Into the Wild: Learning about Forest Kindergarten

February 19, 2014

Clara in Winter Gear Imagine 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 School ZSPWhat 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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