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 environment. The adult supervision is meant to assist rather than lead. It is also known as Waldkindergarten (in German), outdoor nursery, or nature kindergarten.
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 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, teamwork, 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|
|Resting||Aids consolidation of memories and facilitates activities later in the day|
Location and organization
Forest kindergartens operate mainly in woodland. 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.
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.
The first forest kindergarten was created by Ella Flautau in Denmark in the early 1950s. 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.
In Sweden in 1957, an ex-military man, Gösta 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.
Nature kindergartens have existed in Germany since 1968 but the first forest kindergarten was 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. By late 2017, the number of forest kindergartens in Germany surpassed 1,500.
In 2009, the Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) undertook a feasibility study to create a Forest Kindergarten pilot project in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. This model is based upon empowering early years educators to lead weekly sessions in their local woodland or other greenspace using a child-centred approach. The first FCS Forest Kindergarten 3-day training took place in February 2012. In 2017 the course became a Scottish Qualification Award (SQA) at SCQF Level 7. This Forest Kindergarten training has now been embedded in various Early Years College courses within Scotland and delivered by Learning through Landscapes across the UK. This qualification will soon operate in the rest of the UK under NOCN Accreditation.
Aotearoa New Zealand Enviroschools started in 2001, and often incorporate a Māori perspective, and Australia has bush or beach kinders (kindergartens) that provide an outdoor learning program.
While there are similarities, it is important to note that Forest School and Forest Kindergarten are two distinct training programmes. LtL has produced a useful comparison of Forest Kindergarten and Forest School.
From 2018 on all forest kindergartens are invited to celebrate the International Day of Forest Kindergarten every year on 3 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. 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. For inner-city girls, having sight of a green space from home improves self-discipline, while the same effect was not noted for boys in the study as they were more likely to play further from home.
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 prognosis in women (see Attention Restoration Theory). Playing outdoors is said to strengthen 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. Forest kindergartens have been recommended for young boys, who may not yet demonstrate the same fluency in typical school tasks as their female counterparts, to prevent negative self-esteem and associations with school.
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".
- Free-range parenting
- German Forest
- Outdoor education
- Urban forest
- Adventure playground
- Helicopter parent
- Slow parenting
- Alice Gregory, "Running Free in Germany’s Outdoor Preschools". The New York Times Style Magazine, May 18, 2017 
- Robertson, Juliet (2008), Swedish Forest Kindergartens, Part 1 (PDF), Creative Star Learning Company, archived from the original (PDF) on 6 March 2012
- Bache, Cathy (2008), Pre-school curriculum, Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery, archived from the original on 19 February 2009
- Skogsmulle Foundation
- Robertson, Juliet (2008), Swedish Forest Kindergartens, Part 2 (PDF), Creative Star Learning Company, archived from the original (PDF) on 6 March 2012
- "ÜBER UNS | Bundesverband der Natur- und Waldkindergärten in Deutschland e.V." bvnw.de (in German). Retrieved 20 November 2017.
.org .uk /forest-kindergarten /
- Hawes, Liz (1 March 2012). "Enviroschools celebrate tenth birthday". New Zealand principal, Mar 2012; v.27 n.1:p.16-17; issn. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
- Alcock, Sophie; Ritchie, Jenny (2018). "Early childhood education in the outdoors in Aotearoa New Zealand". Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education. 21 (1): 77–88. doi:10.1007/s42322-017-0009-y. ISSN 2206-3110. S2CID 158431986.
- Masters, Jennifer; Grogan, Leanne (3 July 2018). "A comparative analysis of nature kindergarten programmes in Australia and New Zealand". International Journal of Early Years Education. 26 (3): 233–248. doi:10.1080/09669760.2018.1459507. ISSN 0966-9760. S2CID 149795298.
- Taylor, A.F; Kuo; Sullivan, W.C (2001), "Views of Nature and Self Discipline: Evidence from Inner City Children" (PDF), Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 21, no. 1–2, pp. 49–63, CiteSeerX 10.1.1.532.3278, doi:10.1006/jevp.2001.0241, archived from the original (PDF) on 20 November 2008, retrieved 4 September 2009
- Benefits of Nature for Children's Health (PDF), Children Youth and Environments Center for Research and Design, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, April 2007, archived from the original (PDF) on 31 July 2010
- Grahn, P; Martensson, F; Lindblad, B; Nilsson, P; Ekman, A (1997), "Ute på dagis", Stad and Land, vol. 145, Håssleholm, Sweden: Nora Skåne Offset
- Honoré, Carl (2008), Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture Of Hyper-Parenting, Orion, ISBN 978-0-7528-7531-6
- Cimprich B. (2007). Attention Restoration Theory: Empirical Work and Practical Applications
- Gorges R.  (in German)
- Sax L. (2001) Reclaiming Kindergarten: Making kindergarten less harmful to boys in Psychology of Men & Masculinity (2001) 2.1 pp. 3–12
- Gill, Tim (2007), No fear: Growing up in a risk averse society (PDF), Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, p. 81, ISBN 978-1-903080-08-5, archived from the original (PDF) on 6 March 2009
- 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, archived from the original on 22 January 2009
- 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
- American Forest Kindergarten Association, U.S. Forest Kindergarten Model based on the Waldkindergarten and Nordic Models.
- Learning through Landscapes Is a non-profit organisation providing SQA Accredited Forest Kindergarten Awards in the UK.
- Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that offers nature-based professional development to teachers and childcare providers.
- Play England, charity raising awareness of the value of play
- PlayScotland charity encouraging children to play
- Association of all Forest Kindergartens in Czech Republic
- Natural Start Alliance in United States