Family Travel

The forest Kindergarten: Autonomy, wilderness and sharp knives

6 September, 2013

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?


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  • liveotherwise 6 September, 2013 at 11:45 am

    It sounds fabulous. And I know from watching children at Kentwell how well the approach works. I do wish there were more ways of including children in our world though, instead of segregating them off into children’s worlds. Even this is segregation.

  • Sharon Pickles 6 September, 2013 at 11:48 am

    How my big boys would have loved this place! We once went to a camp when they were 8 and 6 where they were allowed to use tools to carve wood – the adored it, although I was nervous about the health and safety stuff – it was hard for me to let go and stop worrying.

  • Katy Beale 6 September, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Love it! Especially as the kids are all preschoolers. How did you get to hang out there as adults? And has Ramona been able to play with others who don’t speak her language?

    Reminds me of the Forest School Camps I (volunteer) staff on, where 6-18 year olds are able to camp in the wild for 1-2 weeks without their parents. They learn to axe, whittle with penknives, go to the loo in dug holes, cook over fires, have communal meals outside, go on hike, play games running around for hours, climb trees. It’s hard work, and it’s challenging, but it’s fun and inspiring. I normally come back from camp exhausted yet rejuvenated. (website doesn’t do it justice)

  • LondonHeather 6 September, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Oh that sounds amazing! My husband and I are both very inspired. Although our son is only little, we love taking him out and about in woodlands and fields, and I’m looking forward to seeing him explore nature more and more as he gets older and more mobile.

  • Natalie 6 September, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    I live just north of Frankfurt and when my daughter turned 3, I sent her to the “normal” kindergarten. It was always noisy and busy and I was glad I didn’t have to spend the morning there. My daughter seemed to like it but was often aggressive in the afternoons at home. As soon as I discovered that there was a Waldkindergarten nearby we switched . . . she was calmer in the afternoons and I loved it so much, I wanted to hang out there all morning too.
    I don’t think they had sharp knives but they definitely had little saws and drills and things. One of my daughter’s friends said the best thing about Waldkiga was all the toys (meaning pinecones and sticks and such)!

  • Jenna 6 September, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    I love the idea of just letting them be. It is so hard to ignore the looks of “why is she not helping her 2yr old climb up that mound of grass” at the park looks.

    I also agree with them learning to be by themselves and not have every minute filled. My 5yr old daughter already struggles with this. It leaves me exhausted that she needs to be doing something every second…

  • Kelly 6 September, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    Wow what a truly awesome experience for these kids!! My two kids will be your first enrolled if you do this in NZ and if they are too old I will have another one ha ha! I’ll start hunting out a forest!

  • Teeny 6 September, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Phenomenal. Ditto on what Kelly says, although my babes at are school now, you can interview me to be a pair of ears in your NZ kindy.
    My 9 yo son and his dad (and three other dads and sons) just got back Sunday last week after a four day hike and hut stay in the ranges between Mt Holdsworth and Kaitoke (your husband might now of them…we live in Upper Hutt – the sunnier, warmer non-windy part of the Wellington Region). He taught himself to “whittle”; I have it on good authority that being fully immersed in nature is a life giving experience for the older dudes too. I’ve heard epiphany after epiphany since they got back.

    • Krystal 7 September, 2013 at 5:39 am

      Teeny, I grew up in Upper Hutt and I used to love camping out Kaitoke and bushing walking out Akatarawa ways. Some good glow worm walks out there

  • mellie 7 September, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    sighs longingly x

  • Sarah Harris 7 September, 2013 at 5:32 am

    oh wow how awesome!
    What area of NZ??!!??? I have two going on three to enrol!!

  • Sarah Fecher 7 September, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Add my little one to the list too! Looks amazing. Please come to Wanaka!

  • Kierna 7 September, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Love this. I know that the days I spend in the forest with my preschoolers are always my favourite ones.

  • Charis 8 September, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Sounds awesome to me! Unfortunately I think i’m too old…

  • Lucy Woodman 8 September, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Wow… That’s exactly the sort of place I’d love my children to go to. I spent a lot of time in the woods as a child, I have a lot of memories of climbing trees and rocks, building dens and tracking animals. You set something up like that in New Zealand and we’ll be there in a jiffy!

  • Kellpops 9 September, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    This is amazing… I think i might try to convince the other half to move to NZ if you do it there!

