In May 2017, Kerri Smith (Centre Director at FROEBEL Fitzroy North) and I (Ivonne Yuliana, Centre Director at FROEBEL Alexandria) were given the opportunity to go to Berlin to gain a more in-depth understanding of FROEBEL as an organisation. After a comprehensive introduction day 1 at the FROEBEL Head Office at Berlin Alexanderplatz, we had the opportunity to spend time in 4 different FROEBEL Early Learning Centres, observing and immersing ourselves in their curriculum and learning environments. We also had dinner with our Group CEO, Stefan Spieker, and a couple of colleagues from the Berlin head office at the end of Day 2.
To us, FROEBEL in Australia is a small organisation, creating our own niche with our
immersive bilingual education and care curriculum. It is often easy to overlook that our parent organisation in Berlin is a much bigger organisation, with over 160 centres around the country.
On day 2, we visited FROEBEL Heureka in Berlin. The centre had an amazing vibe, cosy and very homely. Sabina and her team greeted us with very warm welcomes. A very special thank you goes to Lee, who acted as our English translator. He was open, always keen to share and exchange information/ideas with us. We really loved the small spaces, which separated the different learning areas but still allowed children to move between the spaces and explore the whole room.
On day 3, we went to FROEBEL Ackermäuse (‘SieKids’) in Braunschweig (“Brunswick” in English), a city 2.5 hours west of Berlin. Set up in 2013, it had a distinctively ‘FROEBEL’ feel to it in terms of the spaces and architecture. Each room has a specific purpose e.g. theatre room, music room, active room etc. Children chose which activity they wanted to do during morning circle. Once they had chosen their rooms, they stayed in the same room until lunch/rest. The highlight of the day was when Ulrike (the Centre Director) took us to visit the “Schrebergarten”, an allotment in a community garden where children have opportunities to engage in some hands-on gardening/ construction projects. It was an amazing space and we loved Ulrike’s vision for the space.
In the afternoon, we hopped back on the train to nearby Wolfsburg (the home town of Volkswagen) where we visited the Phaeno Science Center, designed by the amazing architect Zaha Hadid. The Phaeno is a truly phaenomenal interactive science museum and architectural adventure playground with wonderful hands-on experiences for all age groups. The next FROEBEL Leaders Conference will take place at this venue in 2018.
On day 4, we visited FROEBEL Highdechsen in Berlin. Most children and families who go to this centre are of Arabic and/or Turkish heritage. German is their second language and some families speak almost no German. This may contribute to isolation for these families. Thus, there is strong focus to link parents with the community to help with these social problems. There was also a difference in perception of these parents in the role ‘Kindergarten’ plays in their children’s education. Manuela and her team have recently hosted a parent workshop. It was such a fantastic way to invite parents to experience first-hand what their children do at FROEBEL whilst also integrating parent education workshops such as maintaining healthy teeth through proper nutrition. One thing that we must mention is their amazing outdoor play area. The playscape was amazing, the structures were interwoven into their natural landscape.
Our final stop on day 5 was a visit to FROEBEL Wirbelwind. Sitting on a four-storey block, it caters to 240 children every day. It seemed very well run and organised. We were amazed at how calm it felt throughout the visit. There was never any feeling of being overwhelmed with the large number of children. This centre felt the most similar to our centres, where there are learning areas instead of different activity rooms. Thank you to our guide and English translator, Tahi, who answered all our questions so patiently.
In regards to the Little Scientists program we did see that a few of the centres had science areas set up, but these areas were not always readily available for the children to explore during the day. Science specific activities were either offered as a special adult led activity at a certain time of the day or combined with other activities such as water play, exploring bugs and bones and light boxes and scales/weights.
Upon reflection, it is great to see that there are many similarities in the principles and
practices of early childhood education and care (ECEC) between Australia and Germany. What was more memorable though, were the dissimilarities. In Berlin, ‘inclusion’ seems like a relatively new term in ECEC. There is a strong push for children whose home language is not German to ‘integrate’ by learning German. Kindergartens can apply to be a ‘Language Day Care Centre’ which has additional funding to support educators and children in learning German. In one centre, I felt that more could have been done to support a new child who only spoke Polish. In Australia, the Inclusion Support Program provides centres with funding and support to help children who do not speak English to settle in. The bicultural support educators form a link between educators/centre and child/family. We actively learn a few key words in the child/family’s language to communicate with them. We also noted that in many of the centres we visited we didn’t see a lot of appreciation for different cultures such as dolls, stories or songs representing different cultural backgrounds of the children or local/wider community.
Another difference that was very evident and eye opening for us was the German concept of mixed age grouping (“Open, Free Flow Concept / Offenes Arbeiten”). Unlike the traditional Australian grouping concept children of all ages (between 1yr and 6yrs) were combined in one group or room. As we know there are many benefits for older and younger children in terms of scaffolding learning and reaching for higher expectations. Although we did see older children taking responsibility for younger children we also observed younger children wandering around and not engaging with the curriculum. Observing this encouraged us to reflect on the way we group children and we discussed the benefits we see in grouping children of similar ages together such as children learning as part of a group where the children are a similar age and being educated by a teacher who knows the specifics and expectations of the age group well.
Overall our study trip to Berlin was very beneficial. It was interesting to see how ECEC worked in Berlin and and compare and reflect on how we incorporate the FROEBEL philosophy into our Australian centres. We were able to reflect on the importance of our practices and compare the similarities and differences between our learning environments and the curriculum we offer to children.
We’d like to thank Olde Lorenzen, our Managing Director, for this wonderful opportunity, Caroline Koch (our HR Coordinator) for organising our schedule, Yasemin Serbest (from the Berlin head office) for being our guide and interpreter, René Drochner (Berlin head office) for showing us around Berlin and all of the Directors and English speaking educators for welcoming us to their centres.
Ivonne and Kerri