Inspired by a visit to the Froebel Archive, Ellen Hobday considers the connections between spending time in nature and observing young children.

Ellen is an Improvement Partner with Education Achievement Service (EAS) in South East Wales and works with funded non-maintained early years settings. She is currently working towards completing all six elements of the Froebel Trust Short Courses and is passionate about block play, woodwork, schemas and nature-based learning.

Ellen created this short article about the importance of observation during the Froebel Trust's Writing Workshop held in Summer 2022.

Experience and understanding of nature and our place in it is an essential aspect of Froebelian practice.

I recently had the joy of finding Froebelian teacher training students' journals from the 1920’s at The Froebel Archive at Roehampton University. It was like finding lost treasure hiding in an attic. These beautiful journals are not of children but of nature. They include hand drawn maps, drawings of plants, animals, the seasons, and written anecdotes of journeys, people, and places.

Extract from the Keston Journals - Froebel Archive for Childhood Studies at Foyle Special Collections and Archives, University of Roehampton (ref FACS/13/5)

Those working in the kindergarten were knowledgeable about nature and life in the immediate vicinity so they could introduce the children to them.

Friedrich Froebel
A Selection of His Writings, Lilley (1967)

Knowledgable, nurturing educators

One of Froebel’s key principles is about unity and connectedness. Some settings complete individual learning journals of children and the links between the 1920s students' nature journals and these contemporary forms of documentation were striking. Both contain written observations and images, and both capture the writer’s knowledge of their chosen subject.

Through the process of observation and documentation, it is evident that the students' or educators' knowledge grows. Their ability to look closely and notice both obvious and more nuanced changes in the environment, or child, develops and becomes more skilled.

Extract from the Keston Journals - Froebel Archive for Childhood Studies at Foyle Special Collections and Archives, University of Roehampton (ref FACS/13/5)

Slow pedagogy

There were lessons to learn from these journals. Making time and space to observe in detail - adopting a slow pedagogy - is a necessity. Observing quietly, whilst being present for the child is a Froebelian approach.

A term I value when considering the role of the observer is to be ‘externally passive and internally active’ (Kalliala 2006, p.124). This can be applied to both observations of nature and of children.

Some lessons for today on observation from the 1920s students' journals:

  • Stop, look, watch and wonder – take time
  • Engage all the senses – what do you notice?
  • Observe, then observe again, observations build a picture, they grow over time.
  • Through observations we see changes, draw comparisons, notice similarities … this informs us of how a child is developing. This is our knowledge of the child.
  • Documentation captures both the learning and development of the child AND of the practitioner.
  • Talk and write - It is by talking and writing about children we learn to articulate what we know about them.
  • Whole/part – parts/whole – look for the unity and connectedness. Understand the child in context and through their relationships. Understand how the context and relationships impact on the child and vice versa.
Extract from the Keston Journals - Froebel Archive for Childhood Studies at Foyle Special Collections and Archives, University of Roehampton (ref FACS/13/5)

The whole child

When observing the changes in nature, all our senses are engaged. A walk outside, is an invitation to slow down, look closely, listen, feel, and experience the world around us with our whole selves. By using all our senses when observing a child, we see the whole child, and the child in context.

Froebel’s ideas of unity and connectedness come into play again. When looking at nature we may notice how a tree changes, affected by the weather and seasons. We may understand how the decline in trees impacts on the climate, and there is an interplay between whole and parts, and parts and whole. When we observe a child we see their relationships with others, the environment, experiences, their community and the world around them. Equally, we see how these impact on the child. There is a constant interplay and interconnectedness between the two.

(Froebel) consistently, and in a very sustained way throughout his life, puzzled over and pondered the relationships, connections, and links between knowing yourself, but knowing yourself in relationship with and through others, the wider world and the universe itself...

Professor Tina Bruce
FT Nature Campaign Logo RGB

A Froebelian approach to observation, for me, would include seeing the child in context, to understand the whole child. Through careful observations we notice the child’s expression of their own lived, first-hand experiences and their inner thoughts and feelings; and how they interact with and make sense of the world around them.

The students’ journals documented observations of nature over time. It is through many opportunities to engage in nature that we notice similarities, differences, and changes. Sometimes these changes are small: the moon waxes and wanes, and seeds start to grow. Through observing children closely, over time we notice these small changes, see their growth, their development, and the magic, and wonder of childhood in front of our own eyes.

Froebel advocates the need for knowledgeable, nurturing adults. Practitioners need knowledge of child development, of how children learn and they themselves need an interest in learning about the world around them. We can learn from these lost treasures of the past, where the students' depth of knowledge of nature was impressive, by bringing this to our practice today. As a practitioner, we ourselves need to engage in nature, to learn about the world around us and share this, joyously, with the children in our care.

By Ellen Hobday


Bruce, T. (2021) Friedrich Froebel: A Critical Introduction to Key Themes and Debates. Bloomsbury.

Kalliala, M. (2006) Play Culture in a Changing World. Open University Press.

Lilley, I. (1967) Friedrich Froebel: A Selection from his Writings. Cambridge University Press.

Resources for educators

Interested in observation?

Download a free copy of Dr Stella Louis' Froebel Trust pamphlet all about observing young children.

Learn more