A forest kindergarten is a type of preschool education for children between the ages of 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. It is also known as Waldkindergarten (in German), outdoor nursery, nature kindergarten, or nature preschool.
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. Despite these differences, forest kindergartens are meant to fulfill the same basic purpose as other nurseries, namely, to care for, stimulate, and educate young children.
|Playing imaginative games using whatever resources and ideas come to mind||This helps children to explore their own thoughts without the guidance of a toy designer|
|Role play||Shared imagination, drama, team work, recollection of models of behaviour|
|Building shelters or other large structures from branches, with the help of other children and adults||This requires goal definition, planning, engineering, teamwork and perseverance|
|Counting objects or looking for mathematical patterns||Mathematics, visual recognition|
|Memory games using naturally available objects||Memory, naming objects|
|Listening to stories; singing songs and rhymes||Art, drama, concentration|
|Arranging items to make a picture, or building a toy||Art|
|Drawing scenes||Art, creativity, accurate inspection and copying|
|Climbing trees and exploring the forest||Improves strength, balance and physical awareness|
|Playing hide-and-seek with others||Develops children's theory of mind by rewarding accurate anticipation of the thoughts and actions of others|
|Walking to the woodland, from the building.||Improves strength and stamina; preparation (e.g., route selection) improves planning and communication skills|
|Exploring or reflecting alone||Aids self-awareness and character development|
Location and organisation
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. If the woodland is too far away to walk, a vehicle might reluctantly be used for transport.
Children are encouraged to dress for the weather, with waterproof clothes and warm layers, according to the climate.
The kindergarten is held outdoors in all seasons and under most weather conditions, although it is moved indoors in extreme weather, for example if the temperature is below −10 °C, or during storms. Forest kindergartens are generally composed of a group of 15 to 20 children and at least two staff. An ideal location would be close to residential areas, close to the preferred woodland, and would have a suitable building. The reason for children moving inside during severe storms is the risk of trees losing limbs. All forest areas following such a storm would then need to be risk-assessed prior to re- entry. Children in Auchlone Nature Kindergarten and Whistlebrae Nature Kindergarten were out in the extreme winters of 2009 and 2010 in temperatures down to −20 degrees but were dressed for the weather.
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. Some primary schools take children weekly.
Kindergartens with an outdoor focus are slowly increasing throughout the UK. Some of the most successful forest kindergartens are already in rural areas (e.g. the Secret Garden (outdoor nursery), Riverside Cottage Nursery in West Lothian, Scotland,  Mindstretchers Auchlone Nature Kindergarten, and also the Forest Kindergarten in Kent ). However, with the majority of people living in cities, it will be necessary to incorporate these ideas into an urban setting. The Urban Forest Schools in London include inner city children with a particular lack of experience in nature.
The location chosen within the forest may vary from day to day; indeed the children themselves are likely to make that choice. However, staff would expect to know the area and to be able to guide decisions in terms of interest, safety, distance, etc.
Most forest kindergartens have a permanent building, and then walk each day to their chosen forest. The distance can be an issue, and in populated areas, urban forests may not be easily accessible. The UK Forestry Commission has proposed sites around Glasgow within convenient distances, and new nurseries are opening over time. Less frequent access to outdoor education is perhaps a more realistic goal for some local areas.
Some parents are concerned about the perceived risk of interference by strangers in a public park. In a city, equipment or half-completed projects may not be found the next day as they were before; they may have been interfered with by strangers overnight. They may be concerned about exhaustion (and it does take time for a child to build up the strength and experience to participate fully), risk of personal injury, or a lack of manufactured educational "resources".
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 1914, the socialist political activists Rachel and Margaret McMillan set up an "open-air nursery" but little is known of the details, except for an improvement in child health.
In Sweden in 1957, an ex-military man, Goesta Frohm, created the idea of "Skogsmulle". "Skog" means wood in Swedish. "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. Forest schools based on Frohm's model, called "I Ur och Skur" (Rain or Shine Schools) moved the idea from occasional activities to formal nursery schools, being set up by Siw Linde in 1985. Juliet Robertson's review of Skogsmulle is a valuable modern-day summary.
