Friedrich Froebel, the man who invented kindergarten and forever changed early childhood education, designed the Froebel Gifts in 1840. They have been referred to as 'the toy that created modernism'. They are basically blocks, but so much more. They were created to help children perceive the unity and interconnectedness of art, math and nature. He was a predecessor to Maria Montessori and their works have often been compared and contrasted. Montessori however believed the design of her materials was scientifically based and gave more thought to the readiness of the child. Her materials are designed for a specific purpose and that is how they are to be used, with out much -if any, deviation. Froebel on the other hand designed his materials to be open ended. If you want to read more go here.
Frank Lloyd Wright attributed having the Froebel Gifts as a child to be the basis of all his work. (sidenote; I found it interesting Frank Lloyd Wright's son invented Lincoln Logs in 1916) One of my favorite artist, Wassily Kandinsky, is another famous person whose works (especially the early Bauhaus pieces) are connected to Froebel. Here are a couple links if you want to look at this further....
I highly recommend Froebel's Gifts. They are pricey (basic set about $150) but I believe they are important enough to purchase.
Just a reminder I now have a blog dedicated to Montessori philosophies and how that looks in our home. Come visit http://lifeinthepinktower.blogspot.com/