A Report on the 2018 IFS Conference in Hiroshima, Japan, by Dr Stella Louis

Last year, I had the most wonderful opportunity to co-present at the 8th International Froebel Society (IFS) Conference in Hiroshima, 6th-8th September 2018, with my dear friend, colleague and mentor, Professor Tina Bruce and her husband Professor Ian Bruce. 

Tina Bruce, Stella Louis & Ian Bruce in Hiroshima

Whilst I was in there I was fortunate to visit two Japanese kindergartens.  The first visit was arranged as part of a group visit from the conference in Hiroshima by Professor Yumiko Taoka, a gracious host and driving force behind the IFS conference. At the kindergarten, Hiroshima Jogakuin Gensu, I observed how the children made their own clay and the older children were encouraged to go into the forest on their own. I was truly impressed as this demonstrated genuine trust between adults and the children.

The second visit, in Tokyo, was kindly arranged by Professor Mikiko Tabum, from the University of Ochanomizu, who attended the IFS conference. When we arrived at Ochanomizu University Kindergarten, the deputy head teacher gave us a tour. In addition, we had access to the university archive displaying Japan’s well-known educators and thinkers. What I particularly liked about this kindergarten was that the adults clearly prioritize children’s initiative in their play activities. This signified how Froebelian adults can tailor educational support to the needs of each child.

Going to the conference was of course an opportunity to catch up with colleagues, network and make some new connections, most notably with Dr Libby Lee-Hammond, Elizabeth Jackson-Barrett and Sara Langridge. Their presentation was entitled: ‘On Country Learning (OCL) Remote Australian Aboriginal Children’s Wellbeing and Creativity’. Dr Lee-Hammond and Ms Jackson-Barrett talked about the importance of adults helping children to use their initiative and develop creativity. I especially appreciated their use of the Willing and Unwilling model from Australia’s EYLF Educators Guide (2010) as a guide during further discussion on how best to support teachers to become suitably trained. Ms Langridge talked us through some remarkable video footage of children playing with stones and using natural material to create traditional music outdoors.  The rock formations  in the background bore an uncanny resemblance to Froebel’s gifts. The video skilfully captured the children’s strong sense of community in such a remote place and continues to reverberate in my mind.

The conference delegates were equally eager to explore and found out more about my and Tina’s South Africa presentation entitled ‘Cultural Pedagogy: A Froebelian approach to decolonised, transformative early childhood education in a South African kindergarten in an informal settlement in Soweto’. This approach integrated traditional Froebelian principles with the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach.  Instead of a focus on a problem such as lack of resources, the ABCD approach focuses on the strengths of a community.  In short, the programme teaches teachers about the Froebelian approach in a practical and culturally appropriate way. The discussion which followed my presentation reflected on our personal experience of implementing a  Froebelian  approach and the intercultural challenges that arose as a result. These included cultural beliefs about play, assumptions of school readiness, and the prevalence of unqualified adults mainly caring for the under-fours. These challenges required that we engage with the whole community. Our narratives of our South Africa experiences resulted in invitations to deliver the Froebel short courses in Japan, China and Taiwan.

In her keynote speech: ‘Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Froebel?’, Dr Yukiyo Nishida expressed much resonance and interconnectivity with the South African project, deepening the discussion on teacher training. When research informs practice, it tends to be a colonial direction, but when practice informs research there is greater opportunity for a transformative approach.

All of the keynote speakers were excellent. A highlight of the conference for me was the keynote by Mr Yozo Waku, creator of Block Play based on Froebelian philosophy. I found myself immersed in a magical journey as the enchantment of Mr Waku’s play and exploration with the toys took hold of me. His interpretation of Froebel’s writings on the Gifts and Occupations was deeply inspiring because he recognised the value of worthwhile learning experiences in all of his inventions. Like in Froebel’s work, there was so much more than one specific form of knowledge in Mr Waku’s educational toys. During his keynote he talked about why he found it so important to develop toys based on Froebel’s principles, and about the need for such toys to be universally part of early childhood provision today. He also talked about the importance of giving time for self-activity and for observing children, and he gave an historical overview of the Froebel Japanese context – in particular of the family unit that values children. He showed us how he had developed a version of Froebel’s well-known First Gift. It was fascinating to learn about how Froebelian theory influenced how he came to make worthwhile educational toys today. A beautiful bowl with coloured balls particularly intrigued me. The bowl is almost imperceptibly concave underneath. When the balls are placed on top of the bowl, the balls do not roll off but form themselves into a triangle. Mr Waku’s attention to detail fascinates me as it represents an extension of and complement to Froebel’s work.

What I took away from Mr Waku’s keynote is that the toys that he makes are multifaceted and parts of a whole. For example, the bowl and balls are in some ways like the First Gift, the sphere, and the Occupations (pegboards). With the bowl and balls, Mr Waku draws on a key Froebelian principle, the law of opposites by turning the whole into parts. This left me feeling rather excited about how these modern-day toys reflect, support and extend Froebel’s gifts and occupations in the sector today. At the end of Mr Waku’s presentation all in attendance were given a copy of Bonding Shapes, Bonding Hearts, Bonding Lives. This book/catalogue is a real treasure and I would advise everyone to get themselves a copy.

Although I attended many excellent sessions, I feel sure that there were many other excellent ones I had to miss. The conference in Hiroshima was one of the best international conferences that I have ever attended.  Thank you so much to the International Froebel Society conference hosts – the Japanese Society for the Study of Pestalozzi and Froebel, and Hiroshima Bunka Gakuen University – and especially to Professor Michiro Watanabe (Chair of the Organizing Committee), Professor Yumiko Taoka for wonderful organisation, Dr Hiroko Fumoto for superb simultaneous translation, and Dr Kristen Nawrotzki for her excellent conference dinner speech. I also want to thank the Froebel Trust for its generous support of the conference, especially in the form of grants and funding for participants.

Dr Stella Louis
Freelance trainer and author
United Kingdom
January 2019