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. As of 2005 there were approximately 450 forest kindergartens in Germany, some of which offer a mix of forest kindergarten and traditional daycare, spending their mornings in the forest and afternoons inside.
In 2008, the first US forest kindergarten, Cedarsong Nature School, was founded by Erin Kenny and Robin Rogers. The concept, while slow to take off, has been spreading gradually throughout the United States since that time.
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. Forest kindergartens are also generally less noisy than closed rooms, and noise has been shown to be a factor in the stress level of children and daycare professionals.
Merely keeping sight of natural features improves self-discipline in inner-city girls. Visiting a forest school regularly is desirable for schools although still not widespread; some aim to spend one day a week out.
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. According to these studies, children who attend forest kindergartens experience fewer injuries due to accidents and are less likely to injure themselves in a fall. A child's ability to assess risks improves, for example in handling fire and dangerous tools. Other studies have shown that spending time in nature improves attention and medical prognisis in women (see Attention Restoration Theory). Playing outdoors strengthens the immune systems of children and daycare professionals.
When children from German Waldkindergartens go to primary school teachers observe a significant improvement in reading, writing, mathematics, social interactions and many other areas. Boys may be less intellectually able than girls at typical school tasks such as reading and mathematics, so forest kindergartens have been recommended in the early years.
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|
|Art and creativity|
|Positive social behaviour|
|Handling writing and painting equipment|
Helicopter parenting is becoming more clearly recognised in the culture of fear of today's risk averse society. While some parents rush to 'wrap their children in cotton wool', others see outdoor play and forest kindergartens as a way to develop a mature and healthy outlook on life, as well as practical skills and health. Doing this at a young age is hoped to bring lifelong benefits to the child. It is consistent with the notions of slow parenting, the "idle parent" and "free range kids". One state park notes that having a Forest Kindergarten at their site expands their mission and furthers their goals of providing nature education to children.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Forest kindergarten.|
- Robertson, Juliet (2008), Swedish Forest Kindergartens, Part 1, Creative Star Learning Company
- Bache, Cathy (2008), Pre-school curriculum, Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery
- Woods for Learning Education Strategy, Forestry Commission, 2005, ISBN 0-85538-684-3
- Oswestry School Forest School, Oswestry School, December 2008
- Robertson J., Martin P., Borradaile L. and Alker S. (2009) Forest Kindergarten Feasibility Study, published by the Forestry Commission (web page)
- City's first woodland nursery opens door to the imagination, Glasgow Herald, 9 September 2009
- John Simkin (May 2007), Margaret McMillan, Spartacus Education, retrieved September 2009
- Skogsmulle Foundation
- Robertson, Juliet (2008), Swedish Forest Kindergartens, Part 2, Creative Star Learning Company
- Childcare regulations of the Scottish Government
- Tax Free Childcare Regulations, UK government HMRC
- Taylor, A.F; Kuo; Sullivan, W.C (2001), "Views of Nature and Self Discipline: Evidence from Inner City Children", Journal of Environmental Psychology 21
- Benefits of Nature for Children’s Health, Children Youth and Environments Center for Research and Design, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, April 2007
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- Honoré, Carl (2008), Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture Of Hyper-Parenting, Orion, ISBN 978-0-7528-7531-6
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- Gill, Tim (2007), No fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, p. 81, ISBN 978-1-903080-08-5
- The child safety catch, BBC news 7 February 2001
- Parents are paranoid about child safety warns Government expert referring to Professor Tanya Byron, in The Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2009
- Is it time to let children play outdoors once more?, in The Guardian 30 March 2008
- Hodgkinson, Tom (16 February 2008), Idle parenting means happy children, The Telegraph
- The Idle Parent: Why less means more when raising kids, by Tom Hodgkinson. Published by Hamish Hamilton, 5 Mar 2009. ISBN 978-0-241-14373-5
- Free Range Kids blog by Lenore Skenazy
- Leyden, Liz (30 November 2009). "For Forest Kindergartners, Class Is Back to Nature, Rain or Shine". The New York Times.