Waldkindergarten, wood or forest kindergarten, are a natural development for Germany, a country where an emphasis is put on "nature" and the "environment" as a vital ingredient for life, and living. From its city parks and gardens to the almost 30 percent of land under protection in over 7,000 nature reserves.
Dressed for the weather, and as open air all weather schools this means whatever the season come rain or shine, for pre-school pupils at Waldkindergarten "learning" means being outside in an unstructured open setting.
Experiencing all facets of nature and wildlife.
With at least half their day spent in the open air, groups of children often become dirty and wet. They climb and fall off trees, play with whatever there is to be found outside, all the time exploring, learning, and through curiosity and fantasy acquiring 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 teachers, children of both age groups in a Waldkindergarten combine their own choice of physical activity with quiet times.
There are no "proper" toys. They become independent and motivated, their imagination and concentration is developed, and they learn to work, play and communicate with each other.
Twigs and branches, found lying around or transported by the children to the site, make hideaways built to their own design and calculations.
A branch becomes a swing, a slide or perhaps 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 surrounding them or watching the patterns made by light and shade through trees.
Four twigs on the forest floor are the frame for a picture drawn in the soil; a collage made with objects found nearby. While the stick used as a prod to poke under stones today, is a magician's wand tomorrow.
Natural habitats are explored, wildlife, plants and trees inspected and discussed. Under guidance herbs, fungi, leaves, berries and other "edibles" growing in the wild are tasted. Raw, cooked, as teas brewed over an open fire, and as the children pass through the seasons they learn the sequences of time and nature.
And a sense of place.
Modern life, and reliance on television programs, often bring about a situation where young people know more about African wildlife than they do about the life outside their own doors; the nature and environment in the part of the world they live.
Already in 2005 a book by Richard Louv, "The Last Child in the Woods", described this as "nature deficit disorder". For today's children the first hand experiences and contact with nature that their parents, grandparents and generations before them had, have been replaced by a virtual reality.
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 if there isn't one in their neighborhood. Some form of parental participation is part of the ideal and system of education, while 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; that Waldkindergarten are successful among other things in developing independence, concentration, imagination, social skills, communication, coordination, fitness and an appreciation and understanding of nature.
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 play and open air were an essential part of a child's growth and education, which was contrary to the practices of the time. He began an educational system that took account of his theory, and later invented the description "Kindergarten".
Over time his ideas and theories 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 they once again became acceptable in Germany; then the first Waldkindergarten was founded.
Now, although more are opened every year in cities like Berlin as well as country towns, there are long waiting lists 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 that is beginning to be followed by more countries. While in a "Green Germany", with a strong ecological and social culture, it has become a fundamental system of education, not only for present day, but also for the future life and lifestyle of the country and its people. Toys don't last forever, but experiences do.
Photo in snow by Waldkindergarten-Vilsbiburg - Fun in the forest Waldkindergarten Mechernich in Nationalpark Eifel - Apple doll by Waldwichtel-Pfullingen