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WHAT IS A FOREST SCHOOL?

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.”

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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.

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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)!

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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.

these kids were playing 'bus' and the child standing was the bus conductor collecting fares from the passengers

these kids were playing ‘bus’ and the child standing was the bus conductor collecting fares from the passengers

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.

Pop Up and Play Jozi holiday club

We’ve been doing adhoc Pop Up & Play sessions since I last wrote about it in March and after a session in August at David Webster Park, Troyeville we were invited by City of Johannesburg Community Development and Region F Sport and Recreation to run the school holiday club at the end of September.  We were really pleased and grateful for the invitation from local government to provide this space and experience for children.  They are greatly needed in communities where parents are under pressure to provide appropriate care for children because they cannot afford extra holiday care.  Our model also helps reclaim spaces in the city that were planned for children’s use but have been taken over by adults and used for anti-social activities such as drug abuse and prostitution.  We need to ensure an adult presence in these spaces but a presence that does not seek to control and regiment children’s play.

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We had around 45 kids passing through over the week with 30 or so ‘regulars’.  Our sessions ran from 10am-2pm, staffed by myself, Siphokaze and Linda – our playworkers in training who did a fantastic job.  The idea behind these sessions is to provide a safe space and the resources for children to engage in child-directed play.  During the week we made kites (the old fashioned way), masks, swords, wands, read stories, painted,  played drums, walked the slackline and on the last day were moved and entertained by the amazing children’s dance and drama team from Buzz.

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My main observation of the week is that the kids initially came with the expectation that this was another version of school or aftercare, ready for command and instruction.   We laid out materials and assumed the children would just get on and play but I initially found, too often for my liking, that I was asked ‘what should I paint?’, ‘what should I make?’, even ‘how must we play with this…”.  The kids in the group were of primary school age, older than the 2-6 cohort I usually work with.  I wondered whether the schooling environment had made them lose their innate playfulness and creativity, or whether the presence of us adults changed the way they played as they assumed some kind of pressure to perform, to be correct or felt that they were being assessed.

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I soon realised our main task was letting them realise they have all the ideas and they are free to explore them, that they have the capacity and ability and just needed the confidence, encouragement and freedom to explore that.  While I spend a lot of time advocating for and explaining ‘child-directed’ play to adults it was a surprise to have to ‘explain’ (through play) the approach to children themselves.

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It also took days for the children to stop asking if they could please go to the toilet, if they could go and wash their hands and to stop calling me Ma’am and Miss.  I know this was both an ingrained habit and a show of respect and I appreciated it but in a play-based environment I would like to be seen as an adult and their equal.  This is an interesting topic and one of contention for many in a culture that really holds onto the ‘respect your elders’ mantra.  I totally agree with respecting your elders, naturally, but that respect must come from a place of mutual understanding and not one of fear and blind obedience.

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A week later I came across a wonderful (lengthy!) blog post by the wonderful Teacher Tom called “Why I Teach the Way I Do’ (which is inspiration for a million blog posts to come).  His ideas around  democracy, freedom and obedience in the learning environment really resonated and articulated my feelings around these issues.  I’ve pulled out and paraphrased some excerpts below:

“I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. … We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed…..we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.”

“Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn’t follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It’s impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.”

“Our job, then, is not to “tell” children or “instruct” children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals.  Some still insist, however, that for their own good we must “train” children to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: “Stop!” “Come here!” “Sit there!” much in the way one trains a dog. (I’m sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor.  This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I’m preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.”

“Being child-directed is about creating a physical and intellectual space in which children “tell you” when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts.”

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PORTABLES, POP-UPS AND LOOSE PARTS

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Last year I visited Berlin for three months to do some research on ‘child-friendly cities’, playscapes and the ‘waldkindergarten’ (forest school) movement.  While there a friend introduced me to the wonderful work of Spielwagen (Playbus).  This ‘portable playground’ began in the late 1970’s, in the old eastern-bloc district of Friedrichshain, by a group whose mission was to view the city as playground, enhance free play and creativity and devote time for children.”   Most of the toys are custom-made by the project and there are some really quirky and irresistible designs (see below).  They visit the same 5 parks on rotation, afterschool and on holidays, Monday to Friday, nearly all year round.

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Following the trend of recession-proof ‘pop-up’ everything is the pop-up playground.  A global movement is emerging in Australia, Colombia, Egypt, Mexico, the UK and US led by play organisation Pop Up Adventure Playground who “reclaim private and public spaces, transforming everyday landscapes into vibrant places to play with ordinary, repurposed materials such as cardboard boxes, string, yarn and tape (also known as loose parts)  The principal is very much like Spielwagen however the focus is on providing more open ended play materials/equipment – ‘loose parts’ – and there is also a big emphasis on child-directed play.  Child-directed play means children choose what and how they want to play.  They make the rules, and our role as adults is to provide play space and materials and only offer support when asked.  Adults must not direct, try to teach, offer advice etc unless invited to do so!

