The movement to get kids outdoors is growing rapidly, both nationally and internationally. The recently created Nature Action Collaborative for Children already has more than 1,600 members from six continents. Other growing initiatives aimed at helping children connect to the natural world include the Children and Nature Network which sponsors an International Mud Day and the National Wildlife Foundation’s “Be Out There” program.
Perhaps what sparked this awakening was child advocate Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” It was the first book to gather cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Forest Kindergarten was created with this knowing.
Erin Kenny founded the first forest kindergarten in the U.S. when she became disappointed that the only preschool options she had for her then three-year old son were indoor. Her son loved being outdoors and she witnessed how much learning took place when young children played outside. She became inspired to create Cedarsong® Nature School, and since then, this unique early childhood education model has flourished.
Cedarsong® is an entirely outdoor program for children ages 2-6 characterized by immersion in nature, unstructured time, flow learning and inquiry-based teaching. In our posts, Forest Kindergarten – A Better Way to Teach Our Young Children? and Forest Kindergarten: The Ultimate Classroom, Erin went into depth about what sets forest kindergarten apart from traditional schools, shared the profound benefits she has witnessed in her young students and addressed common questions from parents unfamiliar with this new approach.
For this article, we asked her to share information about what it takes to be a Forest Kindergarten teacher. Maybe, like her, you’ll find yourself inspired by your own child to make a meaningful difference in the lives of other children.
Cedarsong® Nature School’s Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training Program by Erin Kenny
As Forest Kindergartens gain popularity, there is a growing need for teachers who will embrace the unique model of immersion in nature, unstructured time, flow learning and inquiry-based teaching. A few years ago, I began worrying that people might begin a program and call it a forest kindergarten without any true understanding of the underlying pedagogy or knowledge of how to be mindful and proactive in regards to risks and hazards. To this end, I created a Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training and Certification Program, currently the only certification of its kind in the U.S.
Do You Have Passion, Authenticity, Awe and Wonder?
After a decade as the Director and Lead Teacher of Cedarsong® Nature School’s Forest Kindergarten, I have a very good idea of what makes a great Forest Kindergarten teacher. The main prerequisites are passion, authenticity, awe and wonder.
Unlike many outdoor programs for children, Forest Kindergarten teachers do not use a pre-set lesson plan because the nature curriculum is emergent and spontaneous depending on the day, the weather and the season. There is no agenda or schedule in the free-flow unstructured forest kindergarten day.
Teachers are guides and mentors for the children; suggestive rather than directive, offering rather than requiring. They observe the children and follow their lead, noticing where the children’s interests and curiosity lie. When the children make discoveries, the teachers do not dispense answers but rather invite conversation, problem-solving and critical thinking through their inquiry-based teaching style.
When a child excitedly discovers a nature treasure and calls a teacher’s attention to it, the forest kindergarten teacher can join the child with supporting science equipment and mind-expanding open-ended questions. When the child’s interest is piqued and they are in that heightened state of excitement about their discovery, that is the time to support the lesson because the learning will be deeper and the information will be retained longer.
A Forest Kindergarten teacher needs to understand that there is a balance
between knowing the right time to step in and the right time to stand back.
Forest Kindergarten teachers extend the inquiry-based teaching for as long as the children are curious and then let the questioning go when the children start to lose interest. Although documenting the learning contained in these discoveries is important, it is crucial to stay in the moment with the children while their interest is high. Their discoveries, experiments and conclusions can be recorded later and the threads from this teachable moment scaffolded into exciting follow-up indoor lesson plans.
A Forest Kindergarten teacher is also adept at recognizing hazards. I have heard it said that risk is something a child can see and therefore assess and a hazard is something a child cannot see. I strongly believe that children need to engage in some moderately risky activities such as climbing, balancing and running barefoot to build their own ability to assess risk and to challenge all their senses. But of course, reasonable safety rules regarding certain moderately risky activities should always be in place to prevent risk from crossing over into a hazard. Hazards can come in the form of weather (high winds, lightning), fauna (wasps, ticks, poisonous snakes) and flora (poisonous plants).
Most of all, a Forest Kindergarten teacher is someone who understands the fundamental importance of what has become The Cedarsong® Way Forest Kindergarten Pedagogy – of being a role model for kind, gentle, compassionate communication and interactions between each other, the children and towards nature.
Compassion brings us peace of mind. It brings a smile to our face and genuine smiles bring us closer together.
Education today needs not only to develop our intelligence but also to support basic human values of warm-heartedness and compassion. – Dalai Lama
Be the Change You Wish to See
Cedarsong exceeds the best programs for social-emotional learning that I am aware of. The combination of deep nature connection and your style of teaching facilitates children’s awareness of, and compassion towards, self and others in a really remarkable way. – Caroline Boxmeyer, PhD at the U. of Alabama who completed The Cedarsong® Way Teacher Training program.
Almost every month, Cedarsong® Nature School offers training sessions for those who are interested in becoming certified. (See below for more information). But the Forest Kindergarten approach is not just for people who want to teach. To bring together educators, parents, policy-makers and other stakeholders in the interest of encouraging children to become attuned with their surrounding natural environment and the American landscape, I founded the non-profit American Forest Kindergarten Association (AFKA). It is a national organization that encourages policies, establishes consistent standards and develops programs for incorporating nature immersion into early childhood education.
Find out more about Cedarsong Nature School and Teacher Training.
Winter/Spring Training Sessions 2018: March 18-22; April 22-26; May 6-10; June 3-7
Summer 2018: July 8-12; July 15-19; July 29-Aug. 2; Aug. 12-16; Aug. 19-23
Erin Kenny, Cedarsong® Nature School Co-Founder and Director
Erin Kenny has been designing programs to connect children with nature for over twenty years. She has a B.A. in environmental education and a J.D. in environmental law. In 2006, Erin developed Cedarsong® Preschool, a nature-based preschool, and was fascinated by how well the children retained information when they had hands on experiences. In 2007, Erin formed the non-profit Cedarsong® Nature School and, with the help of Robin Rogers, started the first U.S. Forest Kindergarten, an entirely-outdoor preschool that is based on the German waldkindergarten model. Erin’s extensive experience and her resulting expertise inspired her to create Cedarsong’s® Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training and Certification Program to assist others in their dream of pursuing this exciting and unique early childhood education model.
Erin has attended international study trips in the Netherlands, Germany and Scotland to further her own learning and has spoken at international conferences in South Korea, Australia and Canada. Erin wrote the book “Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way” and wrote a chapter in David Sobel’s book “Nature Pre-schools and Forest Kindergartens.” Erin is the founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association, a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), The National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), The World Forum Foundation’s Nature Action Collaborative for Children, and the National Wildlife Federation’s ‘Be Out There’ campaign. Erin’s pioneering work has been showcased in major media such as PEOPLE magazine, Sierra Club magazine, ABC News Nightline and UK-Daybreak.