In my last post I wrote about why (I think) children need more nature in their lives and some ideas on how we can do that. One of those ideas was bring nature into the preschool day and curriculum. I spent 2 months in Berlin last year researching the waldkindergarten (wald = forest) movement and visited 4 of them across the city. The approach is that children spend half of the school day in a natural setting, in all weathers, and engage in free play with limited equipment and all the ‘loose parts’ the environment has to offer. Waldkindergärtens still only make up a small percentage of early learning settings in Germany, around 700 out of a total of 25,335 kindergartens but the number is rapidly rising year on year and the approach is gaining popularity worldwide. Whilst the concept to many sounds experimental, alternative and ‘hippyish’, it’s premise connects with the roots of early learning as envisaged by Froebel ‘the grandfather’ of early childhood education who coined the term kindergarten. Froebel was determined that children spend as much time as possible in contact with nature. Whilst many schools adopted the name kindergarten their inclusion of the natural world in the learning programme slowly diminished as urbanisation set in. Froebel’s idea was reinvented in Denmark in the 1950s and spread throughout the country and Scandinavia where around 10% of schools follow this approach.
“One of the reasons the nurseries are so popular in Germany is that the natural world is such an essential part of life. Parks and gardens are treasured in German cities, and the countryside beyond is quickly accessible….More than just getting children out into the fresh air, the initiative is infused with a social and environmental ethos that runs strongly through Germany as a whole. This is a country, after all, where green issues are not just for show – the Green party has been a party of government, not only influencing policies but implementing them, too. It is no surprise that many forest kindergartens are vastly oversubscribed.”
Research is slowly emerging to back up anecdotal claims that Waldkindergarten methods are good for children. One study from the University of Heidelberg compared the performance of children from 50 forest kindergartens and standard kindergartens in their first year at school. The results of the study were almost exclusively positive. In various categories, from ‘cognitive tasks’ and ‘social behaviour’, to ‘creativity’ and ‘physical ability’, graduates of Waldkindergarten clearly outperformed their peers and the study noted that children from Waldkindergarten possessed a clear advantage. The study also revealed that the waldkindergarten children were more robust and that ‘A surprising outcome was that girls especially profited from having attended a Waldkindergarten. The teachers gave them higher credit for being tougher and physically more self-confident than other girls.’
Here is a rundown of an average day in one of the waldkindergarterns I visited. This waldkindergarten was situated in the north-west of Berlin and caters for 50 children in three groups: Toddler group (1-2.5 years); Group 1 (2.5 – 3.5 yrs); Group 2 (3.5–5 yrs). There are 10 staff members (adult: child ratio of 5:1) of which 2 are male. The toddler group only ventures out of the school garden to the forest once or twice a week but the other groups visit every morning. On my visit I was placed with Group 1 of which half the children were completely new to the school and the forest routine.
Children are dropped off at the circle in the park adjoining the kindergarten. There is a sandpit, see-saw and plenty of space to run around while everyone gathers. Once parents leave circle time begins. The group is supervised by two teachers and one leads the circle time, which is devoted to getting to know each other, singing and a short story.
The wagon is packed before circle time with all the equipment needed for the morning session. Water for washing hands, rope, swings, cutting/sawing equipment, rugs, books and pencils and paper, teachers file, first aid kit, tissues, rubbish bags etc. After circle time, we walk to the nearby forest – the outdoor classroom – which takes about 15 mins with the little people. This is a leisurely walk, lots of conversation along the way. We spot spider webs, orange slugs and of course the most fascinating for the kids – hunde kaka (dog poo)!
When we get to ‘base camp’ everyone congregates in a circle with log seating and the children unpack their lunchboxes and share what they have with everyone, so it’s not just individual packed lunches which I thought was nice. A little song of thanks is sung before eating, and the teachers enjoy some tea. As it’s the start of a new year and the group is new they will come here every day for the first 3 months and then start exploring beyond the camp. One adult might take the more confident/older children out on little explorations beyond the camp if the children wish to explore further.
After snack time the equipment is brought out of the wagon and the children are free at any time to get what they need from the buggy. Various play areas are set up – there is digging equipment, buckets; some mini-hacksaws and potato peelers for woodwork; ropes are left in a pile, some soon to become dog leads (with logs as dogs), others are hung up as swings… There is also a blanket laid out with books and drawing stuff, one teacher sits here and reads to a couple of children, while the other teacher fills in a file. When children ask for help they are assisted but the play is very much led by them, and they seem to rarely ask for assistance. Apart from making the tools available it seems the adult’s role is to safeguard and facilitate an experience, answer questions and mediate any disputes when they arise. Some minor arguments occur, as they said it’s generally always “ein Stick, zwei Kinder“…so follows the eternal mantra in kindergarten – share! Generally the children are left to sort out their own issues and there is very little, ‘no…’ and “don’t do that” to be heard.
The feeling of breathing space was really significant. When you’re in a room with 20+ kids there are points in the day when you really feel it and it can be overwhelming for children and adults – the noise, the running around- here everyone had enough space to do what they needed to do.
After 2 hours in the forest we packed up and headed back to the kindergarten for a cooked lunch. After lunch the children have a nap and then get on with more free play at the kindergarten until home time from 3-5pm. For the older children, 4-5 years, the afternoon sessions are more structured and geared towards literacy and numeracy.
There are of course differences between Germany and South Africa; fauna and flora, climate, risks as well as in culture. The purpose of visiting these schools was so I could learn experientially about this approach in order to understand better how to adapt it to local conditions. There are also examples we can draw from that might better suit our environment such as the Australian bush schools, and beach schools from coastal America. We see this as getting back to a mode of learning that was inherit in African societies when people had a greater connection with their land. All learning was based in a nature and from that flowed a deep respect for the environment and wildlife.
Our approach at the Hummingbird and in our outreach work is to try and re-establish this lost connection by developing natural playgrounds or outdoor classrooms and taking children out to natural settings at least once a week. We want to instil this connection not just to enhance learning outcomes but also so children learn the deep interconnection they have with nature so they can move on in life with the understanding that our natural environment must be cherished and protected. It helps to build a sustainable society that is respectful and appreciative of nature. We feel that the disconnection the majority of people in this country have with their land, due to historical circumstance, is best remedied through this kind of early intervention approach.