I've been captivated by the idea of the Forest Kindergarten since I first learned about it while visiting schools in Germany. It's always intriguing when an educational idea graduates to "movement" status in one country, yet remains unheard-of here. Such is the case with the Forest Kindergarten. Called a waldkita in German, the forest kindergarten is essentially a preschool that takes place outdoors. By outdoors, I don't mean a little yard next to the real preschool building. Forest preschools are often outside all day, every day (in all but the worst weather), and not in a yard but in an actual forest.
Forest preschoolers have the freedom to roam, muck around, get semi-lost in the woods, build forts, and invent their own games. Even a tiny fragment of forest comes richly stocked with the ingredients for our imaginations, which seem to know how to make trees, boulders and winding paths into the scene of our adventures. Forest preschools do have some rules - for example, remaining within earshot of the adults, and returning when they call. Yet these preschools offer a level of freedom which would be a dream come true for many kids, and probably anxiety-creating for some parents, to say the least.
In May 2017, the New York Times published a long article on the Forest Kindergarten movement, called Running Free in Germany's Outdoor Preschools. It spoke to several intriguing benefits of this approach, for example that a lack of manufactured toys led to less fighting and more inclusiveness, as kids "realize that they need to be friends if they're going to play." There is now a promising initial body of research about the benefits of these preschools, and of prolonged periods of outdoor play time for young children:
- "A 2003 Ph.D. dissertation by Peter Häfner at Heidelberg University showed that graduates of German forest kindergartens had a “clear advantage” over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development." (Reference)
- "Playing outside for prolonged periods has been shown to have a positive impact on children's development, particularly in the areas of balance and agility, but also manual dexterity, physical coordination, tactile sensitivity, and depth perception." (Referenced in Benefits of Nature for Children's Health and here)
- There is now significant research showing that being in nature even briefly, or even having the chance to look at a natural scene through a classroom window, reduces stress in both children and adults. (See a fascinating article called Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park, using research from mobile EEG devices)
When I think of my own childhood, many of my favorite toys were the ones I created, not the ones adults bought for me (with the notable exception of Legos!). I'm moved by the idea of kids having to invent and create many of their own toys and games in a forest preschool environment, and then having to invite others to play when they want to play. The comfort and fluency with nature that these environments create also feels of deep and innate value, positioning kids to have access to the calming or awe-inspiring aspects of nature as they get older. I have a feeling that we'll see more from this movement, not only in Germany but in the US and elsewhere.