I have progressed from thinking, “Why are there so many waldkindergärten [forest kindergartens] in Germany?” to wondering “Why are there so few in America?” or even more importantly, “What is stopping waldkindergartens from spreading to America?”
I read Last Child In the Woods, the well-known Richard Louv book that chronicles what he describes as Nature-Deficit Disorder. In America, children are spending less and less time outdoors, opting instead for computers, video games, or structured activities like music or art lessons, etc. (All of this is condoned by parents, if not encouraged.) We still spend time outside being active (at least hopefully), but it often takes the form of organized sport teams. Even our outside “play” is in ready-made settings like playgrounds -- pre-equipped with slides, swings, monkey bars. In a sense, children are being told “how” to play.
Yet there is something special, something important about these completely unstructured "wild" play areas. For instance, there’s what I call the Matilda Theory, that the forest can completely change how a child feels and acts (for the better). In the room, Matilda is intensely shy, and the entire period can go by without her speaking much, or even playing with other kids. Often, she ends up playing some sort of board game with one of the educators, who, tries to draw in other kids as well, though Matilda isn’t always interested in interacting with them. Some shy kids are a bit nervous around me at first, but then when I am patient and perseverent with friendliness and pro-active interaction, they eventually smile and start to trust me. With Matilda, it took about 2.5 weeks before she even cracked a smile, and that was only after she had just crushed me at pick-up sticks (NOTE: All the kids love this game, and are all REALLY good. Or maybe I’m just really bad, which is actually quite possible and I blame it all on my big and clumsy grown-up fingers). Even then, though, she went back to looking troubled and nervous. The other educators were worried, because Matilda is entering the school system next year, and they’re not sure she’ll be able to make friends if she never talks to anybody her age.
After about a month, though, I began to notice a complete change in Matilda when she came to the forest. She would be a bit tentative as we all sat together to eat snack, but then she would find a tree to climb and turn into a happy little monkey. She would start climbing higher and higher and giggle as I stood below and minorly fretted (largely due to her predilection for standing on branches that were approximately 2 cm in diameter). She would climb higher and higher, this huge smile on her face the whole time. “Look at me, Elissa!!” she would call from the top. “Look where I am, Elissa!” In the forest was where Matilda first started interacting with the other kids. When they all ran and jumped in the mud, Matilda would too, and she would always be so excited to get muddy.
I was just rereading the waldkindergarten’s mission statement the other day, and I came across this part (courtesy of GoogleTranslate):
We hope that the children feel comfortable in the woods, perhaps even happy and safe there, and accepted and loved. Those who feel loved, can love - himself and his fellow creatures. “Happy people make less broken” (Beatrice Leitz Weinzierl).
So, the end sort of digresses, but the point is that the forest should not have any of the “dark, deep, dangerous” connotations that fairy tales sometimes ascribe to it. Rather, it should be a place where people can feel free and run and play, like Matilda did.
So…could it work in America?
I DO have hope that, theoretically, it could work. Really, the waldkindergarten is not as radical of an idea as it sounds—in many ways, it is just like a progressive pre-school in America, but instead of having time to play on the play structure outside, the kids go to the forest. To show it’s promise, I will squash several myths about the Waldkindergarten.
1. They spend all the time outside. All playing and no learning. We actually spend the first half of the day inside the room, which is filled with various stimulating activities for the children to choose (block building, art, reading, games, more crafts, make-believe area, etc.). While all playing and no learning is not necessarily a bad thing, it is actually not even possible – while the children are playing, they ARE learning (LOTS of research done on this). And there are all sorts of opportunities in the room to develop motor skills, social skills, or more “standard” skills through math games and counting, etc.
2. The educators are intense outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. Actually, the educators are just low-key, average-nature-appreciating people. They, too, are not overwhelmingly enthused about going outside when it’s cold and hailing. BUT, they recognize the importance of the kids being outside. When the weather is bad, we spend more time in the room, and go out for a shorter time, to an area with more protection against the elements.
3. The parents are all progressive nature lovers themselves. Honestly, I see nothing that distinguishes these parents from my parents, or ones I know in the USA. These are not all granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing hippies (not that there's a problem with that). They run the gamut; many pick their children up wearing nice office clothing. Some give good natured groans when they see how muddy their children are. A big part of why they send their kids here is just that this waldkindergarten is so established in the German culture; it’s such a common and viable option in this community.
4. The kids are wild forest children who run around petting frogs and catching insects, etc. The kids all love the forest, but I think so some extent, this is a learnable skill. Or, actually, it’s the opposite – loving nature is something ingrained, but sometimes in America, we learn to FEAR it. So, it is rather the AVERSION to nature that’s a learnable skill. But still, these kids are not purely tree-huggers. Mostly, the forest is just their adventure space, their environment for exploration and fun. They saw grass and living branches to build their cities. They uprooted a baby tree (actually, this was a great act of teamwork. I was running around, snapping all sorts of photos of this great collaboration before I realized we were uprooting a tree. So then we replanted it and all was well and the kids ran off to do something else).
I think the biggest obstacles would be our current US culture -- I just read an article in the NYTimes about how test prep companies are now targeting 3 and 4 year olds. Yikes. If parents are so fixated on their kids doing these sorts of "get ready for real world" (REAL WORLD OF KINDERGARTEN?!?), then it will be hard to convince them of the merits of sending their child to romp around the forest.