Reuniting kids with nature in forest kindergartens

Elisa, a wiry 6-year-old sporting rubber boots and a pink jacket, grapples her way up a tall tree with ease, stretching from branch to branch without hesitation or fear. A short distance away, a group of young boys stays busy moving logs around – working together like old hands on a construction site. Meanwhile, on a swing suspended between trees, two girls huddle together to practice counting.

It’s just another day in forest kindergarten, an all-day outdoor school in Langnau am Albis, Switzerland, where parents can enroll their 4- to 7-year old children in a two-year public school program to spend every day in the forest, rain or shine.

Forest kindergartens exist across Europe and are now beginning to gain traction in North America.  At a forest kindergarten, the only toys are the ones children can make themselves from objects found in nature. There are no classes, or reading or writing. What there is, however, is learning. The children observe and explore the natural world at their own pace, learning to identify native plants, use saws, build fires, and grow and cook food.

“I think it’s a good way to start schooling because you enjoy what you’re learning,” says Lisa Molomot, the producer of a new film, ‘School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten,’ which follows students in the Swiss forest kindergarten over the course of a year.

The film cleverly juxtaposes learning in a natural environment with the rigours of kindergarten for students in a typical North American setting. “It makes you realize how much kids are capable of that we don’t allow,” including being outdoors in all weather and working out social issues for themselves.

In the film, Ann Donnery, a teacher at Edgewood School in New Haven, Connecticut, describes a typical day in her traditional indoor kindergarten.

In a forest kindergarten, kids spend every day in the forest, rain or shine. (Photo Credit: Rona Richter)

In a forest kindergarten, kids spend every day in the forest, rain or shine. (Photo Credit: Rona Richter)

“When everybody’s arrived we go into morning meeting,” she says. “From there we go into our reader’s workshop, which is based on the Columbia Reader’s Workshop approach. From there we go into our writer’s workshop.” The day then involves a session of music, art or gym, followed by lunch, recess, story time, play time, math and finally a closing meeting. “It’s a full day – a lot of transitions,” Donnery says.

Forest schools, on the other hand, are fairly unstructured, according to Marlene Power, who founded Canada’s first forest preschool in Ottawa five years ago and established Forest School Canada, a nationwide initiative that aims to create and support a national community of practice.  According to the website, “the Forest School curriculum is largely emergent, child-directed, and play-based.”

“The ethos of Forest School allows learners the time and space to develop their interests, skills, and understanding through practical, hands-on experiences,” the description continues. “At Forest School, young people have the freedom to explore, play, build, create, imagine, and use their senses to experience the outdoor environment and engage with one another.”

Close to home

Some children in the Maritimes will have an opportunity to take part in a forest school in Sussex, New Brunswick this September. The program will run two days a week, with 10 children and two educators each day.

Lisa Brown, who founded the school, known as Tír na nÓg, has been running a traditional daycare centre for six years, and has always incorporated nature into her curriculum. While children at her main daycare go out occasionally to pick fiddleheads, collect tadpoles and count ladyslippers, her new centre will go much further,  with the kids spending the whole day in the forest.

Brown recently hosted and took part in a Forest School Practitioners Course, in which 16 participants took part from across Canada. The course was organized by Forest School Canada and led by Jon Cree, an instructor from the United Kingdom with 28 years of experience in environmental education. Similar training courses have been offered to educators in the U.K. for more than 10 years and, to date, approximately 10,000 people have participated.

Forest School Canada has collaborated with experts in the U.K. to adapt the course to the Canadian context, resulting in a program steeped in the tradition of forest schools abroad, but grounded in the realities of the Canadian experience.

Nature deficit disorder

(Photo Credit: Rona Richter)

(Photo Credit: Rona Richter)

There is an increasing body of research on the health, social and economic impacts of children not connecting to the natural world. The syndrome has been described as ‘nature deficit disorder,’ a term coined by the American author Richard Louv in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods.’

Louv describes the deficit as being connected to some disturbing trends in children, including obesity, attention disorders and depression. There is also some evidence that outdoor learning in early childhood builds both fine and gross motor skills, and enhances a child’s ability to concentrate and communicate.

A play- and experiential-based curriculum, with an emphasis on exploring local habitats, connecting to indigenous cultures and a sense of place, as well as learning about sustainability and conservation in an age-appropriate way, is meant to counteract those trends, Power says.

The concept of sustainability – the idea that everything we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment – is also a critical part of the forest school education. “As nature becomes the third teacher, sustainability becomes the foundation on which both children and teachers stand,” says Power.

There has been so much interest from parents that Brown has had to cap enrollment in her New Brunswick program at 10. Provincial regulations require her to provide an indoor space for inclement weather, and the space she has available is only suitable for a small number of children. But she is keen to grow the program in future, and share what she has learned with others who might be interested in starting their own forest schools.

“What the children learn in this outdoor education will stay with them,” she says, “and they will build on it for the rest of their lives.”

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