“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”
Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder"
What is a “forest kindergarten”?
Forest kindergarten is a model of early childhood education that was developed in Europe in the 1950s, which is now very popular in many European countries. In Germany alone, there are now over 1000 forest kindergartens, most with long wait lists. The hallmark of a true “forest kindergarten” is that the children are exclusively outdoors, year round, regardless of the weather (primitive shelter is available and weather appropriate clothing is required). Forest kindergartens offer young children abundant free play time in nature. Another key feature of forest kindergartens is that the children learn many skills that are considered advanced for their young age, such as making and tending fire, identifying and using edible plants, and working with knives.
This 6-minute video of a forest kindergarten in Switzerland offers a wonderful perspective on the model:
Decades of experience with forest kindergartens in Europe have demonstrated that this type of “free-ranging, all-outdoor learning-playing environment” is crucial for the healthy development of the young child.
The forest kindergarten movement is still in its infancy in the United States. The first forest kindergartens in the U.S. started in California in the 1990s (Tender Tracks and Wild Roots Forest School.) In the southeastern U.S. there are only a scattered few forest kindergartens at present, but the movement is gaining momentum.
Why forest kindergartens are important
Children today are facing a crisis of disconnection from the natural world, as indicated by the term "nature deficit disorder", coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book, "Last Child In The Woods". This 3-minute video gives a brief and powerful look at this problem (strangely, the very popular original version of this video that had millions of views has disappeared from YouTube):
While modern mainstream early childhood education emphasizes academics and the use of technology, forest kindergartens support a child's connection to the natural world, to other people, and to their own developing intuition. The forest kindergartens of Europe now have several decades and generations of experience that demonstrate that forest kindergartens are the optimal environment for the healthy development of the young child.
Early childhood development experts agree that the free-range, imaginative play-learning available in a forest kindergarten environment supports gross and fine motor skills, balance, coordination, problem-solving socialization, creativity, imagination and empathy. The development of these qualities is essential during the critical ages of 4-7 years old, when right brain activity is dominant in the young child. The current focus in mainstream early childhood education in the U.S. on rational, left brain activities such as reading and writing is premature and inappropriate according to the most respected early childhood development experts. Indeed, many European countries such as Switzerland and Finland, whose students statistically outperform U.S. students, do not begin academic schooling until age seven. This is consistent with the Waldorf and Montessori education models, which advocate for waiting until age seven to teach reading.
The Proven Benefits of Forest Kindergarten
The Wikipedia article on "Forest Kindergartens" contains the following:
"When children from German Waldkindergartens go to primary school, teachers observe a significant improvement in reading, writing, mathematics, social interactions and many other areas. [Researcher] Roland Gorges found that children who had been to a forest kindergarten were above average, compared by teachers to those who had not, in all areas of skill tested. In order of advantage, these were:
Knowledge and skills in specific subjects.
Constructive contributions to learning
Asking questions and interest in learning
The academic article "Reclaiming Kindergarten: Making Kindergarten Less Harmful For Boys" (2001) makes a strong case that traditional kindergarten is actually detrimental to the development of boys, and suggests forest kindergarten may be an optimal alternative for 5 year old boys.
“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” Albert Einstein
“For the child, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. It is more important to pave the way for a child to want to know, than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate." Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring" and widely considered the founder of the modern environmental movement.
"Empathy between the child and the natural world should be a main objective for children ages four through seven. As children begin their forays into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures living there. Early childhood is characterized by a lack of differentiation between the self and the other. Children feel implicitly drawn to baby animals; a child feels pain when someone else scrapes her knee. Rather than force separateness, we want to cultivate that sense of connectedness so that it can become the emotional foundation for the more abstract ecological concept that everything is connected to everything else. Stories, songs, moving like animals, celebrating seasons, and fostering Rachel Carson's “sense of wonder” should be primary activities during this stage." David Sobel, author of "Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators" and many other excellent books.
Besides the enormous benefits for the healthy development of the young child, the other reason our world needs forest kindergartens is that our planet is in trouble. The modern way of life is rapidly consuming the Earth, creating an enormous ecological disaster that is currently unfolding. Our precious Earth needs several generations of nature-connected children who grow into empowered, imaginative, nature-connected adults that are capable of solving the myriad problems they will inherit from us. Forest kindergartens are a visionary, long-range, generation-spanning form of ecological responsibility.