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I just returned from the International Early Childhood and Nature Education conference in the Netherlands and Germany and was able to observe many waldkindergartens (Forest Kindergartens) there. Four years ago I started a Forest Kindergarten here in the pacific northwest which has been wildly successful and enjoyed national attention. My question is this: Why are Forest Kindergartens in the U.S. stiil such a novelty while there are literally hundreds of them in a small country like Germany? What are the cultural differences that result in this discrepancy?

http://www.cedarsongnatureschool.org

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Good question Erin.  I am curious to see the responses to this post.  I wish we had a forest kindergarten and/or preschool in my area (northeast Ohio).  I tried to click onto your link above but it is not working, I used to live in the Pacific NW and would love to see what your school is all about!
Hi Susan, I mistyped the website address for Cedarsong Nature School in the original discussion post. I have corrected it however I guess it will not"take" until it has been approved! In the meantime, you can check us out at this correct url address: www.cedarsongnatureschool.org. I look forward to continuing this discussion. You can also join the dialogue onour Facebook page. Thank you.

Susan Sedenik said:
Good question Erin.  I am curious to see the responses to this post.  I wish we had a forest kindergarten and/or preschool in my area (northeast Ohio).  I tried to click onto your link above but it is not working, I used to live in the Pacific NW and would love to see what your school is all about!

Erin,

I can think of a lot of reasons why Forest Schools don't exsist here in the US, but I am continuously shocked by how far we have fallen into the hole of standardized curriculums and grade expectations even for our youngest learners. It all begins with play,...higher order thnking, socialization, language development, gross and fine motor skills. Somewhere along the line someone said that playing wasn't learning and that we, as adults had all the answers to childrens natural thirst for knowledge.

I be;ieve the difference across the sea in Germany, Scotland, the UK, and the Netherlands is how they value early childhood learning. My impression from my research is that they value it highly and have done their human development homework. If you want a healthy citizen who cares about their culture and particiaptes in their community, give them an education that develops a sense of place EARLY.

On the bright side, I started a one day a week forest preschool here in central Vermont. With 5 weeks of notice  to the community I had full enrollment with a waiting list! I also work in two schools with a total of  120 children three days a week. These kindergarteners and first graders are spending about nine hours a month outside in their local forest learning. Teachers are seeking more help in this type of learning. Many educators see the need for it. Unfortunately, again, unlike the countires over seas, none of this work is funded by our state government. My work is privatley or grant funded.

I'd love to hear peoples stories!

 

-amy

How are they licensed? Do they have a building that they operate out of?
No. The original waldkindergartens that I observed in Germany are completely outdoors year-round and they receive the same public funding from the government that all of the other preschools do. Our Forest Kindergarten here in Washington state is the same in that we do not even have an indoor space and the children are outdoors in all weather. Our program is run on 5 acres of private forest land and each class is three hours. In this state, there are no licensing requirements for that scenario.

Amy Beam said:
How are they licensed? Do they have a building that they operate out of?

That's exactly the question I've been wondering!  I am interested in starting a K-12 "forest school".  Since you have had such success with your program, what are your thoughts on taking it to the later years?

Wow! Incredible. Here in Maryland  ANYONE  who works with the same children for more than a few days in a calendar year MUST have a licensing agency's permission (there is even regulation for babysitting). And those agencies all require a building inspection for things such as proper sanitation (flushing toilets and running water), a place for sick children to rest quietly until they are picked-up, storage of health records and so forth...all great things to provide children with, granted, but leaving little room for the type of programming that Europeans-and Cedar Song-enjoy.

I think it is a wonderful idea! My passion is the 3-6 age group however some of our first year preschool parents, whose children are now approaching seven had wanted us to to start a Cedarsong primary school with a 70% outdoor 30% indoor structure, relying heavily on direct experience for the lessons. For us, it was mostly a decision that we were committed to the entirely-outdoor model so we felt it was beyond our particular school's role to offer indoor curriculum. I know that here in the northwest people are desperate for alternatives to traditional public schools which, for the most part, are failing our students. Look to the Finland model: after EVERY 45 minute class indoors, the children get 15 minutes of unstructured outdoor time. Finland consistently ranks #1 in student performance internationally and their kids don't even start formal education until age 7!

