The Gift of Nature: Reflections of a Forest Kindergarten Parent By Jenn Hunt Dempsey
Every summer, my three kids go fishing with their dad and his uncle at Cape Cod. One evening years ago, they were out on the water after the sun had set. When they returned, they noticed the glow of jellyfish in the shallow water around the dock. My daughter Norah, who was about six at the time, was fascinated. After she soaked in the sight for a while, she came running up to the house, her great-uncle close behind. Her face glowed with excitement as she searched for the words to tell me what she experienced. After a moment her uncle began to prompt her: “Remember what I told you that was? ‘Bio…,’ ‘biolum…,’” Norah visibly shook off his attempt to get her to reduce this amazing experience to a single word. She finally erupted: “It was like someone took a giant, magic glitter pen and drew a million sparkles all over the black water!”
While I appreciated her great-uncle’s attempt to expand her vocabulary, I also realized how important it was for Norah, at her age, to not simply label what she just saw with an SAT word, but to experience and feel it. To digest it with her own mind and emotions and to draw on her own six years of world experience to articulate it as she shared it with me. That moment made me realize that when we are eager to define terms and place our own adult labels on things in an attempt to educate and inform, we rob children of the opportunity to learn things on a deeper sensory and even emotional level. We create “knowledge” but we limit true understanding.
It was this quest for natural and authentic outdoor experiences for my kids that led me to being a Forest Kindergarten parent. After seeing the value of simple moments in nature for my older two kids, my husband and I jumped at the chance to take it a step further for our youngest, Cara. When it came time for her to go to school five days a week, we enrolled her in the Forest Kindergarten that had recently launched at the Waldorf school where our two older children attended.
Established in 2009, The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs’ Forest Kindergarten was inspired by Nokken, the oft-touted forest kindergarten in Denmark. At our Forest Kindergarten, children spend most of the day outside year-round, exploring 300-plus-acres of state park land on the southern edge of our small city.
Nature is central to the Forest Kindergarten experience. Always changing, nature provides new problems to solve and situations to explore depending on the season and weather. In addition, the children enjoy many of the traditional Waldorf Kindergarten activities of free play, circle time, stories and puppet shows (all al fresco). A restored farmhouse provides a nurturing indoor space for lunch and respite from only the most extreme weather, but the vast majority of time is spent walking numerous forested hiking trails, climbing trees, gardening, digging, playing, and working in the yard and surrounding woods.
Whether they are building forts far back in the woods off the “Papa Bear” trail; feeding the chickens and rabbits that share their outdoor “classroom”; or observing the flight pattern of the honey bees in the bee yard on the edge of the property, the children are afforded a rich variety of natural, sensory experiences, as well as the time and space to come to their own understanding of them. Sunshine and mud, rain and snow, wind and mosquitos all combine to provide a sensory environment that is at the same time more complex yet less over-stimulating than the tile floors and fluorescent lights of a typical kindergarten classroom.
For many parents of my generation, programs like forest kindergartens undoubtedly have a nostalgic appeal. Growing up, my suburban half-acre was augmented by a vast stretch of forest behind my raised ranch. It was there that my friends and I spent most of our time -- climbing cliffs and trees, “mining” garnets out of boulders with nails and rocks, and collecting salamanders, toads and garter snakes. While some kids are fortunate enough to still have that healthy, unstructured opportunity to explore this planet on their terms, most urban and suburban communities offer much more in the way of lacrosse leagues and piano lessons than cliffs and swamps. We also take part in those activities, always striving to keep the schedule reasonable and sustainable. But when I think about how strong my memories are of navigating that forest on our own – no trails, no interpretive signs, no coaches or counselors organizing us – I know the two years Cara spent in her own forest oasis will have just as strong of an imprint on her.
But my aim in providing my kids as much of a nature-based childhood as I can goes beyond trying to create warm, fuzzy memories. There are physical and academic benefits as well. In recent years, child development experts have increasingly warned of the physical and emotional price we pay as a society when our children are too cooped up inside – from obesity to attention problems. In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” the Children in Nature movement founder Richard Louv points out: “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity.”1
Similarly, in his paper “What is Phenomenology?” Waldorf science educator Michael D’Aleo identifies nature as the optimal environment for a young child to develop the capacities needed for deep scientific inquiry later in her educational career. He writes: “To properly educate the very young child, it is not so much a question of ‘teaching’ but rather one of ensuring that the proper environment, one that is rich in sensations and also deep in context, can occur. Perhaps no environment can surpass nature in its richness of sensations or depth of context. Again, the key is not to teach the child to see the observations and then tell them the concept, but rather to allow this process to occur naturally while the senses of the child are developing.”2
As I witnessed my daughter and her friends bond with their Forest Kindergarten environment and make it their own naming their favorite trees, finding secret hiding places for mittens that would not be found until spring, becoming stronger and braver and more resilient, I realized how fortunate she and I were to have access to such a unique program. Fortunately, the popularity of programs like our Forest Kindergarten and others that have launched since has caught the attention of policy leaders. Across the country, more and more governors are declaring “No Child Left Inside” months for their states.
By the time the SATs come along, I am confident my children will be able to define and spell “bioluminescence” and even to explain the chemical process at work and name some of the various creatures who exhibit this phenomenon. But it will be that richness of sensations and depth of context in simple, special early moments like that night at the Cape that will allow them to truly understand it. My youngest was fortunate enough to have two full years of daily moments just like that at the Forest Kindergarten, and for that I will always be grateful.
When not skiing, running, hiking or playing outside with her family, Jenn Hunt Dempsey works from home as a public media consultant based in Saratoga Springs, NY. She also sits on the board of Saratoga PLAN, a nonprofit conservation group serving Saratoga County.
Want to learn more about The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs? They are holding two Open Houses in August starting with the first one this Thursday, August 11th from 4-6 at their Lower School, located at 62 York Ave in Saratoga Springs. There will be teachers from all branches of the school at the open house to answer questions and chat with. The Open Houses are open to everyone, no registration necessary.
The second Open House will be on the following Thursday, August 18th from 4-6pm, also at the Lower School.
Read more about The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs in this Q&A with school Director, Anne Maguire, click here to read it now.
1"Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv http://www.childrenandnature.org/ 2”What is Phenomenology?” by Michael D’Aleo. Originally published in the Waldorf Science Newsletter, Volume 10, #19 Fall 2003 http://www.waldorflibrary.org/articles/597-what-is-phenomenology
photos courtesy of The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs