Introduction to Forest Kindergarten

How would you like to spend your early years running wild in the forest...as a part of school?! Waldkindergarten is German for "forest kindergarten" (here's an article about it from the Wall Street Journal), and it's pretty much that. Before actually coming here, I would tell people that it's a pre-school for 3-6 year olds: the premise is simply that the children will spend the majority of every day outside regardless of the weather.

I was interested in forest kindergarten (also sometimes referred to as 'outdoor preschool') because it's an intriguing way to address the issue of environmental education. If the overall goal is to teach children to be environmentally aware or to have a sense of place / connection to the land (my two catch-phrases), then the waldkindergarten hypothesizes that you can best do this by starting at some of the very earliest stages of development. I decided to come to Germany because, as the article mentions, while the first waldkindergarten in the USA was started less than 2 years ago (and there are still only a handful scattered around the country), there are over 700 here in Germany (that number seems a bit large to me...but there are certainly in the hundreds).

Day 1's schedule
From 7:30 to 9:30, the kids can arrive (though most come between 8 and 9), which seems like a nice window of opportunity for the parents. Everyone goes to a cheerily-decorated room, which is divided into several smaller areas:

  • Reading room (with cushiony benches and a rug, and little cubbies filled with childrens books. This is also our central meeting point)
  • Playhouse (with all sorts of costumes and dolls for role play and make believe)
  • Arts and crafts nook (where they spend lots of time making necklaces out of yarn and chestnut-beads, a.ka. chestnuts with holes drilled through them)
  • Building center (lots of blocks!)
  • Kitchen! (with a stove and table for their baking projects, which apparently happen frequently).

The teaching staff consists of Monica, Hannah (not here today because she switches off with Monica), Connie, and Francie (also young, doing her "practikum"). Nobody speaks too much English, so I follow them around and listen to them speak German (actually, miraculously, if they speak slowly to me, like I am a thick-skulled toddler, I can understand a lot of it).

At 9:30, we all gather in a circle in the reading nook. With a map spread on the ground, I use a thumbtack and poor grammar to denote where I come from. Then, Connie says something about me and the class erupts into a chorus of wild yahoos. I still can't decide whether she said:

"Elissa will be here every day for two months!"

or "Elissa will be here every day, but (don't worry), only for two months." I'm reaaaally hoping it was the former.

We play this fun song game that goes along the lines of:

Person A: My right side, my right side, my right side is free. I want Person B to sit next to me!

Person B: And how shall I come?

Person A: Uh...like a lion! (changes each time)

...and then Person B crosses the room like a lion, and sits in the empty spot, and the person beside the new empty spot sings. I see no reason why this game should be limited to the waldkindergarten. WOOLF ice-breaker, anyone?

Around 10, everyone pulls on their hiking boots, layers, and really tiny backpacks, and we head out to the forest! Everyone has a partner, whose hands they hold as we walk along. My favorite pair is Lily and Louis, who keep getting distracted by acorns and seeds, and end up doing human knots around each other and falling over as they loop around to see each new item while also observing the hand-holding rule religiously. The classroom is close to the edge of the forest, and once we get to the path there, the kids know the way. They're allowed to drop hands now and run ahead, as long as they stop at certain designated spots (i.e. The Climbing Tree, which has rightfully earned its name).

When we get the the special forest spot, everyone hangs their backpacks on an old tree with lots of handy branches. There's an old boxcar (for extremely bad weather, apparently) with some supplies, and for the next few hours, everyone is allowed to do whatever activity they want, including: watercolors (on the side of the boxcar, or on bark), cooking (using dirt and grass and water), digging, eating, sawing roots (using small, but functional saws), building cities and rivers (out of roots, dirt, grass), etc.

At around 1, we walk back to the classroom, where the parents are waiting. Then we get to my favorite part. I guess in German, it is usual to use the definite article when referring to people. So, all the kids start going, "Mama, hier ist die Elissa" (which my greenhorn mind translates as, "Mama, here is the Elissa.")

Sort of like I am an exotic animal in the zoo, or an observed specimen on safari ("and here is the blue-nosed mudraker"). Or, it's like I have already been discussed and celebrated ("Look, Mama! Here is the Elissa I told you about!"). Etc.