There is a flash of movement in the pine tree above my head; a young lad has climbed high up one of the dark, wizened trees the Black Forest is famous for. All around me are little pockets of children- some are digging into the stream, carefully constructing a dam, others are sitting on a bench with perfectly sharp knives, whittling boats out of wood. They are so young, between two and a half and six, yet all are absorbed in their activities, discovering and learning with mud and tools without any adults disturbing their flow. It is an official German preschool but feels a lot more like Neverland. There are grown ups here, but they help only when invited and mediate only when necessary. They are often as equally absorbed in their own activities, crafting photo frames out of sticks or something, and the kids might join them if they are inclined. The adults “see with their ears” – knowing the impact grown up eye balls can have on kids and their ability to resolve problems.
We have spent this week at the Waldkindergarten outside of Freiberg, in south Germany. It really translates as Forest Kindergarten, but in my head I call it the Wild Kindergarten. It is as wild as it gets- I don’t think you’d even believe most if it!
There is no plumbing- each tot heads into the trees with a spade to deal with their toilet needs, there is no electricity, and just one tiny shed to store tools, musical instruments and art supplies. Every single season is spent out here under the pine trees.
The mornings begin at 8:30 and last until 1:30 and of that time only one and a half hours is structured (a story, some music, some food, some meditation) – the rest of the time is the child’s. What incredible and accurate faith this puts in a child’s ability to learn without our assistance. I saw a bunch of girls building a mud hut, fishing rods being crafted (sharp knives were involved) and used, a group playing on a rough seesaw made of two logs and a million mud pies being baked; they are playing but learning more than we could teach them, I’m sure.
There are several big reasons for why a preschool like this is important.
The adults who work here seem to often come from a social work background- they have worked with addicts or delinquents and have felt unequivocally that an early grounding in nature is the key to preventing these behaviours.
One of the founders, Franz, who has been there the whole 15 years, mentioned the importance of “empty space” – the idea that when we are young we need to learn to be okay when faced with unfilled space and time, to learn how to be content with it. This builds a resilience against addiction, which can so often be people trying to fill a void.
Another worker, Louisa, talks of how it is only children who have come to love nature who will grow up to be its protectors. Forests and rivers will only be kept out of the hands of greedy corporations if upcoming generations truly recognise its value.
There is a lot of talk here about the relationship between mind and body, and how children who spend all this time outdoors have a real grounding, they are connected. The adults here instil confidence in the child’s physical ability, never stopping them from climbing and not intruding on a child’s progress onto their feet after a tumble. And these kids are SO physically able! We went on a trip out yesterday, up the mountain on a gondola for a hike (a HIKE? What teacher in their right minds organises a hike for a preschool day trip?!) and it was wonderful seeing them all walking for miles together, being allowed to investigate plants, the big ones helping the tinies carry their rucksacks – while the tinies carried all manner of things- one a clump of moss half the way. We went under electric fences and found our way to a lake where everyone stripped off for a splash. (Yep!)
Autonomy is nurtured here. A pair of girls found what looked like an ediblemushroom in the woods today and picked a mushroom encyclopaedia (these exist) off the shelf to check. Patrick, the other founder and the brilliant fellow whose farm we are currently encamped on, tells a tale of when one kid went on to primary school and a strict old teacher told him off for writing the wrong way. The little chap replied “It’s not the wrong way, it’s MY way.” Even the littlest kid is trusted here, allowed to express their power, their way, and in turn they become confident and secure.
And then there are smaller, little bonuses I notice. There is hardly any gender divide. Leaves, sticks, rocks- they don’t come in pink or blue. Every child does every activity, nothing is prescribing who can use it or how to play with it.
There is also a real peace here, evident in the atmosphere and relationships. The workers say it is the forest; nature has a calming effect on both the adults and children.
They are wonderfully sociable too. Patrick says they arrive at school with social skills way beyond their peers. He puts it down to the fact that there is so much imagination required when playing with nature that you have to explain what you are doing. With a whole load of toy cars, kids can just join in and brooooom around. But when you are digging, carving (did I mention how properly sharp the knives are?!), mixing with leaves and mud, if someone wants to participate a conversation has to take place “Ah, yeah, we are just baking the most badass cake here yeah, then we’ll cook it in this oven…”
Suffice to say we are shall-we-stay-here inspired. Or maybe we have found the thing we might do in New Zealand. Anyone want to join in? Just bring a sharp knife, yeah?