A couple of weeks ago, I had the great fortune of being able to visit my young nephew (and brother and belle soeur) and spend time at the forest kindergarten that he attends in Hamburg, Germany. A business and pleasure trip all rolled into one!
I know that I learn WAY more from observing for one day than spending 4 months reading about how forest schools are run. It was SO GOOD to be hosted at these forest schools in Germany, and to see how they operate.
The first forest school I visited was called Natur Gruppe Elb Kinder. This program has been running for 7 years. They meet in a park in Altona - a section of the city of Hamburg. The program is for children ages 3-5, and it is part of the regular, public school system. Parents can opt to have their children attend an outdoor waldkinder program, or an indoor kindergarten one. The government provides every family with 5 hours of kindergarten programming for "free", and families can choose to pay for more before or after care.
My nephew was thrilled to show me around the base camp, translating for me when necessary (which was quite often).
Children meet at this spot in the morning, play from about 8:30 til 9:30 until everyone has gathered, then meet for morning circle. They sang several songs together, practiced counting the total number of people in the circle. Then they decided together where the group would play for the remainder of the morning.
We came back to the base camp for a hot lunch at about 12:30. A HOT LUNCH!! Genius. Below is a photo of the handwashing routine and the indoor space with a big picnic table where they eat their snack and lunch. The building is covered with heavy plastic, and can be heated with a huge space heater in the winter months if children need to warm up for a bit (winters in Hamburg aren't like ones in Canada - they only get down to -5 C or so).
Then it was time for more playing! Some tools came out and flutes appeared.
A general store was up and running, complete with a dog that sometimes scared potential customers away. Here are some of the things that were for sale:
Spring has sprung in Hamburg! Way ahead of snowy Ontario.
Depending on the day, this group visits various sites within or near the city park: a playground area by the pond, a place in the woods where there are great trees for climbing, another place in the woods where there are great trees for rigging up rope swings, and playing in the sand along the Elbe River.
After lunch, the children play at the base camp until their parents come to get them (between 1:30 and 2:30). This is often when they work with tools, or play with the structures made from woodland materials and wooden pallets.
For almost the entire time, the leaders definitely employ a "hands off" approach. Play emerges from the children. The leader led the morning circle time (about 5 minutes long), and led a song before they ate their lunch. They told the group when it was time to move back to base camp from their playspace. But other than that, they were present to help when needed, but not initiate or direct the play. The children seemed very content - I didn't notice any fighting or tattling that whole day. There was a grumpy dog at one point, but that was the only glimpse of conflict that I could spy.
When talking with the leaders, it seems like each one brings their own strength that they share with the children. One of them studies fine art, so she often brings out paper and other art materials for them to use at picnic table at base camp. Another enjoys helping children build their strength, so he makes structures out of wood that the children can climb and balance on. He also rigs up swings in the woods using large ropes. Another leader enjoys drama and storytelling, so she brings these skills to her teaching.
In all, it seems like a wonderful way to experience kindergarten - play-based, social, and outdoors. Children are healthy and happy. There doesn't seem to be a push to make sure certain curriculum expectations are "covered" in the kindergarten years; play is the most important skill to learn, it seems.
I'm very thankful for the experience to spend time with my nephew at his forest kindergarten. Danke, S! :)
Hammers, Huge Swings, and the Freedom to Play