Waldkindergarten – a Forest Kindergarten

Waldkindergarten – a Forest Kindergarten

Do you feel tense whenever you see a young child playing video games and wonder if they even know where strawberries grow? You are not alone. More and more parents find themselves looking for a way to teach core values and environmental awareness to young children.

They find a perfect solution in Waldkindergärten, outdoor nurseries that focus on exposing young children to nature. In the busy world of globalization and smartphones, this education strategy is experiencing more popularity than ever.

History of the Waldkindergarten – “Rain or Shine Schools”

In the early 1950s, Ella Flautau pioneered the concept of the first forest school in Denmark. The inspiration for this innovative approach arose from her experiences with her own children and the local community’s youngsters gathering informally in a nearby forest. 

This spontaneous and unofficial form of daycare elicited great interest among parents in the area, leading them to form a collective and initiate the establishment of the inaugural forest kindergarten.

Around the same period in neighboring Sweden, Goesta Frohm, an ex-military man, introduced the concept of “Skogsmulle” in 1957. This initiative involved the creation of four fictional characters designed to educate children about nature.

The forest kindergarten model inspired by Frohm’s concept, also referred to as “Rain or Shine Schools,” evolved from occasional activities to formal nursery schools. The first forest kindergarten established by Siw Linde in 1985, marked a transition to nature-based education and outdoor play.

Simultaneously, the forest school concept gained traction in Germany during the 1960s, known locally as “Waldkindergarten” or “Waldkitas”. The movement, inspired by the Danish and Swedish models, expanded across Germany, creating many officially recognized daycare centers.

Germans Have Always Loved Nature

German children play imaginative games, climb, sing, and work on craft projects, free from the pressures of technology. Valuing nature and the environment is a recurring theme in German culture. During the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th century, dozens of artists were inspired by the seasons, trees and plants around them. In medicine, time spent outdoors an der frischen Luft, ideally immersed in cold water was long considered the best way to stay in healthy and strong.

In the 1960s and 1970s, both East and West German political climates started seeing the rise of activist groups dedicated to peace, protecting the environment and eliminating nuclear power. The country is full of national parks, the green party has a lot of support, and many Germans buy bio (organic) products.

Waldkindergarten - Forest Kindergarten

© Pixabay

Schools and Nature

Forest kindergartens are designed for children between the ages of three and six, offering an educational experience that takes place predominantly outdoors, regardless of the weather. The philosophy of forest kindergartens can be summarized as “a kindergarten without a ceiling or walls.” The emphasis is on play with natural objects, fostering a deep connection with the natural world.

Forest kindergartens typically do not provide commercial toys with a predefined meaning or purpose.

Instead, they encourage spending time in which children verbally create their playing environment and collaborate to establish a common understanding of the basic purpose of the various objects used as toys within the context of their play. So, for many parents, the Waldkindergarten concept fits right into the idea of living a responsible life close to nature.

The idea is part of many other alternative movements in education, such as Montessori, Waldorf and Steiner schools. All of these recognize the benefits of open-ended free play in a natural environment, improving gross motor skills by playing outdoors, and encouraging exploration and child-driven activities.

Typical Activities in a Nature Kindergarten

Early childhood education in a forest school is designed to help students acquire personal, social, and technical skills through hands-on learning experiences in woodland surroundings. The forest school approach utilizes woods and forests as a platform to underscore SEAL skills (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) through LIL (Learner-Initiated Learning).

Teachers undergo training to create opportunities for each child’s development in identified areas requiring support or intervention. All of these activities unfold within child-directed and interest-based play within mixed-age groups, with trained adults available for facilitation, guidance, and support.

The curriculum covers diverse topics and teaches children about the natural environment and its connection to human culture and geography, as well as abstract concepts such as mathematics and communication. Typical lessons and activities in an outdoor learning program include:

  1. Crafting toys, tools, and handcrafts using natural objects found in the environment
  2. Learning about the crucial role of trees in both nature and society
  3. Exploring the intricate relationship between earth and sky
  4. Observing the gradual changes in a natural landscape across seasons
  5. Investigating the complex ecosystem supported by wilderness
  6. Recognizing and identifying local flora and fauna
  7. Embarking on imaginary voyages and expeditions
  8. Engaging in open-ended free play and memory games with loose parts
  9. Playing imaginative games involving role play and available resources
  10. Constructing shelters or other structures using branches and natural materials
  11. Counting objects or identifying mathematical patterns
  12. Listening to stories, singing songs, and reciting rhymes
  13. Drawing scenes or arranging natural items to create images
  14. Climbing trees and exploring the forest, including playing hide-and-seek
  15. Encouraging self-reflection, rest, and meditation.

