Into the Wild: Learning about Forest Kindergarten

February 19, 2014

Clara in Winter GearImagine bundling up your five year old every day and sending her out to the woods for kindergarten. They do it in Denmark, and I was fascinated when I read about these “forest kindergartens” a few months ago. When I learned that blogger Ania Krasniewska Shahidi (The New Diplomat’s Wife) moved to Copenhagen recently and enrolled her daughter in a forest school program, I thought her perspective on it as an American mom would be interesting. I’m so glad she agreed to speak with us about it!

Zoe Saint-Paul: How did you learn about forest kindergarten, and what inspired you to send your daughter Clara there when you moved to Copenhagen?  

Ania and ClaraAnia Krasniewska Shahidi: I actually remember first reading about the Forest Schools in a description packet that the embassy sent on potential schools. The description was short and described it as “very Danish,” stating that you really had to be up for an adventure to try it. At first consideration, it sounded very “hippie” to me and I laughed it off. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that small children spending the majority of their time outside wasn’t so crazy after all. Why should it be “very Danish”? Isn’t it also very natural?

ZSP: Since such programs are rare to non-existent here in North America, could you describe forest kindergarten briefly and what a typical day is like for your daughter? 

AKS: The curriculum is a lot like what it sounds: The children spend most of their time outside. Every school is a little different in its set up, but in ours, there’s a central small school with a big yard where they meet. They play outside and, at about 9:00 a.m., they get ready for their forest outing of the day. They use a combination of public bus and public train — and sometimes hired coach — to go out to various points of forests in the surrounding area where they have daily activities. Then they return back to the school about 3:00 p.m., where they remain in the outdoor yard until parents pick them up.

There is a major activity or two each day — picking mushrooms, making apple juice, buying eggs on a farm,  catching frogs — but there is no collection of traditional curriculum activities. The teachers build in small lessons such as counting or plant identification, but overall, the children have a lot of freedom to explore.

ZSP: As an American parent, were you anxious about sending your child to “hang out in the forest” for kindergarten?

AKS: Absolutely. The funny thing is, I really considered myself a laid back parent: I’m not militant about routines, I always let my daughter help in the kitchen, and things like that. But in Denmark, I think I appear the skittish American mom that always wants to know everything. This really is a whole different level of freedom for kids – and it’s just not strange here, even in more traditional schools. But for an American or Anglo parent, it can be somewhat stressful in the beginning… The kids are frequently building bonfires, running around with sticks, you name it. It just doesn’t seem to stress anyone out here. On my first day, I saw a little boy eat a handful of grass and no one seemed to mind. So you’ll see things you didn’t expect, that’s for sure, and you have to figure out how to get zen with it.

At the end of the day, like all things parenting, you have to trust your gut. The experience really forced me to ask myself whether I was uncomfortable because I thought something was truly dangerous or because I had become used to intervening whenever something bad could happen.

Clara at Forest SchoolZSPWhat about all the pre-academic skills many parents want their kids to be learning at that age? 

AKS: I was raised with a lot of tutors and lessons and a strong belief in the value of education, so I surprised myself a bit when we ended up choosing this school. But I also realized that I can help her with the “stuff” — the reading, the math, etc.

One of the biggest things I realized I could do for my daughter is show her how to have faith in her independence — and when I realized this, choosing the forest school was a done deal for me. I wanted her to grow up with a taste of exploration and an appreciation for the natural world around her, and I think when you’re given that space to value the outdoors, and your ability to navigate it, those are lifetime skills. I’d like to believe that that self-reliance will make kids better at figuring out the more traditional academic stuff, since they will start out with the expectation that they can, and should, be able to do things for themselves to be successful.

Ania and Clara ZSP: I have to admit, as someone who hates being cold and is mom to two kindergartners who were born in Ethiopia, I have a hard time imagining we’d be happy campers being outside all day in the winter. Are we just wimps?

AKS: Ha! I don’t know, but I grew up in North Dakota, and with age I’ve gotten a bit wimpy myself. You will definitely hear the adage here — a lot — that there is no bad weather, just poorly chosen clothes. That’s true (somewhat), but Danes do have a lot of gear for layers, and warmth and dressing appropriately is key.

