In the 1870s, a little boy named Frank was given a set of wooden blocks to play with. His mother had started a kindergarten in their Wisconsin home and young Frank was fascinated by the endless ways he could build and shape things with the blocks. It helped stimulate both his imagination and his inquisitive nature.

Frank’s story has been repeated millions of times over. Before American children enter grade school, they must first flex their budding curiosity in kindergarten. This academic regimen intended for 4- to 6-year-old students leads directly into first grade, where these primed tots can begin to soak up knowledge beyond crayons and snack time.

But when you stop to think about it, a German phrase for American schooling is kind of peculiar. So how did we come to call kindergarten kindergarten?

Thank Friedrich Froebel. The German educator started the first kindergarten around 1840. (Kinder means children in German, while garten means, as you’ve likely guessed, garden.) As a young boy whose mother died before he reached his first birthday, Froebel had largely been left to nourish his own intellect. He spent much of his youth outside in the family garden, fascinated by the world around him.

As an adult, Froebel became an educator at the Frankfurt Model School, which encouraged active learning. After Froebel left to become a private tutor, he often spent time in gardens with his students—a return to the nature that had comforted him when he was a child.

When Froebel finally opened his own school in Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837, he called it the Institution for Play and Occupation. In 1840, he changed the name to the Garden of Children, because he believed kids were like flowers. Or, as Froebel put it: “Children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.”

Kindergarten combines play with education.Weekend Images Inc./iStock via Getty Images

This was novel thinking for the era. In Froebel’s time, kids under the age of 7 were believed to receive little benefit from formal education. But Froebel disagreed, believing kids left to their own devices and receiving encouragement from teachers could help them establish a basis for their future education. Froebel encouraged kids to sing songs and play with toys. Through fun activities, they could begin to connect with the larger world around them.

Froebel took the kindergarten motif pretty far. Kids had a flower, fruit, and vegetable garden on school grounds they could tend to. As the Garden of Children flourished, more kindergartens opened in Germany.

But Froebel’s innovative thinking wasn’t universally embraced. In 1851, Prussian minister of education Karl von Raumer believed Froebel was spreading atheist and socialist doctrine in his teachings: kindergarten was, in von Raumer’s view, supplanting traditional Christian daycare centers that taught Christian doctrine. In retaliation, von Raumer banned kindergarten in Prussia—a prohibition that wasn’t lifted until 1860.

Froebel died in 1852 having ushered in a crucial new addition to education, and it wouldn’t be constrained to Germany. Not long after his Garden of Children opened, German immigrants Caroline Louisa Frankenberg—a onetime student of Froebel’s—and Margarethe Meyer Schurz started kindergarten classes in the United States for German-speaking children.

In 1856, educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody took notice of the kindergarten curriculum. She knew the Schurz family and was struck by how well-behaved Margarethe’s daughter Agathe was. When Margarethe told her Agathe was a product of the kindergarten system, Peabody visited Germany to see the schools for herself.

By 1860, Peabody had opened America's first English-speaking kindergarten, in Boston, and went on to train thousands of kindergarten teachers. By the 1880s, 400 kindergartens had opened in the U.S. The name stuck—so much so that not even the outbreaks of World War I or World War II and the accompanying anti-German sentiment could rattle it. Today, kids just beginning their formal education journey do it as kindergarteners.

As for little Frank and his blocks: He grew up to be Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. His career, he once wrote, could be traced directly back to those hours spent immersed in the creative world of kindergarten.

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