While many preschools and kindergarten programs proudly emphasize academics, the growing trend in Germany is the Waldkita, a forest kindergarten.
Germany, the original home of kindergarten (literally meaning children’s garden), boasts more than 1,500 waldkitas, or forest kindergartens, most of which have opened within the last 15 years. One such example is the Robin Hood Waldkindergarten in Berlin. At Robin Hood, younger children ages 18 months to three years spend the morning playing outside the facility, but older children, ages 3-6, take a bus to an 84-acre park, where they are allowed to romp and explore, regardless of the weather.
The differences between a standard kindergarten and this forest kindergarten are stark. Once they get to the park, children often venture out of view of their supervisors, although they are not allowed to go out of earshot. Still, many children wander up to 100 yards away to climb trees or wade through marshes.
Also, there are no toys. Rather, children play with whatever they find outside — sticks, rocks, mud, or even icicles during the winter. The benefit of no toys, as one Robin Hood teacher explains, is that there is less fighting. Children are more inclusive because they want to play with each other.
Rather than learning about a snake or a bird from a book, they get to see animals and plants in their native habitat, and their instructors use what the children find, such as a nest or even a dead animal, to teach them about the natural world. However, many schools, like Robin Hood, do offer inside time during the day for children to “creatively process” their experience outside through crafts or play.
Outdoor play does come with risks.
Children who attend Robin Hood get whittling knives when they start the day outside. Picco Peters, one of the instructors, says, “all of them cut them[selves] eventually, but after that, they know that these knives are really sharp, and it doesn’t happen again.” In America, many schools minimize risk as much as possible, mostly to avoid lawsuits, but as the German model shows, children quickly learn from their mistakes and gain valuable experience in handling risk.
German parents send their children to these schools for a number of reasons. Not only are the waldkitas publicly funded (Robin Hood charges only 100 euros per month, or about $116 in U.S. dollars), the schools encourage their children to be healthy, active, and to find balance with the technology-saturated world in which they live.
There is some evidence that the forest kindergarten model may benefit children beyond their preschool years. In his Ph.D. dissertation, Peter Häfner at Heidelberg University compared the performance of children from forest kindergartens and regular kindergartens during their first year together in elementary school. The children from waldkitas consistently outranked their peers, in areas such as cognitive tasks, social behavior, creativity, and physical ability.
Preschool and kindergarten are important institutions in children’s lives, when they are first exposed to a class setting and formal education. Some German parents have realized, however, that there will always be textbooks, tests, and lists to remember, and children only get one childhood. Why shouldn’t it be spent outdoors?
In the U.S., there is a small, but growing number of forest kindergartens or outdoor schools. Refer to this list for a 2018 state-by-state guide.