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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

German Kindergarten Campouts Test Helicopter Parents

From The Wall Street Journal

By Jessica Holzer
December 28, 2015

German children as young as 3 are sent to forest; naps in a barn.

German children played beside Gudelack Lake during a
kindergarten camping trip in June. PHOTO: KATRIN SPERLING

BERLIN— Tilda Geyer got away from her parents on a trip to a lake last summer. She and 10 friends slept in tents, rode horses, picked berries and flew on a rope swing over the water. At night, they sang around a campfire.

Tilda was just 4 years old. The campout was for kindergarten.

German kindergartens aren’t for crybabies. While U.S. preschoolers practice their ABCs, their counterparts in German kindergarten, age 3 to 6, head into the outdoors to learn to get dressed, prepare meals and go to bed—all without their parents.

There are no pencils or paper on the trips. Children in Germany aren’t taught to read and write until they are 6. That leaves time for such tasks as using knives to whittle sticks for roasting sausages.

Notes from America’s Wild West set the tone. Tilda’s name for the trip: Little Wolf of the Brave Starfish Tribe.

The journeys, called Kitafahrten, take place once a year at many German kindergartens. They are a Teutonic crash course in becoming independent—with minimal allowances for the tender age of participants.

Stuffed animals top the packing list. Some campers revert to their “terrible twos”—which isn’t that far to travel for campers who are only 3. Chaperones dole out sweets to ward off homesickness.

“If you miss your parents, you can eat a bonbon and you will feel better,” Katrin Sperling, Tilda’s teacher, recalls telling the children.

While safety is certainly a concern, teachers don’t engage in the kind of hypervigilant supervision that is commonplace in the U.S.

Tilda’s group camped on an island. Nearly all of the 4- and 5-year-olds were nonswimmers.

On a different trip, some children cut themselves with Swiss Army knives they were given to carve wood, recalls Henrieke Basker, whose then 4-year-old daughter was on the trip. “Some parents weren’t so amused about that,” she says.

Phone calls from parents are typically verboten. “We will call you if we need to,” Ms. Sperling recalls telling two worried mothers before this year’s trip. Parents got three terse texts over four days. “We have arrived,” said the first.

In rule-bound Germany, growing up is surprisingly rule-free. Parents send 5-year-olds to the bakery alone on Saturdays. Children typically settle their own disputes on the playground. And kindergartens are legally bound to try to develop their charges into self-reliant individuals. That means children often are out of sight of their teachers, making their own games and choosing their playmates.

Most Germans see nothing extreme about packing off tots to the forest for a few nights if it helps.

For some parents, there is a bonus.

“You can be the couple that you used to be again for a few nights,” says Ms. Basker, a Berlin mom whose husband is a DJ. “For us, it was like, woooh!” While her daughter was roughing it in the forest, Ms. Basker traveled to Hamburg to attend one of her husband’s shows.

The Kitafahrt traces its roots to Friedrich Fröbel, the 19th-century German educator who created the concept of kindergarten and coined the term. Mr. Fröbel believed children should play freely in nature and learn from everyday experience.

The trips teach children “to be responsible not only for themselves but for the other children,” says Yvonne Anders, professor of early-childhood education at the Free University in Berlin. “One child is missing his parents at night, but the friends take care of him. Another child needs help dressing.”

A German toddler took a nap during her kindergarten trip
to a forest in Brandenburg. PHOTO: MELANIE WILM

Some see the trips as an antidote to U.S.-style helicopter parenting.

“Parents these days don’t have faith in their children,” saysChristiane Dittrich, the head of a kindergarten in an upscale Berlin neighborhood. “They can accomplish so much more than their parents think.”

Ms. Dittrich recalls her own kindergarten trip some 50 years ago in the former East Germany. “I remember being scared and also looking forward to it,” she says.

Not all Germans are on board with sending babes into the woods. The trips are uncommon in some parts of the country. Newcomers to Berlin, where they are popular, are often shocked by the concept.

Lena Altman, a Düsseldorf native who moved to Berlin after becoming a mother in the U.S., balked at enrolling her son in a kindergarten that took children as young as 3 on an annual four-day camping trip.

“I had just come from a very New York helicoptering context,” she says. “That seemed like a lot.”

Yet by the time her son was 6, he had two kindergarten trips under his belt. He enjoyed the last one so much, he told his mom, that he wished it had lasted longer.

Another Berlin mom is still torn about sending her then 2-year-old on a three-night excursion in 2012. Her daughter, who was still in diapers, fed geese, picked blueberries in the forest and played in the muck by a lake.

But homesickness set in. There were tears and, on the second night, the girl crawled into her teacher’s bed. Her mother says the teacher never called.

Tilda Geyer, by contrast, returned from her trip “excited, happy and exhausted,” says her mother, Anke Geyer. A certificate from her teachers praised her “courage, perseverance and skill,” saying she could “bear her Indian name with honor.”

A fellow camper, Romy, “grew up” and was “very self-confident” after the trip, says her mother, Margot Schwindenhammer.

Romy boasts that she never needed Susie, her stuffed polar bear. “Susie slept next to my suitcase,” she says.

Katharina Hübner-Köhn, the head of a Berlin kindergarten, didn’t shy away from including four 3-year-olds on a two-night trip last year to a farm outside Berlin. They still wore diapers and sucked on pacifiers.

Once at the farm, however, there wasn’t much time for missing mommy. The children—15 in all—cleaned stables, lay down fresh hay and fed pigs and chickens. The little ones got so tired they took naps in the loft of a barn, Ms. Hübner-Köhn says.

None was homesick, she says. “They slept well. They played a lot. And they didn’t want to go home,” she says.

1 comment:

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