An Ideal Learning Environment

In many preschools, outdoor time and authentic play are being replaced by an intense emphasis on learning letters and numbers in a very formal, structured and teacher-directed manner. However current research indicates that children learn differently from adults and that these early literacy and math programs and the highly structured indoor classroom environment may actually be detrimental to a child’s later academic success.

In 2007, I developed Cedarsong Nature School’s Forest Kindergarten, the first of its kind in the U.S. based on the German waldkindergarten model. Besides its commitment to daily nature immersion time, the Forest Kindergarten is distinguished by its underlying pedagogy which includes several key features such as emergent curriculum, interest-led flow learning and inquiry-based teaching style.

It has been discovered that young children learn best through experiential hands-on discovery and when they are relaxed and having fun.

It is becoming more accepted here in America that there actually is great educational value in children’s play. Neuroscientists are discovering that the learning centers of children’s brains light up when children are engaged in play. There is also more understanding about the brain-body connection with young children; that they incorporate new information best when they are moving as the learning is taking place. All of these new discoveries point out the inherent benefits to an outdoor classroom as the ideal learning environment for young children.

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The Forest Kindergarten early childhood education model is one of the best programs for keeping kids excited about learning and for building their connection with the natural world.

Interest-led Learning at Forest Kindergarten

Most environmental education programs in this country, no matter what age they serve, are teacher led and have a set agenda. Usually the activity or lesson involves some kind of experiment for which there is the need for a lot of teacher direction and set-up. Although studies have shown that children do learn science best when it is taught outdoors, I have found that the learning is even more meaningful, retained longer and instilled deeper when the lessons are child-directed or interest-led and flow organically from the children’s own discoveries.

When the teachers arrive at Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten, they have no set agenda and no schedule for the children to follow. The learning that arises through children’s authentic play ensures that their own interests are guiding their education. Children have an enormous capacity for taking in and cataloging information; however they have to be interested first in order for that learning to be meaningful.

In my years of experience, the more children are interested in something, the more information about that thing they will retain.

Emergent Curriculum

Emergent curriculum develops directly from the children’s own hand-on exploration of their environment, from observations that are relevant, interesting and personally meaningful to the children and builds on itself as the class time unfolds. Emergent curriculum can benefit any environmental education program as it helps identify the group’s interests and the early learning strands which evolve from this pedagogical approach can easily scaffold into indoor activities which support the unstructured outdoor time.

The following example illuminates the kind of learning that occurs in an interest-led program:

One day at Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten, a four-year old had the idea to experiment with throwing different natural items into our puddle to see which would sink or float. Before the kids threw anything in the water, the teachers would present the hypothesis by asking “Do you think that will sink or float?” and the children would all give their ideas.

After some initial experimenting, the children came up with their conclusion: Big things sink, little things float. However, as the teachers allowed time for the children’s further explorations, their conclusion modified. They began to notice that big sticks sometimes floated and little pebbles sank. With more experiments performed and their results observed, the children changed their conclusion and began to notice that weight, not size, was the determining factor of whether something floated or sank.

This child-led “game” instantly became a fascinating science experiment where the children learned basic physics principles. Frequently now, the children will call out “Let’s Play Sink or Float” as it has become one of their favorite “games”.

Inquiry-Based Teaching

Many days at Forest Kindergarten, the children spend large amounts of time digging in the soil. During these explorations, they make exciting discoveries by unearthing different colors of dirt, buried charcoal or decomposing logs.

painting face with mud

In the inquiry-based teaching style of the Forest Kindergarten program, these observations become an opportunity for teachers to ask leading questions such as “How do you think this log got under the dirt?’ Teachers’ questions have no wrong answers for this age group and upon hearing each child’s answer, the teachers will respond: “That’s a good idea; what else could it be?”

Gradually, through their own hands-on explorations, the children begin to make conclusions about soil and how it is formed. When children are allowed to “just” play in nature, deep learning takes place in the areas of ecology, biology, botany, ethnobotany, etymology, ornithology, zoology, math, physics and engineering.

In addition, the Forest Kindergarten nature pedagogy emphasizes social and emotional development as well as kindness, compassion, empathy, cooperation and teamwork.

It has been an interesting transformation for me, from feeling like I had to provide the preschoolers with coordinated environmental activities outdoors, to gradually taking away more and more of the indoor props, such as paint, paper, scissors and glue.

I realized over time that it was my own cultural conditioning which emphasized product as a way to account for our time and I was pushing that onto the children. I wanted to make sure the parents could see that I was providing “education” for their children and it has been a gradual process of letting go of my own need to prove that measurable learning was taking place. Over the years, I have come to the understanding that nature provides many lessons for children simply by their being immersed in it.

Nature is a classroom and children are quite capable of learning on their own through their observations and hands-on discovery.

Nature Immersion

Young children’s lives today are so structured; not only in their home life but also at their preschool. They are continuously being rushed to do this or get ready for that. The Forest Kindergarten educational model allows these children the time to immerse in nature with no sense of rush and with no adults telling them what to do next. The time slows as children find their own rhythm without adult intervention and this sense of timelessness is something that is not often experienced in today’s frenetic world.

girl with magnifying glassIt turns out that today’s children want to engage in all the natural and universal childhood activities that I engaged in as a child such as climbing, running, building and decorating their secret forest huts. Yet this kind of free play in nature is rare for today’s children to experience on a regular basis. Personal testimonials and recent research indicates that children who spend extended periods of time immersed in nature develop compassion and sensitivity to the natural world that would otherwise have stayed latent.

Most leading environmentalists cite two important factors in their childhood which led them to a passion for caring about the environment: extended nature immersion time and a nature mentor who taught them respect for nature.

There is much concern that children today who are deprived of nature immersion experiences will lose that innate connection to nature which leads to compassion for the natural world. Leading environmentalists are rightfully worried about where the next generation of environmentalists will come from.

As children feel a connection to a place, they develop feelings of personal responsibility and feel empowered to protect that place.

So often environmental education in the public schools focuses on crisis and is presented in a heavy-handed way detailing everything that is wrong with the state of the environment today. This can lead to a profound sense of disempowerment and defeatism and results in ecophobia. Instead of children feeling excited to change the world, they become disengaged and their eyes glaze over. When children feel a personal connection to even a small part of the planet, it has been shown that they will work harder to make sure the greater part is protected.

The Forest Kindergarten early childhood education model and its underlying pedagogy is a great way to authentically connect children with nature. Its interest-led philosophy and emergent curriculum creates a relaxing and fun learning environment and makes the lessons more meaningful and retained better by each child. This results in young children who are genuinely excited about environmental education.

Erin Kenny, Cedarsong Nature School Co-Founder and Director

erin kenny forest kindergarten outdoor preschool classroom

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 also frequently shares her expertise by speaking at conferences and universities about the Forest Kindergarten model and the benefits of her teaching methodology known as The Cedarsong Way, a compassion scaffolded, inquiry-based teaching method developed by Erin over the past two decades. The Cedarsong Way is a specific methodology of teaching science that is distinguished by use of an outdoor classroom, child-driven flow learning, child-inspired emergent curriculum and inquiry-based teaching. This pedagogy encourages children’s natural love of science resulting in a deep understanding and superior retention of natural science principles, while promoting advanced social skills, teamwork and cooperation, and a high level of emotional intelligence. The Cedarsong Way can be applied to any existing environmental education program with any age group.

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.

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