By Safe Baby Healthy Child Co-Founder Sandra Blum
Do your children tend to fight more when they are stuck inside watching TV or playing video games all day? Mine do. They usually end up fighting, are more aggressive, moody, easily irritated and bored and not very talkative. However, when they spend the whole day outdoors in nature, they are the total opposite: happy, excited, love to tell stories…just in a great mood!
That’s why I am such a big fan of Forest Kindergartens and I really wished my kids attended one. No matter what season or weather condition, the kids are encouraged to play and explore the forest or other natural environment with adult supervision. The adults are assisting rather than leading the traditional way in the regular school system.
Forest Kindergartens are very popular in Europe, especially in Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. Germany has currently over 1000 forest kindergartens and it’s popularity is growing rapidly in other European countries. I have read many news articles of kids with ADD who have been ‘cured’ without medication by simply switching to a Forest Kindergarten. I have also read that these kids are better problem solvers, have a higher critical thinking, are more creative and show more perseverance once they enter primary school.
We had many questions about forest kindergartens in general and the movement in the US and are excited to post this SafBaby exclusive interview with the leader of the US Forest Kindergarten movement and founder Erin Kenny of Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten located in the state of Washington. She also shares some tips for overly anxious parents.
Here the exclusive SafBaby interview with Erin Kenny, Founder of Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten.
Tell us a little bit about your Forest Kindergarten and how/why you started it.
I started the Forest Kindergarten because I had a then three year old son and was disappointed by the choice of preschools available for him, all of which were indoors. Because my son loved being outdoors and I had witnessed how much learning took place when young children played outside, I had a vision of an entirely outdoor preschool, one in which there was no indoor space and where the lessons arose organically as we moved through the natural world. I had seen that when kids were involved in hands-on discovery, they tended to retain information better. So, in 2006, I started my own nature-based preschool, with a commitment to no less than 2/3 outdoor time, and called it Cedarsong Preschool.
In 2007, a friend and former student of mine, Robin Rogers, shared my vision of an all-outdoor year round preschool and offered to help me realize it. We formed the non-profit Cedarsong Nature School under the umbrella of the Ancient Forest Education Foundation and opened the first U.S. Forest Kindergarten based on the German Waldkindergarten model.”
Which skills do children learn outdoors that they can not learn inside in a classroom?
Specific natural science study subjects in the Forest Kindergarten program:
Forest ecosystems, biology, botany, ethnobotany, etymology, ornithology, zoology, math, physics, engineering.
Life skills gained in the Forest Kindergarten program:
Social development, conflict resolution, instilled kindness, compassion, empathy, emotional balance, risk assessment, increased upper and lower body strength, including hand strength, better balancing and flexibility.
“We live in an indoor culture that fears nature and we discount the value of play as the best way for young children to learn.”
What’s the main difference between forest kindergarten kids & regular kindergarten kids?
It has been shown that Forest Kindergarten kids play more cooperatively and exhibit more teamwork. Also they have increased problem-solving ability and higher critical thinking. In addition, the kids tend to have higher empathy and compassion extending to all living beings.
What are the benefits?
physical: healthy bodies, stronger immune systems, among others
emotional: better emotional resilience and management of emotional states, among others
mental: improved cognitive functioning, more relaxed/less stress, among others
“Forest Kindergartens teach kids HOW to problem solve not WHAT the answers are!”
Why are the skills learned at Forest Kindergartens so important for a child’s future?
The Forest Kindergarten model, through its interest-led programming, inquiry-based teaching style and emphasis on social and emotional development teaches life long skills and prepares for kindergarten readiness in the following ways: it leads to better problem solving; higher critical thinking; encourages excitement about learning and retains the desire to learn; it teaches kids HOW to problem solve not WHAT the answers are; it expands creativity; it promotes a willingness to take risks; and it results in children who have better peer communication, emotional resilience, lower frustration levels, higher perseverance and who work more cooperatively with their class mates.
What do kids do all day?
Whatever they want; it is child-driven interest-led flow learning. They run, climb, dig, carry sticks, throw things, play in the mud puddle, create imaginative play, make music, dance, yell: all of the “normal” activities you would find kids doing when they are engaged in authentic play outdoors.
Don’t they get bored without all the toys?
NEVER. They find “toys” everywhere because their imaginations are left intact. A stick can be a horse, a broom, a drill, or a woodpecker or any number of other things.
Forest Kindergarten are quite popular in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and other European countries. Why are there so few in the US?
Unfortunately, we live in an indoor culture that fears nature and we discount the value of play as the best way for young children to learn. Numbers growing? Yes, absolutely. I was just keynote speaker at the second annual Nature Preschool conference in Maryland and it was sold out.
