What Can We Learn From Forest Kindergartens?


You know the phrase well: we can’t see the forest for the trees.
In rethinking education, sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees.
When rethinking education, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

There is a strong sentiment that America’s children are over-scheduled and need to spend more time in relatively unstructured settings such as unsupervised outdoor play. Richard Louv, the San Diego journalist who coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” makes a compelling case that children need more time in nature in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods In a recent Slate blog post, Emily Bazelon begins:

“In their new book, The App Generation, education professors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis argue that kids today are becoming more risk averse: ‘Rather than wanting to explore, to try things out by themselves, young people are always pushing to find out exactly what is wanted, when it is wanted, how it will be evaluated, what comes next and where we end up’ they said in a recent Q-and-A.”

Ms. Bazelon contrasted this description of American children’s difficulty with feeling lost, with a Swiss “forest kindergarten” in which young children go to school outdoors every day in all weather.

Would forest kindergarten solve our issues?
Forest kindergartens allow students to engage in inquiry and take healthy risks.

It’s easy (for me, anyway) to be swept up by the fantastic idea of sending children off to a forest kindergarten. It’s interesting to imagine such schools springing up in the US and how well adjusted our children would then be. That’s the forest part. It certainly makes for a happy fantasy. But we know that not many schools or districts will convert their programs any time soon to be like the forest kindergarten as described.

Now for the trees. I personally would be happy if we just look for simpler, less dramatic—certainly less so than forest kindergartens!—solutions to this problem. Why not begin by providing even a little more time and space for the less-structured, yet engaging and challenging experiences in settings where we currently find our children? We seem to be attracted to the dramatic, impractical ideas, while simply adding more time for hands-on investigation in which we challenge children to think for themselves appears impossible. It’s as if we cannot make the time for children to engage in such pursuits even when we know how valuable they are. Somehow this seems frivolous, while we emphasize the structured, “serious” experiences that lead to more prescribed, “certain” results.

Forest with Flowers - Anguskirk
Both teachers and students need the freedom to explore and discover – fortunately, this freedom can be built within classroom walls.

For that matter, what about the rest of us– the adults? A recent experience I had as a co-instructor of a science teaching course for early childhood educators raises the question of why we see this as something only children need. I was facilitating experiences having to do with sinking and floating, a topic often explored in the early years. The adults were chattering away, engaged in thinking about various factors that affect whether something sinks or floats in water. But at a certain point the educators insisted I provide an explanation for why we were seeing what we were. I dutifully explained a bit about density and how objects that are more dense than water will sink, etc., all in what I thought were reasonably simple terms. Most of the teachers pretty much stopped the excited discussions they were having before this explanation and looked stunned. Several then expressed frustration with not understanding. I explained that the concept is not simple, and that it was fine if they did not understand, and that science is exciting because there is so much that is not yet understood. I was struck at how they were so uncomfortable with the lack of certainty brought on by not understanding, as if they were incapable of doing a little work to try to understand it better. They really just wanted to be told. And we wonder why children are having difficulty.

Wheelock College Instructor of Elementary Education Jeff Winokur

Jeff Winokur is an early childhood and elementary science specialist.  He is an Instructor of Elementary Education at Wheelock College, and currently working with the Aspire Institute and Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care on new, state-wide Science, Technology, and Engineering standards for preschools.



Photos courtesy of Ullakko, Thelouse, and Anguskirk and used under Creative Commons License.