Stacey Albenberg said:

That's exactly the question I've been wondering!  I am interested in starting a K-12 "forest school".  Since you have had such success with your program, what are your thoughts on taking it to the later years?

Hi Everyone

I've just picked up on this thread thanks to Stacy Albenberg. Firstly in Scotland any outdoor pre-school is also subject to the same licensing laws as any other pre-school. Even if they are outside all the time, there must be a registered building. I believe this is the same in Sweden too. A couple in Scotland have village halls as their registered building. Even when outside there are the same sanitary considerations. This means there's been a lot of trials, discussions and negotiations with the authorities to enable this to happen. It's all new for us and our hand hygiene laws are probably amongst the tightest in the world. 

But yes - there is growing recognition of the benefits of children spending frequent amounts of time in nature when supported by enthusiastic and knowledgeable professionals. 

It is perfectly possible to have outdoor schools up through the ages too. In Sweden 20 such elementary schools exist where at least 50% of the curriculum is outdoors. Some subjects automatically lend themselves (well all actually) to being outside. I am an outdoor learning consultant but I teach one day per week and in the past 3 yrs I've spent precisely 1 day indoors. I work with all ages and stages although this year I'm doing class cover for 3 ASN classes - Kingergarten, G2 and G5.

I think it's that we do have a different theoretical base that believes in play-based learning based on the children's interests. I find being outside tends to better meet most children's needs than indoors as children learn with their whole bodies. They need to run, jump, stop, start, explore, etc. 

However, the norm is such that I'm on the quirky side of normal. Most teachers beyond kindergarten do not get out daily . But the tide is turning and I believe will continue to turn. Please do check my blog and always ask any questions you want about the Scottish scene. It's a learning experience for all of us - myself included - Scotland has only had a clear mandate for learning outdoors since April 2010 and we'll still struggling at every level to ensure this is taken as seriously as any other development within our education system. 

Juliet, I enjoyed reading your post. Here in the USA, and in particular, DC and it's adjoining states of MD and VA, the main  licensing concerns regarding outdoor preschool are with having available toilets and hand-washing, as well as a resting place for a child who becomes ill during the school day. There are also restrictions concerning food preparation and storage without refrigeration. Because of these requirements, it seems that having a licensed-and therefore legal-preschool program requires having a brick-and-mortar facility that can be inspected and approved. Once a facility becomes involved, by law it must be equipped with abundant and prescribed educational materials and supplies, and per-child square footage, sleeping cots, changing tables, etc...It becomes very complicated and expensive! Summer programs seem to be more flexible, but are still heavily regulated. This is all to protect the child, of course, but is serving to prevent the ability of providers to have 100% outdoor full-time programs. It's important and valuable to learn what is happening elsewhere. Thanks for posting!



Juliet Robertson said:

Hi Everyone

I've just picked up on this thread thanks to Stacy Albenberg. Firstly in Scotland any outdoor pre-school is also subject to the same licensing laws as any other pre-school. Even if they are outside all the time, there must be a registered building. I believe this is the same in Sweden too. A couple in Scotland have village halls as their registered building. Even when outside there are the same sanitary considerations. This means there's been a lot of trials, discussions and negotiations with the authorities to enable this to happen. It's all new for us and our hand hygiene laws are probably amongst the tightest in the world. 

But yes - there is growing recognition of the benefits of children spending frequent amounts of time in nature when supported by enthusiastic and knowledgeable professionals. 

It is perfectly possible to have outdoor schools up through the ages too. In Sweden 20 such elementary schools exist where at least 50% of the curriculum is outdoors. Some subjects automatically lend themselves (well all actually) to being outside. I am an outdoor learning consultant but I teach one day per week and in the past 3 yrs I've spent precisely 1 day indoors. I work with all ages and stages although this year I'm doing class cover for 3 ASN classes - Kingergarten, G2 and G5.