Is there some resistance from parents? We do not enroll families whose parents are in any way resistant! We have a detailed selection process to make sure both the child and parents are completely on-board with the program. I am not trying to convince anyone. I am only trying to support, encourage and inspire parents and educators who already understand why the Forest Kindergarten model is an important one for preschool-aged children.
Is a Forest Kindergarten ALWAYS held in the outdoors?
The Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten is defined by 100% nature immersion no matter what the weather or the season.
Are Forest Kindergarten kids smarter than other kids their age going to regular preschool/kindergarten?
Not necessarily “smarter” just that since they have had their problem-solving and critical thinking skills left intact, as well as their excitement about learning, they are more relaxed about learning and tend to perform better on tests that children who were fast tracked in an early academic program (according to studies form Germany). The Forest Kindergarten children also tend to have better social skills and emotional resilience, more perseverance and less frustration.
I heard that children in Forest Kindergartens already get a knife at age 2 to learn dealing with dangers.
This is true in the German Forest Kindergartens however, since I am bound by my cultural perspective, we do not give our Forest Kindergarten children knives, since that is deemed way too risky by my culture.
Are parents these days too careful, afraid their kids get hurt?
Yes, helicopter parents are taking away their children’s chance to learn their own limits and the resulting pride that comes from accomplishing a difficult task. When I was a child, the adults let us climb very high in the trees.
Why is it so important for kids to be exposed to danger early on?
Children need to be given an opportunity to learn what their limitations are. They can never learn what that is if they are shielded from all risk. Indoor environments are filled with dangers; unfortunately they are seen as insulated and safe compared to outdoors. Children who spend most of their time indoors are more likely to get injured when they play outdoors because they literally have not learned the proper way to fall, which most outdoor kids know.
I heard that there are far less kids with ADD at forest kindergartens than regular ones. Should especially parents with kids diagnosed with ADD try a forest kindergarten?
ADHD is a result of too much indoor time, hence my motto: “Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls.” You will not see the symptoms of ADHD in the Forest Kindergarten because those kids have plenty of room to get their kinesthetic energy released. Forest Kindergartens are the BEST early childhood education model for children diagnosed with ADHD. There are studies which prove the benefit of nature immersion time for these kids and we personally see it on a regular basis.
Any tips for overly anxious parents who are too scared to let their kids play on their own?
Remember your own play memories (if over 40)? When did we become such a culture of fear about letting our kids play unsupervised?! When I was a kid in the 60’s, everyone played unsupervised and the adults had no idea how high we were climbing – THEY TRUSTED US. Playing WITH your child is a great way to bond as a family.
What type of degree, training, do the teachers at a forest kindergarten need to have?
A Forest Kindergarten teacher must have some degree in an early childhood program, however more important is attitude about the weather, naturalist knowledge and the ability to model kindness and respect for self, others and nature. The Forest Kindergarten teacher must be able to embrace the interest-led programming and keep their ego, and/or need to control or direct the class, in check.
What is the cost of your program? What age group is it for? What is the ratio of student to teacher?
Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten is $120 a month for each three hour class per week.
Our program is for 2-6 year olds. I kept the term “Forest Kindergarten” to indicate that I follow the German wald kindergarten model. In Europe, there is no “preschool”; children are in daycare until they enter formal education at age 6 or 7. There is no “kindergarten” as the first year of public school as we have in this country. So, it is a program for 2-6 year olds and all classes have this age range.
What is the ratio of student to teacher? Always 4:1.
How would someone go about getting a program like this started in their area of residence?
They would be wise to attend the Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training Program or purchase a copy of my upcoming book, “Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way” (available in mid-August as hard copy or ebook).
How can parents find a forest kindergarten in their area and is there any government recognition for Forest Kindergartens in the US?
I always suggest parents ask their local park district, Audubon Society, Land Trust or Nature Preserve. More and more nature-based preschools and Forest Kindergartens are starting up, although they are still few and far between. No, there is no government recognition.
About Erin K. Kenny, Founder of Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten
Erin K. Kenny is internationally recognized as a leader in the Forest Kindergarten movement. Erin has been connecting children with nature for over twenty years and has a B.A. in environmental education and a J.D. in environmental law. In 2006, Erin developed the nature-based Cedarsong Preschool on Vashon Island in Washington state.
After a year of observing how positively preschool-age children responded to the nature immersion lessons and how well the children retained information when they had hands on experiences, Erin joined with Robin Rogers and started Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten, the first U.S. Forest Kindergarten based on the German waldkindergarten model.
Erin’s extensive experience and expertise in designing and developing the Cedarsong model led her to create Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training and Certification Program to inspire and empower other