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Forest Schools, Germany's Waldkindergarten

Waldkindergarten, wood or forest kindergartens, have developed from a way of thinking which, from city parks and gardens to the almost 30 percent of Germany's land under protection in its over 7,000 nature reserves, emphasizes "nature" and the "environment" as a vital ingredient for life and living.

Dressed for the weather, and as an open air all weather school in all seasons come rain or shine, for pre-school pupils at a Waldkindergarten learning means being outside in an open unstructured setting, experiencing all facets of nature and wild life.

At least half of their day is spent in open air, where groups of children get very dirty and sometimes wet, climb and fall off trees, play with whatever there is to be found outside, explore, learn, and, through curiosity and fantasy, acquire a basic insight into, and understanding and respect for, the nature surrounding them.

Often split into two groups, 18 months to three years, and from three until schulreife, ready for first grade at six years old, and with little obvious direction from the teachers, children from both age groups in a Waldkindergarten combine their own choice of physical activity with quiet times.

As there are no proper toys available, they become more independent and motivated, their imagination and concentration is developed, and they learn to work, play and communicate with each other.

Twigs and branches, either found lying around or transported to site by the children, make hideaways built to their own design and calculations.

A suitable branch can become a swing, a slide, a pirate ship. Somewhere to sit while listening to a story, looking at a book, singing, playing music with sticks, stones and seed pods, eating lunch, observing sounds and scents of the nature that surrounds them or watching patterns made by light and shade through trees.

Four twigs on the forest floor are the frame for a picture drawn in the soil, or a collage made with objects found nearby, and the stick that is today a prod to poke under stones is tomorrow a magician's wand.

Natural habitats are explored, wildlife, plants and trees inspected and discussed. Under guidance herbs, leaves and berries which have been found are tasted and teas brewed over an open fire, while as they pass through the seasons the children learn the sequences of time and nature, and a sense of place.

Modern life and television often bring about a situation where young people know more about African wildlife than they do about the life outside their own door, and the nature and environment of the part of the world in which they live.

Already by 2005, in his book The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, described this as nature deficit disorder. For the children of today the first hand experiences and contact with nature of their parents, grandparents and the generations before them have now been replaced by a virtual reality.

However in urban and suburban areas of Germany increasing numbers of parents are choosing to send their preschool children to a Waldkindergarten, and the government provides subsidies to parent associations wishing to found and run schools when none exists in their neighborhood. Parental participation in one way or another is part of the ideal and the system of education, and once established monthly school fees are kept low.

Increasing evidence shows preschoolers who have attended forest kindergarten are ahead developmentally of those from a more conservative system, and that Waldkindergarten are successful amongst other things in developing independence, concentration, imagination, social skills, communication, co-ordination, fitness and an appreciation and understanding of nature.

Nevertheless it is not a new concept, but first thought of in the mid 19th century by Friedrich Froebel, who had been born and brought up in one of Germany's forested regions. Highly educated he became committed to the idea that, contrary to the practices of the time, play and open air were essential parts of a child's growth and education and so began an educational system which took account of his theory, later inventing the description kindergarten, or "children's garden".

Over time however his ideas were replaced by conventional methods of teaching young children and, although adopted in Scandinavian countries during the 1950's, it was not until the beginning of the 1990's that his theories were once again acceptable in Germany and the first Waldkindergarten was founded.

Now, although more are opened every year in cities like Berlin as well as country towns, long waiting lists exist for the hundreds of countrywide "forest schools".

Today's 'Forest School' is a 19th century concept that fits perfectly to the 21st century, and one which is beginning to be followed by more countries, while in a Green Germany, with its strong ecological and social culture, it has become a fundamental system of education. Not only for the present day, but also for the future life and life style of the country and its people.



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My, Oh My--A Butterfly!: All About Butterflies, from the Cat in the Hat's Learning Library, is just brilliant and an excellent book for young, and even not so young, children.

On Beyond Bugs: All About Insects, also from Cat in the Hat's Learning Library, not only makes learning fun, for even the youngest, it is amazing to see just what information is packed in there.


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