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     In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and the possibility of

discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it

Simon Nicholson, 1971

Loose parts was coined by landscape architect Simon Nicholson in the early 1970’s.  By variables he means loose parts such as sticks, stones, sand, stumps, fabric, wood, balls, buckets, baskets, crates, boxes, rope, tyres, balls, shells etc etc.  Nicholson believed loose parts empowered creativity because of the open ended nature of the materials.  Play with loose parts has no ‘goal’ and there are no right or wrong answers.  Anyone who works with or has children knows how children in the early years are generally more drawn to the wooden spoon, cardbox box or remote control than the fancy store bought toy.  This is because they provide a blank canvas and can be used in more diverse ways than specific toys.  It is also because of young children’s superior capacity for divergent thinking (a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions) that they prefer play materials with endless possibilities.

 

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As well as giving children access to open-ended, freeform play what I also like about the pop-up playground movement is its relationship with space in the city.  Similar to the vision of Spielwagen who viewed ‘the city as a playground’ it is about using public space in new ways, occupying space and also speaks to active citizenry and community organisation and cohesion.

It is also about changing perceptions towards play – “While we have worked with collaborators around the world to bring play to thousands of children and families we know that sustainable change starts at home.  It starts with parents who resist the pressure to sign their children up for numerous hours of adult directed activities every day after school, ensuring that kids still have time to play.  It starts in classrooms around the world where one or two teachers decide not to accept the idea that there is no time left for play at school.  It starts with all of us who share the belief that play is a fundamental, essential right of every child.” – (Pop-Up Adventure Playground)

Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, which commemorates the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.  It is a day to commemorate those that lost their lives so we could stand here and enjoy more of our basic rights, although many of our people still do not enjoy these rights.  Play is often seen as a frivolous, meaningless activity that is inferior to education and work.  Part of this movement is to try and make people see the deep and important connections between children’s right to play and social well-being and development.

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We will start Joburg’s first pop-up playground in April at the David Webster Park, Troyeville and the Drill Hall in town…..more details to follow soon.

If you are interested in setting up your own pop up playground get in touch with us – ntsiki@hummingbird.org.za or subscribe to Pop-Up Adventure Playground’s mailing list and they will send you their very informative free mini-toolkit.

eBhayi leading the way…?

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 In coming posts I will have a lot to say about the provision (or lack thereof) of interesting and stimulating play spaces in South Africa.  I thought I should, however, start with some good news and give credit where credit is due.  It is really important at this time, bombarded as we are with so much negativity in the media, that we focus on the positive, the alternatives, solutions and better implementation.  We know what the problems are, and on the whole we know what needs to be done, so let’s stop focusing on the problem and move to the future.  Our children!

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I was really pleasantly surprised to see this new playground at the beach front in P.E this past December.  I had my nephews in tow so I didn’t look like the weirdo I usually do when I visit playgrounds alone. The playground is a part of the Kings Beach redevelopment project led by the Mandela Bay Development Agency.  Some of the features include 3 public swimming pools – one a dedicated paddling pool for toddlers – a skate park; an outdoor gym; ponds, picnic areas and two playgrounds.

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The main playground has a really interesting mix of non-traditional play equipment that I have never seen in a public park in SA before.   These included various types of balancing beams, wire tightropes, unusual shaped merry-go-rounds, some funky metal ‘telephones’, as well as the very popular giraffes.  It was great to see durable natural materials employed – virtually no plastic.  It was also nice to see people of all ages in the park, especially the older kids and adults trying out the equipment, falling over, getting up and laughing at themselves – pure fun.

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Some critique – one, there seemed to be a lack of variety in terms of height, all the equipment was at a low level.  The space could do with climbing structures to add different perspectives and some more risk and adventure.  Two, as seen above the water quality of the streams and ponds was poor.  Algae were flourishing, which needs to be maintained to provide more opportunities for water play.    On the whole I’d give Mandela Bay Development Agency 8 out of 10 for putting children at the heart of urban planning.   I hope this space will be cherished and maintained.

Hopefully projects like this will spring up around the country – these spaces are desperately needed.  Looking at the Johannesburg Development Agency’s list of completed projects not one strikes me as really child-centred.  I will be posting more in coming weeks on play spaces in Johannesburg – our so called “World Class African City”.

Stay tuned.  Bless