Nature Education - Forest Playgroups
Introduction to Forest Playgroups:
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to send your child into the forest for playgroup or kindergarten? Are you curious about the health and educational benefits of such programs? As a new parent in Switzerland, I was new to the concept of forest schools. The idea of sending a child in the natural world for a few hours each week, sounded like the perfect way to educate and encourage a meaningful connection with nature. Plus, outdoor education seemed to be the ideal opportunity to help our son burn off some of his excess energy.
Forest playgroups were first introduced in Denmark, by Ella Flautau, dating back to 1952. Since that time, additional countries have adopted such programs because of the numerous educational and health benefits they provide children of all ages. Switzerland has a wide variety of outdoor learning opportunities for children in many locations throughout the country.
When I initially enrolled our first child in forest playgroup, I had no idea what to expect, but I quickly came to realize that the benefits of an outdoor education program were vast. Both of our children went through Waldspielgruppe and never complained about having to attend their forest mornings, regardless of the weather. Our children learned what to expect, felt safe in their environment and were encouraged to explore their surroundings in a natural, organic way.
As an educator and a mother, I believe that nature exposure is critical to our overall development as humans. Using nature as a backdrop, our children learn a diverse and critical set of skills, some of which are listed below.
Assimilation of Language
Through my children’s participation is forest playgroup, they were both assimilating and learning the local language, in a fun and creative way. Their vocabulary and comprehension were expanding rapidly in a vibrant and ever-changing environment. Our children were always engaged and active outdoors; learning from their teachers never truly felt like learning, but rather play. Outdoor education provided a beautiful alternative to the traditional indoor classroom.
Gross and Fine Motor Skills
While children will develop both gross (large muscles) and fine (small muscles) motor skills indoors, when exposed to outdoor education, those skills are acquired in a dynamic setting. Whether it be trying to remove a tiny frog or a pebble from a path with the index finger and thumb (fine motor skill), or jumping through or over a large puddle (gross motor skill), children develop and enhance these skills by utilizing the elements in the environment around them.
Spatial Awareness and Heightened Senses
Nature education also teaches children to be aware of their surroundings and amplify their spatial awareness (awareness of objects in relation to them). They learn to survey their surroundings and move their bodies accordingly. In addition, when children are outdoors, their five senses are heightened. Children learn to tune in to bird song, running water, rocks falling, the smell of a camp fire and/or fresh dirt. Children relish in the pleasure of wet mud squished in between their fingers, and feeling slimy worms in their hands with a new appreciation. They eat their meals with gusto as the smells and flavors when eating outdoors are enhanced in ways they may not exist inside. They learn to smell herbs, flowers and unpleasant odors too. They view the world though a unique lens, rich with colors, shapes, thought-provoking sounds and moving objects. Their peripheral vision is also activated in a way that is often not stimulated indoors, especially when spending time in front of screens.
When children partake in nature education, they learn the valuable skill of risk assessment. Through perceiving the risks that present themselves in the natural world, children are required to judge and calculate the perceived danger in their direct environment. This skill is essential when children navigate not only natural settings, but also urban surroundings as well. This valuable skill will be utilized on a routine basis throughout their lives.
Tactile and Kinesthetic Learning
Finally, when children are exposed to outdoor time and play, tactile (touch) learning is encouraged. Nature provides all kinds of random and stimulating objects to manipulate, build and tinker with. Pinecones, stones, flowers, seeds, and even water are all articles children love to feel, build and create with; allowing their imaginations to run wild. Nothing is stagnant or fixed in nature and children learn to appreciate that fact. Tactile learners, learn by doing and nature offers plenty of opportunities to work with tangible objects.
Finally, nature encourages and depends on kinesthetic learning or full body movement. Children process new concepts through movement. Some children (I would argue most children) have a very difficult time conforming to an indoor learning environment, where they are asked to sit in a chair most of the day. Forest playgroup is contrary to an indoor education. Our children were free to move about and roam in forest playgroup. They literally needed to move as they learned, which helped them digest new information. Children who are kinesthetic, enjoy activities that are hands-on and active in nature. When our children were exposed to outdoor education, the topic of focus and/or lack of attention were never issues of discussion. They were not confined to a classroom, but rather had the vastness of the forest encouraging them to discover. There was a tremendous sense of freedom in that, which children appreciate and recognize.
While those are just a few of the benefits of a nature-based education, the advantages are immense. Forest playgroups are stimulating, exciting and help forge an essential connection to the natural world. Children walk away with a deep sense of personal confidence and grit. They have the opportunity and the freedom to move about without stifling restrictions. In addition, when children are exposed changing weather throughout the seasons, they learn to gain a new appreciation for the wonders of the natural world. They fall into a peaceful rhythm that is often lacking in our overly modernized worlds.
Our family still reflects on the magical experiences when our children spent a few hours each week in forest school. They spent their time building fires, singing songs, creating, tinkering and exploring the outdoors, which was so liberating. The skills they gained from the time spent in forest playgroup were truly invaluable and no doubt, helped shape and inspire us to become an outdoor family. If you are considering an outdoor education for your child, please inquire about a “trial day” or Schuppertag to determine if this form of education is right for your child.
The Basel area offers a wide variety of nature-based educational programs. Listed below are a few helpful resources to assist you with your search.
Locations in Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land:
Muttenz Playgroup (Basel-Land)
If your children missed the pre-school or kindergarten aged programs, Pro Natura, “The oldest nature preservation organization in Switzerland,” offers a program for school-aged children on the weekends. The program is called, Grieni Kääfer Basel, and individuals can register their children for day programs and/or even nature camps.
Of course, if you are looking to initiate your own outdoor education for your children, our first book, is a great place to start. With 52 family-friendly hikes throughout Switzerland, plus an entire chapter devoted to learning while outdoors, this book is certain to inspire quality time outdoors for the entire family. Enjoy!