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Babes in the woods

At Germany's forest kindergartens, kids get to play with fire -- and learn their own lessons

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Mikhail Metzel / The Associated Press
Neither snow nor cold temperatures can keep children from learning at a Waldkindergarten school in Germany.

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Mikhail Metzel / The Associated Press Neither snow nor cold temperatures can keep children from learning at a Waldkindergarten school in Germany.

Radical back-to-nature forest kindergartens where children are allowed to climb trees and play with fire have spread across the country. Will the concept of the Waldkindergarten become Germany's next export success?

It's a chilly November morning, and half a dozen children are sitting in a circle singing songs and playing games. Pretty standard kindergarten fare the world over, but these children are sitting on logs in a forest around a campfire. This is no ordinary daycare centre, this a Waldkindergarten.

Every morning, whatever the weather, 21 children arrive at Die Kleinen Pankgrafen, in Karow, a town just north of Berlin, one of more than 1,500 Waldkinderg§rtens across Germany. The movement is also spreading overseas with forest kindergartens in most continental European countries, big demand in Japan, South Korea and fledgling interest in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The thermometer is only just edging above freezing on this particular morning and biting easterly winds are making it feel more than a few degrees below zero. But Thorsten Reinecke, the head of Die Kleinen Pankgrafen, laughs at the reporter's concerns about the children's welfare. "This is nothing," he says. "'Whatever the weather' is not just a saying -- we stay out until it gets to -28 Celsius. The children never get cold. They, and their parents, know how to dress. They're like little onions -- they're wrapped up in layers and layers of clothes."

If it does get exceptionally cold, the children (and teacher) can seek respite in the camp teepee (which also has a campfire) or a small wooden classroom -- but Reinecke insists the vast majority of time is spent outdoors, even in a metre of snow.

On this day the fire is the main focus of the children's attention. But it's not necessarily that of the camp's four teachers. At times, the children are left unattended and when the fire dampens down slightly, four-year-old Finn adds fresh logs to the fire. Other children poke the fire with twigs.

If the teachers notice, they aren't showing any concern. "Maybe I don't have that much control and I can't always see them, but I know where they are," Reinecke says. "Not being there all the time allows them to assess risks better. The idea is for children to learn by themselves, learn from each other and learn from their experiences and their mistakes," he explains. This philosophy extends to the fire.

Another teacher, Nihal ñz, recalls a time when a boy stood in the fire "to see what would happen. He came over and said 'look my feet didn't burn'," she says. "So we sat everyone down and told them about fire and showed them what happens if things stay in the fire." Discussions like that are as close as the Waldkindergarten gets to a lesson. There's little by way of structured activities beyond snack time at around 11 a.m. when the teachers bring out freshly cut fruit eaten directly from the bowl with the children's hands caked in mud from a morning of catching snails and building tree houses.

After snack time some of the children wander off to visit the camp's donkeys while others go climbing. There are no monkey bars at the kindergarten because, as Reinecke says, "every tree is there for climbing." The children are allowed to climb whenever they want, and go as high as they want. The only rule is that teachers can only help children get down, not up.

"It makes them much more cautious and careful because they have to trust themselves," ñz says. "The only times children have fallen out of a tree is when their parents are here and they think 'daddy will be there to save me'."

Ute Schulte-Ostermann, president of the German Federation of Nature and Forest Kindergartens (BVNW), says there have been no serious injuries beyond the occasional broken leg in the organization's 20-year history. "There are far fewer accidents than at regular indoor kindergartens because we have fewer walls and softer floors -- leaves and mud," she says.

Schulte-Ostermann, who is also a teacher trainer at Kiel's University of Applied Sciences, says life outdoors toughens the children up, reducing incidents of colds and flus. Head lice outbreaks are also significantly reduced because the children are not confined in an enclosed space. There is however, a much greater risk of contracting Lyme disease from tick bites.

Schulte-Ostermann says the risks are outweighed by the "massive" mental and physical benefits of playing outside. "Children who have attended a Waldkindergarten have a much deeper understanding of the world around them, and evidence shows they are often much more confident and outgoing when they reach school."

She says Waldkinderg§rten may have started with hippies and academics -- indeed, the movement originated in Denmark in the 1950s, with the first kindergarten in Germany opening during the 1960s -- but parents now come from all sorts of backgrounds -- from shop workers to doctors, nurses and, in one instance, even the offspring of a German punk band. "We have more enquiries than we can deal with, and there are not enough places even though more are opening up all the time."

The first American Waldkindergarten, the Mother Earth School, opened in Portland, Ore., in 2007. There are just a handful in the UK, including the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife, Scotland, which runs for 49 weeks of the year and has 40 children enrolled.

Schulte-Ostermann says she thinks the North American obsession with health and safety and regulations may have slowed adoption of the idea, but points out forest kindergartens have proved very popular in Japan, which is also known for its red tape bureaucracy.

"Our biggest achievement was to set it (Waldkinderg§rtens) up in Japan, where education is so regulated," she says in the staff room of the inner city Berlin school used for the conference. "We have helped them take it out of the authorities' hands and give education back to the people."

Hiroe Kido, a Japanese student writing her postdoctoral thesis on the forest kindergarten movement, says there are more than 100 Japanese Waldkinderg§rten following the German model -- a number that is expected to double by next year. "They are very, very popular in Japan because they are an escape from the strict rules in Japanese society," she says. "Some parents are worried that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate with nature, so they really like waldkinderg§rtens."

Japanese demand for places spiked even higher following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. "Fukushima made the Japanese think again about our lives, and realize that we need to get back to nature more," she says. "Life is very extreme sometimes in Japan."

Schulte-Ostermann, who has just returned from a tour of Japan and South Korea, says that if Japanese people can realize the need for nature in children's lives then she might be one step nearer to her rather ambitious goal of turning all of the world's indoor kindergartens into waldkinderg§rtens.


-- Der Spiegel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 D5

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