When Friedrich Froebel first came up with the concept of kindergarten (children’s garden), what he envisioned was an enriching environment that offered unstructured time and joy for the little minds. But as the educational landscape evolved and competition stiffened, the focus shifted to taming and moulding the wispy young minds to thrive in a hyper-competitive world. Academic rigour, structure and technology took over. Outdoor play and nature were brashly pushed to the backseat.
However, Froebel’s kindergarten is now making a comeback as the forest school movement gathers strength across the world. The concept which originated in Denmark in the 1950s is now growing in popularity around the globe as Waldkindergartens in Germany, Bush Kindy in Australia, and Forest Schools in the U.K, U.S and Canada.
What is a Forest Kindergarten?
Forest kindergarten or forest preschool is an education system where the classes take place in forests or woodlands. The curriculum is mostly Montessori or Reggio-inspired and guided entirely by what the children find interesting, relevant and personally meaningful. It is different from the conventional education system as the child's curiosity leads the learning in an organic, unstructured way.
Some forest schools such as the Cedarsong Natural School in Washington operate from privately owned forestlands, whereas some others operate from different urban parks or woodlands depending on the season and availability. Parents typically drop off the children at a pre-arranged site where the forest school instructors meet them.
The North East LA forest school, a forest kindergarten based in East Los Angeles, operates from the rugged, mountainous Griffith Park in the spring and summer, and shift camp to other urban parks for the fall and winter terms.
For most of these forest preschools, the activities range from hiking, den building, scientific exploration, nature arts and crafts, storytime, free play, musical jams and campfires to yoga and meditation. The instructor: child ratio is generally higher than in regular settings.
The children are encouraged to explore the wilderness, asses risks and make decisions. The teachers act as observers who step-in to help when there are hazards the children cannot handle.
Now, besides all the fresh air and the magical feeling of being unbridled, is there something about being outdoors that is specifically beneficial for children? Research strongly suggests, there is.
Supports the holistic development of the child: Forest schools have been proven to support a child’s holistic development – that is, their physical, emotional, social and spiritual development. Several studies suggest contact with the natural environment can enhance resilience in children. Learning to tackle adverse situations successfully can help children to build confidence and adapt to change and stressful situations in a healthy, constructive way.
As the lack of resilience and the inability to cope with stress are major contributing factors for mental conditions in teenagers and adults, building resilience at a young age can help them cope with the challenges of growing up. The children also earn to respect nature and become more empathetic and mindful of the environment.
Improves balance, coordination and fine motor skills: Free movement improves their stamina, muscle-strength and psychomotor coordination. As forest school researcher Maynard says, free movement enables children to develop better control over their bodies, allowing them to master refined motor control.
Reduces the symptoms of ADHD: Research suggests that unstructured daily outdoor play and the multisensory experience provided by forest schools can have a positive impact on children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and other learning disabilities.
Readiness for School: When it comes to the practicalities of readiness for school, experts say, developing their motor skills, social and emotional skill, empathy and co-operation often set them off on a better foot for school readiness than their counterparts from traditional preschools.
Difficulty in finding the right program: With the growing demand for forest schools, new centres are now mushrooming across the world. However, as the program involves activities where the young children are out in the wilderness in adverse weather and exposed to risks, children's safety can be a valid concern for many parents.
Although teaching the children to evaluate risks and cope with adversities will help build character and make them better decision-makers, it can be a challenge for many to find the right program and instructors they trust and feel comfortable with.
Commute: Picking up and dropping off the children won’t be as convenient as with traditional preschools and might demand long commutes, as the locations could change depending on on-site availability.
Forest schools are far removed from the conventional idea of preschools that most of us are used to. But, as Richard Louv puts it, the refreshing new approach can be the perfect antidote for the ‘hyper-vigilant, extra-electrified, standardized-tested, house-arrested 21st-century childhood' we witness today.
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