Imagine a classroom without walls where it’s ok to get muddy or run barefoot. Where you can play with sticks and no one will yell the dreaded, “You’ll poke an eye out!” No whiteboards, just drawing the ABCs with sticks in the dirt. No books, just old fashioned story telling. No flourescent lights, just dappled sunlight beaming through the trees. This classroom exists, and it’s called Forest Kindergarten. The concept started in Germany- Waldkindergartens. I’m blessed to have one just miles from my house. It’s like preschool, summer camp, and girl/boy scouts rolled into one. And it makes my highly sensitive hippie heart sing!
Sisi is enrolled in this magical program, and Matteo and I get to come along for the ride. For 5 hours on Tuesday, rain or shine, we sing, hike, study animal tracks and play. The kids play and play while the parents sit on blankets under a canopy of trees and chat about the book assigned to us: Simplicity Parenting, which just so happens to be on my list of life changing books. Our teachers are gentle and cheerful, always greeting us with a warm, genuine hello. They have clear boundaries (this is no Lord of the Flies anarchy situation) but allow much freedom within those boundaries. For example, “You may get muddy but please do not splash the mud on others.” “You may play with sticks, but not during circle time.”
I found this program googling “homeschool supplement programs”. I intend on homeschooling next year, but don’t want to do it all myself. I want to provide my kids with some sort of classroom experience. I was looking into half and half charter school/homeschool programs, but they clashed with my unschooling approach. I came upon a local Forest Kindergarten program and got the chills, it was exactly what I didn’t even know I needed. It meshes with my parenting and educational style, and it gets my child out into nature doing what kids do best- play!
I love almost everything about Forest Kindergarten, but here are the main virtues:
- Slow and calm pace. Just a few structured activities, but mostly time to explore and play and be free.
- Group snack. Everyone brings a diced piece of organic fruit to mix together into a giant fruit salad we all get to share. Every week Sisi gets to try new and interesting fruits (and it’s a snack that work with our paleo diet, hooray!)
- Respectful speech. There is no talking down, or baby talk, or sarcasm, or yelling. The teachers speak to the children in the same respectful tone they speak to the parents. This is so refreshing. And rare for preschools.
- Rituals. There are lots of little routines that give the day a nice predictable rhythm. There is circle time, the hand-washing ritual, before meal blessing, story time, quiet sit time, mystery bag, and the day ends with the goodbye song where the children walk under a silk rainbow bridge.
- Positive Discipline. No time outs, punishments, shame. If a child is not able to participate in the activities in a calm and respectful way, the teachers may suggest that the child take a rest on their blanket until he or she is ready. Since most kids have a parent with them, it’s up to the parents to guide the children and be positive role models.
- NOT academic. I know, maybe I’m weird for thinking this is a virtue, but I am happy that they are not forcing the ABCs or reading or numbers. Each week, we “journal” (draw the moon phase and attempt to write the date and season), learn one letter in sign language and try to make that letter with sticks, but this academic portion is not forced or stressful. Trust me, Sisi is learning a TON at Forest Kindergarten, but it’s happening so naturally and organically that she doesn’t even realize it. That is the essence of unschooling!
- Respect for nature. They are exploring nature while being careful not to destroy it. They compost their leftovers, use reusable containers, and try not to waste anything.
- Trust. Even the littlest students are trusted with breakable ceramic bowls and teacups, and trusted to help wash them. We trust the kids to navigate the freedom that is given to them without abusing it. We trust they can handle a little heat, some scrapes, some rain. Handle new tastes (pine needle tea, acorn pancakes, fruits and vegetables they have never tasted before.) I’m even learning to trust Matteo, that he can handle 5 hours out in the wilderness and be just fine most of the time. We also trust that if our kids are showing signs of wear and overtiredness, it’s ok to leave early. No one will judge.
- Did I mention quiet sit time? It’s 10-15 minutes where we just choose a little nook and sit there. Quietly. It’s an introvert HSP dream come true 😉
- Cell phone free zone. We are all present. We give each other eye contact. We are hands free parents for at least 5 hours of our week. I hate my cell phone so this isn’t a challenge for me, but it may be the only time some parents are disconnected from their phones.
I encourage you to check and see if there is a Forest Kindergarten near you!