The kids are also moving all day: They’re walking nearly the entire time, so if they keep busy, their body temperatures stay up. The school picks activities that are weather appropriate — for example, on the cold days, they build fires and learn how to make soup, and they’re out for shorter bouts of time. They also do activities in the city from time to time, like a museum or an exhibit visit. And when it’s really bad, they do have their main building where they can do the odd art project or two — but it has to be really bad out! I’m sure if you came from Ethiopia into the Danish winter, the transition would be hard. But the summers are gorgeous here, and the changes in seasons are gradual, so you can build up a tolerance.

Nanny Dressing ClaraZSP: Could you envision the U.S. and other countries adopting forest schools? What do you think it would take? What cultural barriers and assumptions we would need to overcome? 

AKS: I’d love to see more of it — and I think there are already places in Seattle and Portland doing it. (Funny, I think the climate and the culture there are very similar to here.) I do think there would be some big questions to resolve from a liability perspective, since generally I think there’s a greater expectation in the U.S. for a school to be “responsible.”

Culturally, one of the things that makes the forest kindergarten work well is that, while the kids are given a lot of time and space to explore individually, they also have a strong bond as a group: They walk at a pace that the group can follow, the stronger kids are paired with the newer or smaller children to help them along in tricky parts of the forest, and overall, I think the group getting there together is more important than a single individual getting there. I wonder to what degree this might hold true in the U.S. — we love teamwork, but we also love celebrating individual accomplishment.

ZSP: Do you think this concept could work in non-forested places — for example, beach kindergarten? Field kindergarten? Maybe that sounds silly, but I’m wondering if the idea is translatable to other kinds of outdoor arenas.

AKS: Absolutely. They do the forest because that’s what they have here — but we also have beaches in Denmark, and I’d say about once every 7-10 days they do a beach activity, too — even in the wintertime.  I think this could easily work at the beach, in the savannah or prairie, whatever it is you have (with some safety parameters in place, of course). There are probably places in the world where there may not be the right conditions. For many schools, however, it may not so much be a question of being outside all day, every day, but just creating more opportunities to be outside with more time to explore.

ZSP: You’re launching a site about forest kindergarten. Please tell us more about it!

AKS: Almost there! I am indeed launching a site called A Toddler in the Trees to help chronicle our experience, since so many friends and readers are interested. I wanted to keep that journey separate from my regular blog. The site is just getting wrapped up, but in the meantime, please check out the corresponding Facebook page for updates and news!

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Ania, thank you! I really appreciate your insights about your experiences navigating Danish culture as an American parent. Looking forward to keeping up with you on both of your blogs!

Based on Ania’s description, I love the values that forest schools aim to instill in young children — confidence, independence, exploration, love of nature, teamwork. I think I’d be tempted to send my daughters to this kind of program if it were available to us. What about you: Would you send your young child to a forest school? What do you think of this approach to kindergarten?

Images: Ania Krasniewska Shahidi

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1 Anna February 19, 2014 at 10:04 am

Oh my goodness – how fascinating to read this here. My Danish grandmother (born 1922) had told us about her kindergarten, which sounded just like this. They would go out (in the fields I thought, but maybe it was the forest) and learned about wildflowers, etc. I always thought she must just have happened to be at a very enlightened, one-of-a-kind little school (and surprisingly “hippy” for a century ago), but now I think it must have been the same thing you’re describing here.

I would absolutely send my son to such a thing if it existed here. I think the whole “academic kindergarten” business is pretty silly and it seems to cause a lot of stress to a lot of kids, teachers, and families. Like it matters whether a kid learns to count to a hundred at five years old versus six years old!

Oh, and about the cold, Denmark’s winter is very temperate, I think because it’s such a small peninsula sticking out into the Gulf Stream (or near it, anyway).

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2 Zoe Saint-Paul February 20, 2014 at 12:32 am

How neat about your grandmother, Anna!

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3 Anna February 20, 2014 at 8:38 am

And I should have added that my grandmother had the deepest love of nature of anyone I’ve ever known: she grew gorgeous gardens wherever she lived, successfully raised baby birds pushed out of the nest we brought her as kids, and remained intensely curious about all creatures, growing things, weather, etc., to the end of her life.

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4 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:02 am

Shows you how important early experiences can be.

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5 Lisa February 19, 2014 at 12:53 pm

I would absolutely send my daughter to a kindergarten like this. I wish I could go myself!

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6 Kate Newton February 19, 2014 at 1:07 pm

I would send my boys to a school like this for sure! I take them out in all kinds of weather and think being outside is so important for kids. I had never heard of forest schools before. Very interesting… Thanks for this post. It got me thinking for sure.

