forest kindergarten, outdoor play, outdoor learning

US Schools Realizing Benefits of Forest Kindergarten

November 30, 2009 02:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Forest kindergarten bucks the trend of keeping kids indoors, and emphasizes the value of environmental and play-based learning. 

Mud is a Good Thing

In September, a private Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., opened a forest kindergarten, requiring students to spend three hours outdoors each day. According to Liz Leyden, writing for The New York Times, the school takes the concept of nature-based, outdoor education characteristic of all Waldorf Schools “to another level.”

No matter how cold, wet or windy the conditions, the 23 students trek outside each morning to a 325-acre swath of the Hemlock Trail, an area of New York State parkland. They plant gardens, engage in make-believe (Leyden observes play-cooking and imaginary rollercoaster-riding), discover insects and animals, and revel in the elements. Afterward, students have “regular indoor classes at its main building,” a “long-empty farmhouse” that the state is allowing the school to use for one year. Since Waldorf Schools have “no formal academic curriculum until first grade,” there is room for improvisation and creative expression.

Sigrid D’Aleo, a teacher at the Waldorf forest kindergarten in Saratoga Springs, discussed the benefits of outdoor learning. She has observed students’ improved motor skill development, and discovered that when outside, her students “worked out their social issues in a better way, they had more imaginative play,” according to Leyden.

Although forest kindergartens are “virtually unknown in the United States,” the schools are “increasingly common in Scandinavia,” as well as in Austria and Germany, Leyden notes.

In Glasgow, Scotland, Debbie Simmers and Alison Latta started their own outdoor nursery school, Woodland Outdoor Kindergartens, last September. Mark Smith of the Herald Scotsman reports that Scotland has two other similar schools, one in Fife and one in Perthshire. Simmers and Latta, both mothers themselves, think the trend could catch on and help ward off childhood obesity.  

“It’s about allowing children to use their imaginations,” explained Latta, who told Smith the school will provide students with “lessons in animal tracking, den building and vegetable planting,” along with classes following Scotland’s “national curriculum.”

Urban Forest School

Outdoor education and forest schools needn’t be confined to rural areas. In Roehampton, South West London, for example, the Eastwood Nursery School Centre for Children and Families operates an “urban Forest School,” according to Hannah Watkins.

In the sixth issues of U.K. magazine Eds Up, Watkins describes a day at the school, which is held on the “woodland grounds of Roehampton University.” Students attend forest school at least two days per week, year-round, regardless of weather conditions. The school Coordinator Katherine Milchem told Watkins that some change-averse children became upset when dressing for the outdoors, but eventually grew to enjoy it “and really look forward to it.”

“How else are children in the city meant to develop a personal morality towards nature, if they never have access to it in open spaces?” Milchem pointed out.

Related Topic: Play-based learning

Play-based learning has been implemented in Norway, Scotland and Australia. The concept makes environmentalism accessible to toddlers, while giving their brains a break from the rigors and monotony of the classroom.

In Wales, the first class of students to engage in a play-based learning program started classes in September 2008. The BBC reported that the program, which was still in a “foundation phase,” features outdoor classes and environmental learning for 3-year-olds through 7-year-olds. 
British Education Minister Jane Hutt told the BBC, “a key feature is using the outdoors to encourage children to learn about conservation and the environment.”

Background: Not all kids get outdoor playtime

Forest kindergarten is in stark contrast to research reported in May 2008, showing that U.S. day care programs were not letting children play outside for surprising reasons. The research added to concerns over childhood obesity and inactivity.

Researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that children are kept indoors if they are wearing flip flops instead of sneakers, or are not wearing the appropriate clothing or coat for outdoor play, explains Tara Parker Pope of The New York Times Well blog.

Some parents intentionally send children to school without a coat so that the child will be kept inside, which can result in entire classes being forced to remain indoors all day. To make matters worse, day care teachers often talk or text on cell phones during outdoor playtime, or feel they are too overweight to encourage children to be active outdoors, reports Science Daily.

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