The Forest School

I don’t read online, but when my son, riding those near-infinite waves of information across hyperspace seas, comes upon an article he thinks I’ll like, he prints it out and leaves it on my armchair. It’s wasteful, I know, but it’s also a connection. Today I found, You Can’t Bounce Off the Walls if There Are No Walls: Outdoor Schools Make Kids Happier and Smarter, by David Sobel. I’m still wobbly from the wisdom of it.

Mr. Sobel explains how kindergarten, meaning “children’s garden,” was originally designed to educate children through play, often in nature. But that idea is being legislated right out of American education. Today, kindergarten is the new first grade. In many schools, there’s a 6 to 1 time ratio between “core skills” (literacy/math) and play. 5 year olds are assigned homework, take tests and are graded on performance. In some schools, recess has been eliminated altogether! These kids are not being shaped as human beings who can wrestle with finding their true life, but rather as same-sized cogs who can fit into an economic machine.

But a new movement has risen to challenge the mechanization of early childhood education: “forest kindergartens” and “nature preschools.”

In forest kindergartens, children spend 80-90% of class outdoors. Imagine that! They explore nature, dig clay pits to cook meals, build swings, make toys, tell stories, deal with weather, work together to solve problems–all in the calm classroom of the woods.

“Nature preschools” take a different but equally radical approach by bringing nature indoors. Kids might gather around a fireplace, work with water tables, create art, play cooperative games, make lunch for each other, and walk back and forth to the neighboring farm where they learn how to care for animals.

This all sounds too wonderful to be true. So Mr. Sobel asks the question any parent ask:

What happens when these kindergarteners, who were never forced to sit at a desk or take a test, arrive in first grade?

Citing several sources, including the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Mr. Sobel argues that skills learned through outdoor play can not only improve long-term academic achievement but reduce behavioral problems as well. In other words, this is for real.

These are big ideas. Challenging ideas. They call from upstream, and no one wants to swim upstream, not when it’s easier to turn tail and glide along with everyone else.

But these ideas can’t be ignored. They ring true. They sound right. Not just for kindergarten but for all education. Not just for children but for adults, too. Nature keeps us centered because we’re part of nature. When we separate ourselves from nature, we separate from part of our own selves; we experience a split, and we start to go a little crazy.

I often think of Thoreau’s words, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I would like to paraphrase that to say, “In wildness is the preservation of humanity.”

And that preservation starts with our children.

16 Comments on “The Forest School

  1. It’s weird how your dad won’t read stuff online, but he’ll read stuff found online if printed on paper.

  2. Yeah, he’s funny that way. I linked up the article so you can read it.

  3. I did, and it’s pretty cool. I wonder how I would have got along in a forest kindergarten.

  4. Living with my dad is kind of like a nature school. We go camping all the time, we hike through the woods, we have our own vegetable garden. Couple nights a month he pulls out the telescope and we stargaze.

  5. Do you think it’s made you a healthier kid, like the article says?

  6. I don’t know for sure. But it feels like it.

  7. Well, people think I spend all my time inside with technology. But really, I spend a lot of time outside with nature, too. I was just raised that way. I play in the sandbox, climb trees, dig in the dirt, all that stuff. I feel like nature helps me be me, if that makes sense. The real me.

  8. I think I know what you mean. Sometimes I’ll watch you in the sandbox and you look, I don’t know, just happy.

  9. Yeah, like that. If not for my dad taking me outside so much, I’d probably spend all my time inside.

  10. And if not for you spending so much time outdoors, I’d probably spend all my time inside, too.

  11. So I guess it does matter. Heck, all this makes me want to go for a hike right now.

  12. “In wildness is the preservation of humanity!”