A Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning

This PDF was published by Forest School Canada. The following is the preface by David Sobel.

The original kindergarten—the children’s garden—conceived by German educator Friedrich Froebel in the 19th century, was a place where children learned through play, often in nature.That idea is fast eroding. Children aren’t playing in the gar- den anymore; instead they’re filling in bubbles on worksheets.

In the face of this indoor-ification, a cultural and educational movement is emerging—focused on new approaches to nature-based education. This movement offers us a glimpse of what childhood used to be, and still could be—the modern re-creations of the children’s garden: the Forest and Nature School. If we looked to these examples, the stories and perspectives written on these pages, we might be able to rescue childhood.

Jenny Merrill in the Golden Jubilee edition of The Paradise of Childhood (1916) describes what exemplary curricula were like in early 20th-century kindergartens, including “observation of the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, the clouds, rain and snow … shadows indoors and out-of-doors … care of living animals, [such as] a kitten … learning names of natural objects.”

The Forest and Nature School programs of today aspire to this same kind of nature immersion. But, in their purest form, they go even further: Some forest kindergartens have the children outside 80 to 90 percent of the time. Many of the more than 700 Waldkindergartens in Germany have no heated indoor facility—just a tool shed or maybe a teepee, outdoor toilet, yurt, or open-sided shelter with a fire pit.

Isn’t this what we want for our children? This immersion in the natural world, this feeling-at-one- ness, these eyes sparkling with fire. We’re learning that grit and stick-to-it-ive-ness are some of the core character traits that determine success in school and in life. Teachers and parents of children in Forest and Nature School are finding that mastering puddles is just as important as learning letters in preparing children to find their way through the smartboard jungle.

And so, the pendulum swings towards what we know to be true, that nature has a purpose in learning, development, and in building a sense of place in the world. Forest and Nature School provides an opportunity for this to be embedded into education, in a deep, meaningful and practical way.