A forest kindergarten is a type of preschool education for children between the ages kindergarten age group three and six that is held almost exclusively outdoors. Whatever the weather, children are encouraged to play, explore and learn in a forest or natural environment. The adult supervision is meant to assist rather than lead.
A forest kindergarten can be described as a kindergarten “without a ceiling or walls”. The daycare staff and children spend their time outdoors, typically in a forest. A distinctive feature of forest kindergartens is the emphasis on play with toys that are fashioned out of objects that can be found in nature, rather than commercial toys. Each forest kindergarten is different, partly because the organisations are independently minded.
Walking to the woodland, from the building. Forest kindergartens operate mainly in woodland, although some other sites can be equally inspiring, for example beaches and meadows. There should be a building where children can shelter from extreme weather. They may also spend a small part of each day indoors, although that is more likely to be for administrative and organisational reasons, such as to provide a known location where parents can deliver and collect their children.
Children are encouraged to dress for the weather, with waterproof clothes and warm layers, according to the climate. There are some forest schools that take children of various ages to woodland less frequently, and with a stronger focus on environmental topics themselves. For example, the “Woods for Learning” strategy of the British Forestry Commission proposes “regular” access, for example once a week for eight weeks. In rural areas, and historical times, access to nature has not been a problem. Over the last century, with increasing urbanisation and “nature deficit disorder”, there have been many changes in stance on outdoor education. In Sweden in 1957, an ex-military man, Goesta Frohm, created the idea of “Skogsmulle”. Mulle” is one of four fictional characters he created to teach children about nature, along with “Laxe” representing water, “Fjällfina” representing mountains and “Nova” representing an unpolluted nature.
Also in the 1950s, Ella Flautau created forest kindergartens in Denmark. The idea formed gradually as a result of her often spending time with her own and neighbors’ children in a nearby forest, a form of daycare which elicited great interest among the neighborhood parents. The parents formed a group and created an initiative to establish the first forest kindergarten. Forest kindergartens have existed in Germany since 1968 but were first officially recognized as a form of daycare in 1993, enabling state subsidies to reduce the daycare fees of children who attended Forest Kindergarten. Since then, the forest kindergartens have become increasingly popular. In Britain in 2005, a Swedish early years educator, Helena Nilsson, started Wildflowers Kindergarten, where preschool-aged children spend each morning in nature, throughout the year. Childminder Cathy Bache opened the Secret Garden in Scotland in 2008 with support from funding authorities and private donors.
Tender Tracks, in the bay area of California was founded by Wendolyn Bird, and is still in operation. From 2018 on all forest kindergartens are invited to celebrate the “International Day of Forest Kindergarten” every year on the 3rd of May. The fact that most forest kindergartens do not provide commercial toys that have a predefined meaning or purpose supports the development of language skills, as children verbally create a common understanding of the objects used as toys in the context of their play. Merely keeping sight of natural features improves self-discipline in inner-city girls.
When children from German Waldkindergartens go to primary school, teachers observe a significant improvement in reading, writing, mathematics, social interactions and many other areas. 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. Helicopter parenting is becoming more clearly recognised in the culture of fear of today’s risk averse society. Wikimedia Commons has media related to Forest kindergarten. Alice Gregory, “Running Free in Germany’s Outdoor Preschools”. Bundesverband der Natur- und Waldkindergärten in Deutschland e.