As academic expectations in public elementary schools have become more demanding over the past decade, some educators have turned to the outdoors as a means of providing meaningful, relevant and tangible experiences for their students. The Forest Kindergarten movement, which took hold in Europe about 50 years ago, adopted a very different approach towards early childhood education. Instead of focusing on early literacy and numeracy skills, nature preschool and forest kindergarten educators aspired to developing social competence, individual resilience and a readiness to learn in young children. There are now 1000 Forest Kindergartens in Germany, and 10% of the early childhood programs in Denmark are nature-based. The conviction of these educators is that this real, natural world experience provides the confidence, resilience and perseverance that are the foundations for increased motivation and improved academic performance in students in their later school lives.
One form of this new approach in the United States is Forest Days—one day in the woods, year-round, in all kinds of weather, for public school Kindergarten children and teachers. Eliza Minnucci and Meg Teachout, the authors of A Forest Day Handbook: Program Design for School Days Outside, were two of the early initiators of this approach in a rural Vermont elementary school. Since then, dozens of teachers in Vermont, then in New Hampshire and around New England, and now across North America, are implementing the same approach. On Forest Days, you’ll see fort-building, firewood-collecting, tree-climbing, belly-sliding, animal tracking, fox and geese playing in the woods and fields behind the school. And literacy and math aren’t thrown out the window. Instead, letter-making with sticks, acorn gathering and counting, following recipes, and doing science experiments all lead to the enhancement of the core curriculum. Children are learning their letters and numbers and getting stronger and healthier. It’s a win-win situation.
Solving the Couch Potato Problem
Forest Days are one response to the academification, digitalization, and indoorification of children’s lives. Many children spend eight hours a day interacting with screens and half-an-hour a day outside, and this is concerning to parents. We cultivate this screen habit by giving three year olds tablets. It’s concerning because the lack of physical activity in children’s lives and the disassociation between children and the natural world leads to unhealthy children and an uncared-for natural world. Forest Days programs are reassuring and invigorating for both children and their parents. In a case study of these programs (included in the book), one parent articulated some of the benefits:
I was concerned about this program because my daughter had zero interest in nature when the school year was starting. But we’re Vermonters so all we have is the outdoors, so to have a kid who didn't want to go outdoors was a bummer. But now she will look at us and she'll say, 'Let's go on a nature walk!' And I’m thinking, 'What did you do with my child?' This happened within the first four Wednesdays! That has been awesome for our family because we thought we just had an ‘indoor kid.’
Before this she was into nail polish and ‘What are you going to do for me?’ and now she’s out there building fairy houses and coming home with science skills and rocks in her pockets.
Something Old, Something New
For Vermonters in particular, this isn’t a new idea, but the resurgence of an old idea. Take a typical Vermont childhood as described by Ida Clee Bemis, born in East Calais, Vermont in 1878. In her recollections she describes a favorite spring activity:
Another favorite pastime was mud cake making. We each had our mud cake house in the wood shed. We prepared regular meals using different kinds of leaves for beefsteak and pork chops. We frosted our cakes with sawdust. How we treasured the handle-less cups and pitchers and cracked plates we collected from all the neighbors!
And in the winter,
Our favorite sport was coasting. The skating season was short as it usually snowed as soon as the millpond froze over. We made the most of it while it lasted, the boys building a fire on the island so we could get warm. But coasting was something else again. We coasted from the day of the first snow until spring. Our favorite place was the road up the East Hill. We started almost up to the cemetery and coasted down to the church in the village, a good quarter of a mile.
These adventures in the landscape should be a Vermont child’s birthright, something every children deserves to experience. They’re activities that craft the unique hearty character of a Vermonter—the ability to live by your wits, the toughness to endure cold and hardship, the ingenuity to improvise and do more with less. Yet, in the past few decades, fewer and fewer children have been experiencing this birthright. Programs like Forest Fridays revive these opportunities and insure the grittiness of future Vermonters.
And really, shouldn’t all children, in all regions of the country, have these kinds of experiences in their everyday lives—swinging on vines in Illinois, wading in sandy streams and searching for shark teeth in Florida, making backyard bows and arrows in Arizona?
How Do I Get Started?
If you agree, then this handbook can be your trail guide. Eliza and Meg get dozens of calls from teachers saying, 'Can you help me get started on doing this in my school?' This book is their response to all the embedded questions in that how-do-I-get-started question. What kind of schedule do you follow? How do you deal with clothing? What’s the balance between academic work and play? How do I create an outdoors classroom? What do I say to administrators and parents? Their answers are clear and easy to follow. Moreover, the book is beautiful and accessibly readable. Eliza and Meg are teachers providing straight talk to teacher colleagues.
The second half of the book details three case studies of three different Vermont and New Hampshire public elementary Forest Day programs. These case studies are full of justifications from administrators and parents about how valuable these programs are for children in both academic and social-emotional ways. The first half of the book is the how-to; the second half is the proof that it’s working.
Starting a Forest Days program doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Many administrators will agree that this is a good idea or they’re convincible. And parents will thank you when their children come home with rosy cheeks. As Eliza says in The Best Day Ever movie that accompanies the book,
Once you start getting out there, your trust in your children and your trust in nature as an environment for good learning will grow. And I think, before you know it, you’ll be outside all day and not wanting to come back in and get on the bus.
About the Author
David Sobel is Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England.