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7 Alex February 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Oh my goodness, thank you! What a fabulous idea and what better way to educate children.
As an Early Years specialist trained in the UK, I used to be very “academic” oriented in terms of what children should be doing. In the UK they start reception (the first year or school) at the age of school and go straight into pre-academic and academic skills. I now find that crazy!
I teach at an international school and we have recently had an influx of scandinavians. They don’t start formal schooling until much later (6 or 7) and what I have found so far is that when they do start school they are so much more prepared – emotionally, physically and socially.
I am now considering keeping my kids home from school for as long as I can afford… and we can do our own Forest Kindergarten too (it might involve a lot of dogs too…)
Thanks for this post – very inspiring!

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8 Zoe Saint-Paul February 20, 2014 at 12:35 am

Thanks for your comment, Alex. Starting academics a bit later makes a lot of sense to me, too, and gives me food for thought right now with my own 5 year-olds.

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Margaret Cabaniss 9 Margaret Cabaniss February 19, 2014 at 2:48 pm

This sounds like the neatest idea. Like others have mentioned above, early education is important, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as early facts and figures (or something that can’t be learned at home) — and it sounds like these kids are learning skills that will serve them well in the classroom, when they finally get there. In the meantime, what fun they must be having! I kind of want to spend my day wandering the woods, picking mushrooms, and building bonfires. (I think I’d need better winter clothes first, though…)

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10 Kari February 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm

This is so cool! I would definitely consider it if it were here. We have a “nature” preschool here in Minnesota that I’ve heard about (unfortunately, it’s a good 40-minute drive from us so my kids don’t go there) where the kids spend all day outside and must always have a change of clothes because they usually get dirty, muddy, or wet.

Side note — SlowMama posts aren’t showing up in my Bloglovin feed. I noticed I hadn’t seen any in a while so I checked and it says “at the moment we are unable to retrieve posts from this blog.” Thought you should know!

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11 Zoe Saint-Paul February 20, 2014 at 12:35 am

Hmmm. Thanks for letting me know this about Bloglovin, Kari. I will look into it!

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12 Kari February 20, 2014 at 4:02 pm

The posts are showing up today in Bloglovin — looks like everything is fine now!

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13 Zoe Saint-Paul February 23, 2014 at 2:02 am

So glad!

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14 Therese February 19, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Our kids have done a version of this, with both my husband and I as leaders after we paid some big bucks to have a “wilderness expert” lead the kids and I realized I was missing out on too much fun. It was a blast, though we combined it with other activities rather than doing it full time and the kids in our group ranged in age from five to nine, so it wasn’t limited to K. We don’t have the severe weather of the East Coast, but were out in the pouring rain and on some pretty cold/wet days when the temperatures dropped into the 30s. Marvelous fun and highly recommended! In fact, some sort of wilderness program seems to be de rigouer among the homeschoolers we know – probably because kids of all ages love it so much.

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15 Zoe Saint-Paul February 20, 2014 at 12:36 am

I wish we could do more of that around here. As it is, I don’t really feel safe going into any woods near by with just my daughters :-(

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16 Lauren February 19, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Fascinating! I have read about this, and YES! I would totally be up for it for my kids. 100%.

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17 Jenn February 19, 2014 at 6:20 pm

I love, love, LOVE this idea. I grew up with a great deal of freedom to explore the great outdoors as I was growing up. I really want my daughter and any future children to have the chance to grow up with a feel for the seasons, for nature’s patterns and its beauty! Academics before 6 or 7 seem odd to me. It seems like a great way to kill a love of learning, rather than encourage it.

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18 Zoe Saint-Paul February 20, 2014 at 12:40 am

“Killing the love of learning” — definitely something to avoid. I can already see how enforcing certain academics right now turns my girls way off.

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19 Elena @ Barefoot and Sometimes Pregnant February 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Wait…when send my kids outside in our five acres of woods with notebooks, crayons, magnifying glasses and lunch, I could be calling it forest school all this time? This actually makes me feel a lot better about the fact that my kids may be “behind” in books smarts for pre-K and K, but have a ton of knowledge about nature and science related things. Not to mention they all know how to build a bonfire…even the 1.5 year old…wait, maybe that isn’t such a good thing.

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20 Zoe Saint-Paul February 20, 2014 at 12:39 am

Yup, you’ve been running a forest school and didn’t even know it! I think you’re on the right track with those kids there, girl. :-)

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21 Ania @ The New Diplomat's Wife February 20, 2014 at 3:17 am

Thanks Zoe for the profile and interview! And thanks to everyone for your kind comments. When I first picked this school, I kind of wondered if people would think we were a bit nuts but it’s turned out to be such a great choice for our daughter and its’ been fascinating to see how many questions people have about it. Thanks for reading along and giving me the chance to chat more about it!

