines an awareness of human physiology and the recognition that people, at their essence, are creative beings. Both Maria Montessori, who developed the Montessori education system, and Rudolf Steiner, who founded the Waldorf schools, acknowledged their debt to Froebel.

In the 1830s, he also developed the educational toys known as Froebel Gifts, which included blocks that introduced children to the elements of geometric form, mathematics, and creative design. These geometric designs were everywhere you looked at Taliesin West.

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s An Autobiography:
That early kindergarten experience with the straight line; the flat plane; the square; the triangle; the circle! If I wanted more, the square modified by the triangle gave the hexagon, the circle modified by the straight line would give the octagon. Adding thickness, getting sculpture thereby, the square became the cube, the triangle the tetrahedron, the circle the sphere.
These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects . . . which were ever got into the architecture of the world.
Friedrich Froebel is credited for creating the concept of kindergarten as well as brilliantly conceived playthings like the blocks that influenced a young Frank Lloyd Wright. 

It’s pretty safe to say that Frank Lloyd Wright was not a modest man. He once said, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.” But even this self-proclaimed genius never stopped paying homage to the sense of form and feeling that came from handling Froebel’s blocks. At age 88 he said: “The maplewood blocks are in my fingers to this day.”

I enjoyed learning more about Froebel and his influence on Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright's second son, the architect and inventor John Lloyd Wright, created Lincoln Logs -- another classic "building" toy.

Children’s Fairyland is a living example of the pioneering educator’s central theory: that play is the engine of real learning; that it is not idle behavior but rather a biological imperative to discover how things work.

As the holiday season approaches, consider giving your favorite youngster a gift powered by imagination and not by batteries or electricity. You never know where it might lead!


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.


  1. C. J. I love reading your blogs as they're always a trove of wonderful information.

  2. Nice website. I bought wooden blocks games for my kids from the website helps to become my kid for mentally strong. Thanks you