I think it's that we do have a different theoretical base that believes in play-based learning based on the children's interests. I find being outside tends to better meet most children's needs than indoors as children learn with their whole bodies. They need to run, jump, stop, start, explore, etc. 

However, the norm is such that I'm on the quirky side of normal. Most teachers beyond kindergarten do not get out daily . But the tide is turning and I believe will continue to turn. Please do check my blog and always ask any questions you want about the Scottish scene. It's a learning experience for all of us - myself included - Scotland has only had a clear mandate for learning outdoors since April 2010 and we'll still struggling at every level to ensure this is taken as seriously as any other development within our education system. 

Hi Amy

That's the same as Scotland (and Sweden). Indoor facilities are required and these vary according to the age of the children a place is registered for. We have stringent licensing requirements and inspections - both educational and care orientated (unannounced, drop in visits). Practitioners need training and suitable premises for food preparation, running water and all the other things you mentioned. So you are correct - outdoor pre-schools must demonstrate exactly the same standards of care as any other pre-school.  Some of us are going beyond the basics too, to demonstrate that we take the health, safety and care of children seriously. For I've an outdoor paediatric first aid certificate and an outdoor food hygiene certificate to demonstrate that I know about specific risks with children outdoors. 

It takes a lot of time and patience to set up an outdoor pre-school. In Sweden, the I Ur och Skur organisation exists to help people deal with all the red tape and expectations. Here in Scotland it's done informally. Basically there's two options - a static outdoor nursery such as the Mindstretchers centres in Perthshire. These have nearby woodland within walking distance of their indoor facility. The other type are nomadic - they set off from their indoor facility as soon as all the children have arrived and then move on, by foot to different local places to explore and play. The latter often have key sites that they visit - so for example the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery have a yurt in one woodland area. 

What is happening though, is that thanks to our 5 outdoor nurseries (and they really are outdoors all year round in all weather in spite of having to have a designated indoor facility) the pressure is now on standard nurseries to examine their outdoor practice. For example, I'm involved in putting together training packages and support materials for practitioners getting children off-site into greenspace once a week all year round. This is not idea but an important step in the right direction. Hand-in-hand with this goes consideration of the outdoor space in the pre-school. So support is also needed to help green up this area too - as I have seen dreadful outdoor spaces in some nurseries which are very good at weekly visits to local woodlands. Also we encourage the concept of free-flow between the indoor and outdoor spaces so the children choose to play where it best suits them. 

What does help is to engage in constructive dialogue with the regulatory/licensing boards. This makes a huge huge huge difference and indeed our outdoor nurseries would not exist without this positive dialogue being initiated and actively maintained. We're still new at the outdoor nurseries too in Scotland - the oldest being just 5yrs old. We also engage politicians, health professionals and as many "experts" as possible. These people need to see the children in action in the woods to get the jist of why it makes such a positive difference. 

Hope this helps a bit. Work with the powers that be. Step-by-step, it can be done. But usually it takes a couple of years! The other trick is to consider how one makes the approaches. For example, I tend to talk with pre-school practitioners on the assumption that they know that free-flow play is the ideal. In the beginning I used to broach the subject along the lines of "Have you considered free flow..?" This was met with negativity. Whereas now, I get much better responses! LOL!

Thanks, Juliet, you've nailed what's happening here and have described what we are doing about it! I would be very interested to see the training packages and support materials for practitioners that you've put together and can offer to share mine as well. Basically, in mine I cover the reasons why people don't have the kids outdoors, like hazards, time constraints, lack of awareness of it's importance, and the deficits that we see as a result...and then move to the benefits enjoyed when we restore free play and deep nature connection to children and their families (and the staff!). Then I provide resources and support. My state, Maryland, is the first in the nation to require environmental literacy for high school graduation and President Obama is considering an executive order to require the other states to follow. Maryland is still figuring out how to do the assessments and I'm involved in that long process.  Our senator, Sarbanes, co-wrote the national No Child Left Inside legislation that provides money for programs. Things are moving! It is so helpful to know just how others are addressing all of these issues elsewhere.

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