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22 Zoe Saint-Paul February 23, 2014 at 2:03 am

Thanks, Ania!

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23 Katie February 20, 2014 at 7:29 am

This is great! I don’t have any kids, but I think it would be a wonderful experience! It seems as though it is also quite popular in Germany: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/forest-kindergartens-could-be-the-next-big-export-from-germany-a-935165.html
Although I have never met anyone who’s child has gone there. Looking forward to hearing more about it though!

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24 sonja snowflake February 21, 2014 at 1:23 pm

yay!!!
we have forest kindergarten in austria as well!
i’m pretty sure my future kids (no.1 is due in august :-) ) will attend one of those rather than a “normal” one.
in austria kids start with school at the age of 6 or 7 – so kids don’t usually learn to read and write before that age. i think it’s perfectly fine that way :-)

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25 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:03 am

Great to know that about Austria as well!

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26 Heather February 21, 2014 at 3:20 pm

There are definitely forest kindergartens in the US. My hope is that this will become an option all over! My children currently go to a “FK” program here in Portland, OR. They’ve also attended a wonderful
Forest Kindergarten in Saratoga Springs, NY, at the Waldorf School. I can not recommend it highly enough! As I stayed earlier, it would be wonderful if these programs became available to all children, all over.

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27 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:04 am

I’ve become aware that there are more of these on the West coast than anywhere else, and I know that some Waldorf schools make outdoor time and nature exploration part of their programs. The one in Saratoga Springs looks amazing!

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28 Tracey February 22, 2014 at 8:28 am

I would love to send my kids to a school like this, we live in Italy and been Australian I was brought up spending alot of time outdoors so I am very frustrated here that in kindergarten and primary school they don’t let the kids play outside during the colder months for fear of getting sick, from about November until as late as Mid March, depending on the weather.
My eldest has just started primary school this year and he is going crazy sitting down in a classroom from 8am till 4pm every day and arrives home bouncing of the walls! I completely agree that it is just a matter of dressing apropriately for the weather, my boys would love the adventure and freedom of a kindergarten like this! I cant wait to follow and learn more from your blog!
Tracey

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29 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:05 am

Yes, it seems so counter-intuitive and ignorant of child development to have children sitting down at desks inside all day long!

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30 Amy Gallardo February 22, 2014 at 11:44 am

My younger son will be starting an outdoor preschool in the fall here in San Francisco that my older son also attended. And it has been around awhile, as we are a 2nd generation family. It really is an amazing environment to be going on hikes, and doing digging projects and playing pretend games in the trees. Especially when we spend our non school time living in a flat in an urban neighborhood.

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31 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:06 am

That’s great, Amy! Wish I had something similar here.

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32 Spy Garden February 22, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Forest preschool is the best. We are fortunate to have one in Missouri!

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33 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:06 am

Where in Missouri, Spy Garden?

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34 lauren February 26, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Yes, please share! I am curious!

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35 FIONA February 23, 2014 at 2:04 am

I enjoyed reading this article and finding out what a Forest kindergarten is like in Denmark.
I am an Australian living in Japan. My 4 year old son has been attending a Forest Kindergarten here in Japan for the past 2 Years.(there are about 50 all over Japan)
It’s been a great experience for him and me as well.
They have their own rice paddy! The rice is planted and cut by hand! No chemicals are used in the process,then they eat the rice they made for lunch!

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36 Zoe Saint-Paul February 26, 2014 at 1:07 am

A rice paddy?? That is amazing! Fascinating to hear Japan has about 50 such schools. What a great experience for your son.

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37 commonweeder March 3, 2014 at 9:34 am

As a great-grandmother who had young children in the 60′s, I am happy to know there are places where children can explore and learn out in nature – and where parents don’t have to feel they must – or even can – eliminate all risk. Independence, resourcefulness and responsibility can be learned at young ages.

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38 Lisa October 29, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Just learning about this from a conversation with a childhood friend (we grew up in NY) who is now living in the Czech Republic, where forest schools are more common. I would love to find a forest preschool program for my kids (currently in nursery school) and would enroll them ASAP. The only program I’ve seen in NY is Saratoga Springs. If anyone hears about a program on Long Island, I hope they’ll post it!

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