    We need more places like this in the UK for sure!

  • Jen 9 September, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    This is happy and inspiring. Thank you!

    I edit a magazine for NZ outdoor instructors- see and think this article would be happily devoured by our readers. I would love to publish it. Please contact me:

    I’m off to play outside in the dirt!


  • Thalia Kehoe Rowden 10 September, 2013 at 12:40 am

    SBJ would like to join you guys at your new kindy too, please. We are also in the club of parents who wearily explain to other parents: ‘he’s very robust, don’t worry!’ as he scales a cliff-face…

  • Circus Queen 10 September, 2013 at 7:51 am

    It’s striking how carefully we childproof everything! I was hesitant the other day when Talitha wanted to cut up paper with my pair of scissors but then I thought, “Well, I’m here so why not?” I was so surprised at the dexterity with which she used them, knowing instinctively to place her other hand out of the way of the blade. It made me realise I don’t give her enough space to just see what she can do sometimes.

  • Jennifer 11 September, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I really loved reading this post, it sounds amazing!

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  • Emma 9 November, 2013 at 8:38 am

    They are so great aren’t they? When we lived in Denmark, I fell in love with one of these for my son. Then the winter came and stayed for 6 months and I felt I couldn’t do it to my tiny little English child so used to his indoor life. We settled for a good compromise in another Nursery instead where they still spent a lot of time outside, but I still kick myself for not putting him in the Forest School! 😀

  • Helen Wills 11 November, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Our school do a version of this – once a fortnight the kids do Forest School come rain or shine, my 6 year old loves it, and never worries about how wet or muddy he is, who’s in his group, or what he has to learn. He just learns and plays in a way that I as a parent have never done with him. Perfect

  • Caroline Watts 26 November, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    We are opening a forest kindergarten along the same lines as this in England, from January 2014. Forest Schools has been growing across the UK since the 1990s here, but forest kindergartens are just taking off. Hopefully we can build some links with the german wald kindergartens like this one.

    • Lucy 27 November, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Awesome! Have shared on Twitter, will share on FB later too. I know lots of people who would be interested. Really exciting, good luck!

  • Mari 29 November, 2013 at 9:49 am

    What a brilliant idea! I’d love to have a go at this with the twins one day, it sounds such great fun and allows the family to really bond too

  • Wilting rainbows and 20 other reasons to play in the wild | Lulastic and the hippyshake 27 August, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    […] has a calming affect on children. The workers at the Forest Kindergarten we visited in Germany last year were certain that they had far less aggression and conflict in their days compared to normal schools […]

  • Leanna Barrett 28 August, 2014 at 6:48 am

    What a lovely and inspiring article. I am in the process of opening a nursery very similar to this in Wimbledon, UK. It’s taking a while to get permissions through from Ofsted, our regulatory board but I’m running 2 hour sessions for 2-5 year olds at the moment just to get the kids outdoors.

    Outdoor kindergartens are a fabulous idea – the more the merrier! So glad I’ve found the energy to set this up before my kids are too old to attend 😉

    • Lucy 28 August, 2014 at 9:26 am

      Wow, awesome!

  • Skyler Gilbert 14 July, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Hi Lucy, I absolutely love this concept! How were you able to visit as a foreigner? I’m in Germany with my family at the moment and I would love to know some details on how you arranged a visit…? Thanks!

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  • Kate 14 November, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Hi Lucy!

    We are planning our Europe adventure with our 1 and 3 year olds and would LOVE to send them to a “wild kindy” for a few weeks while we are in Germany (maybe while we do some sort of language immersion I was thinking). How did you set it up to get your kids along? Are most of them happy to have a couple of additions for a short term enrolment? Any advice you might have would be AWESOME!


  • Anna 25 April, 2017 at 11:10 am

    I have a friend who lives in the black forest near Freiburg with her 14 year old son. He told me that in his regular school when they were 12/13 years old they went on a kind of field trip where they were left in the woods with other kids from school they didn’t know before and were given a night and a day to find their way back home. They got a choice of 5 things they could take with them – a “thing” would, for example, be a flash light, a map, batteries, a bottle of water or a banana (no cell phones of course). They hid extra batteries in their underwear before they were dropped in the middle of nowhere in the Black Forest … what do you think about that? From what he told me, it was both very rough (they didn’t sleep at all) and a memorable adventure