All of these activities have shown to have a positive impact on children’s development, language skills and their future academic success. This is probably why these forest kindergartens have become so popular in recent years.

Benefits of an Outdoor Nursery

The concept of a Kindergarten ohne Dach und Wände (Kindergarten without roof and walls) has found significant support in the scientific community. Waldkindergärten are preschool centres, meaning they aim to socialise children, aid their development and gently prepare them for school life which typically starts at age six. Some of the benefits of being a forest child include:

Increased verbal and language development as children don’t play with traditional toys. They are encouraged to create their own play environments using objects found in nature. This leads to better self-awareness and skills in social interactions, as kids have been found to talk to each other more as they create their play environments.

Lower exposure to noise and stress compared to a regular Kindergarten building with closed rooms. You may have experienced the noise level generated by 20 children in a closed room, and in fact this has been shown to create stress for the children, too. Daycare professionals and Wald kids running free are less affected by noise as they spend time in an open-air environment.

Increased fitness, agility and vision as the environment inspires children to run around, climb and play. The outside world is a space designed for human development, without right angles and even floors. This has been proven to increase the coordination development and depth perception of young children.

Better immune systems after spending prolonged periods of time outside. They also learn to dress for and withstand different kinds of weather conditions.

Independence and Risk Management: Forest schools typically maintain a greater ratio of teachers to children compared to traditional daycare or elementary school. This intentional choice aims to ensure that children receive adequate support in an environment that may involve higher levels of carefully assessed risk, such as handling dangerous tools or handling fire.

Consequently, this approach fosters the development of a healthy understanding and management of risk among children, ultimately promoting increased independence, character development and self-discipline. In fact, in most studies that compare Wald kids to their peers, they outperformed the kids educated in other nurseries and traditional environments in every aspect of testing.

Where To Find A Waldkindergarten

If you are curious and want to find out more about the philosophy and availability of a Waldkindergarten (or Naturkindergarten) in Germany, the Bundesverband der Natur- und Waldkindergärten collects articles and contact information to get you started.

It also lists partner nurseries in other countries, many of which teach German children. Most forest schools are open throughout the entire year, allowing children to encounter and learn from the various seasons and weather conditions as valuable teachable moments.

Attitudes to Outdoor Education

Attitudes towards outdoor education have evolved significantly over time, shaped by the changing landscape of access to nature. In rural areas, nature has always been readily available; however, the last century’s urbanization and the emergence of “nature deficit disorder” have transformed perspectives on outdoor education.

Despite compelling evidence supporting the extension of educational camping and outdoor learning for children, various obstacles hinder widespread adoption. One notable challenge is the prevalence of risk aversion among teachers, parents, and others, fostering reluctance towards diverse and physically engaging tasks.

Nevertheless, proponents argue that the outdoors provides a unique setting where participants have a heightened awareness of being part of a larger ecosystem, feel free from some social conventions, and are allowed to be true to themselves and perceive others beyond societal norms.

Also, engaging in outdoor activities, such as high ropes courses, has the potential to stretch comfort zones, encouraging both physical and mental challenges that contribute to personal growth.

Did you know that speaking to German children can help improve your German language skills? Check out our article here to find out how it works.

FAQs about Forest Kindergartens

Here are some of the questions people ask about forest kindergartens.

How do forest kindergartens stimulate and educate young children?

Forest kindergartens stimulate and educate young children by embracing a curriculum based on Goesta Frohm’s model. Through hands-on experiences with natural items, children develop manual dexterity, physical coordination, and tactile sensitivity. This approach not only encourages a deeper connection with the natural world but also nurtures essential skills vital for a child’s overall development.

What are the advantages of enrolling your child in a forest kindergarten?

Enrolling your child in a forest kindergarten offers several advantages. Children develop enhanced risk assessment skills, demonstrating proficiency in handling potentially dangerous tools or dealing with fire under adult supervision. Also, those who have experienced a forest kindergarten before entering primary school often display increased focus on subsequent education and exhibit a heightened interest in learning overall.

What age is best for forest school?

Forest schools are ideally designed for children between the ages of 2 to 7. They provide valuable experiences for all ages and older children, in particular, often find such schools to be enriching environments that support their developmental needs and foster a deep connection with nature. Most forest kindergartens have mixed groups, creating a diverse and inclusive learning environment.

Summing Up: Waldkindergarten – a Forest Kindergarten

So, Waldkindergartens aim to redefine traditional preschool education, opting for an immersive experience in nature. This increasingly popular approach not only prepares children for academic success but also nurtures their physical, emotional, and social well-being, fostering a love for learning that lasts a lifetime.

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