Julia Steiny: A ‘Forest Kindergarten’ Grows Great Kids

by Julia Steiny

When people say “mental health,” what they usually mean is mental illness.  Laudably, mental health advocates support people with mental illness, but that doesn’t help us imagine what it looks like when we’ve got mental health right.

So, as we come to the end of May is Mental Health month, let’s enjoy a lovely, hopeful image of cultivating kids’ robust mental health.  Travel with me to a little town outside of Zurich, Switzerland.  There, a pre-school reliably grows healthy, resilient, confident, self-reliant problem-solvers.  Our transport is a documentary film, School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten.

Julia Steiny

I found the 6-minute trailer so intriguing that I bought the movie.  It has jaw-dropping moments of little kids, between 4 and 7, cutting wood with knives.  They make fires and roam a forest where adults aren’t always in sight.  They swing to giddy heights on long ropes, and when one girl’s boot gets caught in branches at the top of her swing, a boy gracefully shinnies up the tree to get it.  Using hammers and saws, kids carve a track out of a hillside so a ball can race through a root tunnel and on through obstacles to a thrilling, shriek-worthy finish.  They play-fight with sticks.

I was a fairly free-range mom, but found myself totally challenged by 4-year-olds handling sharp Swiss Army knives.

“Outdoor” or “forest” kindergartens are a growing movement in Japan and many European countries.  Formal schooling in these countries doesn’t start age 7, largely because pushing academics too early turns kids off from school.  So these countries group 4-7 year olds into true children’s gardens where teachers civilize kids’ wonderful animal instincts with stories, songs, socializing activities, and self-directed play.

The movie shows us little mammals spending all day outdoors, moving, exploring, interacting.  They learn what evolution programmed them to learn:  the properties of their immediate world and the necessity of getting along with others, peers and adults.

Swiss parents can keep their pre-school kids at home or send to either “indoor” or “outdoor” K.  These are PUBLIC schools.

Indoor kindergartens also emphasize play and socialization skills, but are housed in a regular building with a play yard or some bit of nature nearby.  Outdoor kindergartens are only outdoors, rain, shine or snow.  The School’s Out “facility”, and the only protection from the elements, is a big tarp covering the circle of logs where the class gathers for songs, games, stories and foul-weather lunch.  The thinking is that there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.  Nature challenges kids to become problem-solvers.  If you’re cold, move vigorously or build a fire.  Figure it out.

The school is not fairyland perfect.  A parent talks about her daughter cutting herself badly with a knife during the first few days.  Mom and child were upset, but it never happened again.  Mom proudly reports that her child’s an expert now.  Lesson learned.  Experience hones kids’ judgment.  Actually, forest kindergartens have impressively low injury rates.

The kids don’t seem to care about the camera filming them, but a teacher is clearly annoyed at being recorded as she struggles with a distressed boy whose ears got super-cold.  She works to comfort him, offering warm drinks and a sandwich, but gives up after a solid try.  We’re told it’s an especially frigid winter.  Other kids are barreling down snowy slopes on plastic saucers, screaming with laughter and tumbling over one another.  Later, the teacher tries again to work with the fusser.  Perhaps he’s been watching his friends, because while still pouting, he lets her get his hat and mittens on.  Finally, we see him careening down the hill, delighted, recovered.

Many parents admit they were quite nervous about the school’s challenges — the safety risks, the weather.  But now they’re beyond pleased.  At length one British mom describes her initial fears.  But her daughter had been a princess, wanting clothes, material things, and entertainment.  Now the girl shows us her collection of sticks and pine cones, toys vibrantly alive to her because she determines what they are, not the manufacturer.  Mom marvels at her daughter’s confidence, and thanks her lucky stars that they’re not living in the UK where her child would be stuck indoors and facing her first set of state exams.

One African mom spent a day at the schools and came away appalled at what she saw.  She passed on sending her kid there.  Her choice.

In contrast, another set of parents allowed their older daughter to chose an indoor K, which they regret.  Their younger son bloomed socially during his forest experience, while the now-adolescent girl only wants to be inside, curled up by herself.  She flashes the camera a poisonous look of triumph, as if to say, Cooperation is for chumps. 

A pediatrician states flatly that kids who went to outdoor K never come to him for an ADHD diagnosis.  Never.  They get sick a lot less too.  Education officials are sold.  And parents increasingly choose forest kindergartens because the kids turn out so great.

These kids will not be obese.  They love nature.  Their terrific social skills will reduce depression.  They are not frightened by statistically non-existent stranger danger.

The Swiss will not be paying for their preventable mental illnesses.

But to give such experiences to American kids, we will have to get over our obsessions with safety, liability and getting every kid into Harvard.  Which we should do anyway.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny