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Monday, February 16, 2015

It's Happening!

The sky is a shocking, cloudless shade of blue today, contrasting against a pure white blanket that spreads across the landscape. The Black-capped Chickadees and the American Tree Sparrows are flitting to and from the bird feeder. Even though Vermont is deep in winter, as I look out the window and take in the stunning colors and winter bird activity, the upcoming Forest Preschool  spring session is on my mind. I am thinking about the youngster’s eager hands and wide eyes as they explore the wonders of late winter and the dawning of spring in an outdoor classroom here at North Branch Nature Center. I am also thinking about the ever widening gap between children and the time they spend outdoors connecting to nature. I wonder about the potential implications of a shrinking population of future environmental stewards.

As a teacher in an outdoor classroom, I see first hand how young children grow and thrive when they play and learn outdoors. While using all of their senses, curiosity and imagination blossoms and children marvel at the wonders of their world. As budding naturalists at Forest Preschool spend time in natural spaces, they develop a love of mud, trees and big rocks for climbing, tall grass to hide in, weightless milkweed silk and seeds, crunchy leaves for making animal homes, being outside in all types of weather, the tickly feeling of a wooly bear crawling on tender skin, and countless other offerings and experiences in nature. They develop a sense of place and identity in relation to the natural world they are apart of. Inquisitiveness is ignited and followed. Wonder is fostered. But that’s not all that happens.

I recently ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in a couple of years. While catching up, I shared a bit about my job as a forest preschool teacher. A curious expression spread across her face. She asked if I teach preschoolers how to survive outdoors. Well, in a way. They develop resilience and learn self care skills in all types of weather, I replied. But really, some of the basic goals of our preschool program are similar to most any preschool; to develop social skills, imagination, and stimulate learning. One difference between the program we run and others is that our classroom does not have walls - the fields and forest are our classroom.

In a dynamic classroom without walls, lifelong foundational skills are laid and development of the whole child is supported. Each natural wonder the children are drawn to - the stickiness of mud, the dispersing of seeds - becomes a lesson. Although forest preschools or forest kindergartens, as they're called in many european countries, are popping up in different parts of the country, by and large, this old concept by european standards is a relatively new idea in the US.

Our Forest Preschool is modeled around German waldkindergartens where children ages 3 to 6 spend all of their time outdoors, except in extreme weather conditions. Teachers guide and support children’s interests and learning rather than compel. Forest Kindergartens are a norm in many european countries. In Germany for example, the government began funding forest kindergartens in 1993. Also, many German primary school teachers report that children who attended waldkindergartens show significant improvements in reading, writing, mathematics, social interactions and many other areas. The Prime Minister of Scotland supports forest kindergartens and outdoor learning because, as he sees it, they are an important factor in the development of “good citizens.”

Not long ago I read an article titled, Into the Woods: American kids don't know how to explore. Maybe what they need is forest kindergarten. In the article, the author, Emily Baslon, wonders about "the implications of constantly channeling kids in a predetermined direction.” Balson shares how she was "taken" by a new documentary called Schools Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten. The documentary brings an intimate look at a forest kindergarten in Switzerland to the movie screen. At the close of the article, she laments that forest kindergartens in the US will not be a reality based upon the trend towards many public school eliminating recess in favor of more “academic” time. However, forest kindergartens are happening! Young children are exploring and empowered to be active in their own learning process right here in our fair capital!  

In my work as a teacher of an outdoor preschool, I support and witness curiosity being fed, imaginations ignited, minds and bodies moving and developing in healthy ways, contagious enthusiasm for learning coming alive, and personal gifts coming into view. The beauty of forest kindergartens, or Forest Preschool as our program is called, is that not only are young children exploring, thriving, developing readiness for kindergarten and future learning, they are connecting to abundant wild wonders on a regular basis. They are developing a sense of place; coming to know the plants and animals of Vermont and developing a caring relationship with the natural world. One day this fall, a forest preschool student shared, “I noticed most of the trees at Deer Camp are maple.” Another exclaimed, “The world is covered in leaves.”

Similar to today’s stunning blue in contrast to the purity of white, there are numerous moments when I find my jaw drop while taking in the sights and sounds of the Vermont landscape. Our children are precious and so too is the Vermont landscape and its wild inhabitants. I am pleased that, despite Emily Balson’s forecast, Forest Preschool and many other forest schools sprouting around the country are working towards closing the gap between children and a connection to nature and ensuring that within the next generation, we will have future caretakers of Vermont’s natural environment. It’s likely young jaws will drop over and over as local natural wonders are discovered. Perhaps youngsters will pause as they notice with recognition, the flit of a Black-capped Chickadee. What better gift to give our children and the future of the land we hold so dear.

Into the Woods: American kids don't know how to explore. Maybe what they need is forest kindergarten, Emily Baslon: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/12/forest_kindergarten_watch_kids_in_switzerland_go_to_school_outside_in_school.html

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