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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Running Free in Germany’s Outdoor Preschools

From The New York Times

By Alice Gregory
May 18, 2017

"Graduates of German forest kindergartens have a “clear advantage” over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development."


ONE EARLY MORNING this past February, before the frost melted or the sun fully rose, 20 small children gathered in a scabby municipal park in Pankow, the northernmost borough of Berlin. The sky was gray and the ground was gray, but the children’s cheeks were bright and so were their moods. They ran in circles, shrieked with delight and spent a great deal of time rolling around atop frozen soil as traffic whizzed by just meters away.

Their parents, shivering and anxious to get on with the day, paid them little mind. They smiled absent-mindedly and took sips of coffee from environmentally friendly stainless steel to-go cups.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

At the sound of the bird call, mimicked loudly and with eerie accuracy by a man in his early 40s named Picco Peters, the children gathered together and formed a tight circle. A spirited round of songs, sung in both English and German, began and was finished off by a chorus of wolf howls.

The circle then dissolved and the group’s 15 older children, ranging in age from 3 to 6, marched past a community garden and toward a busy intersection. (The remaining children, who were younger, stayed in the park.) A woman named Christa Baule led the way, carrying a backpack with a three-foot-long branch sticking dangerously out of it; Peters took up the back.

The children continued to chatter until the public bus came, at which point they wordlessly formed a single-file line and climbed in. Ten minutes later, the bus stopped. Everyone was deposited at the entrance of an 84-acre public park and proceeded to run amok.


Robin Hood Waldkindergarten, which opened in 2005, is one of more than 1,500 waldkitas, or “forest kindergartens,” in Germany; Berlin alone has about 20. Most have opened in the last 15 years and are usually located in the city’s parks, with a bare-bones structure serving as a sort of home base, but others, like Robin Hood, rely on public transportation to shuttle their charges daily out into the wilderness, where they spend most of the day, regardless of weather.

Toys, typically disparaged at waldkitas, are replaced by the imaginative use of sticks, rocks and leaves.

A 2003 Ph.D. dissertation by Peter Häfner at Heidelberg University showed that graduates of German forest kindergartens had a “clear advantage” over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development.


The American journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods,” is cited often by Robin Hood staff, as is Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature,” by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown. (Savage Park,” by Amy Fusselman, is another book that chronicles uninhibited play and was inspired by a visit to an adventure playground in Tokyo.)

The pedagogical philosophy of waldkitas, which privileges outdoor play and hands-on environmental learning, comes originally from Scandinavia, but, as one teacher put it to me, “they don’t make a big fuss about it like they do here.” The trend’s non-Teutonic origins are somewhat surprising: There might be nothing “more German” than a state-funded preschool based primarily in a forest.

“It’s terrible that kids today know all about technology but nothing about the little bird outside their window...”

Germany has nearly three times as much protected land as the U.S., proportionate to the countries’ sizes, a nontrivial fact that highlights the way much of the country thinks about nature and its role in the emotional health of its citizens.

“It’s terrible that kids today know all about technology but nothing about the little bird outside their window,” Peters said, gesturing out toward the woods and sounding like any number of quotable Germans, from Goethe to Beethoven to Bismarck, all of whom have rhapsodized on the psychic benefits of spending time in the forest.

He continued: “In life, bad things happen — you lose your job or your partner or everyone just hates you — but you’ll always have this.”


AT AROUND 9 A.M., one child discovered a gruesome scene and pulled Baule over. “Ah,” she said, beckoning everyone else over. She pointed to the ground, where a pile of dark feathers lay lumped beneath a fir tree. She asked the children to guess who “killed” the blackbird. One small boy suggested that it was maybe the work of a fox. Baule, the school’s director, pantomimed exaggerated thought. “Well, no,” she said. “See how smooth the quill is?”

The boy ran his fingers along the feather and nodded. “That means it was plucked. So the blackbird was killed by a bird of prey, not a fox.” She gathered the dirty feathers from the ground and distributed them one by one to the children. A wild-eyed girl with snot dripping from her nose rocked back and forth with impatience and squealed when she finally received her feather.

Within a few minutes, the children were spread out over an expanse of at least 10 acres. Some were jumping from boulders; others were dragging logs through marshland. Most were sucking on filthy icicles that had fallen from the eave of a greenhouse. At Robin Hood, the children are allowed to be out of eyesight of their minders, but not out of earshot.

“Being secretive is good for child development,” Peters said. But whenever an adult called out “cuckoo,” the children all dutifully returned from whatever dangerous thing they were doing, which on the day I spent with them included climbing at least 10 feet up a tree and sliding unsupervised across a frozen pond.

“We used to bring very simple things, lengths of rope for instance,” Peters said. “But soon we realized even that wasn’t necessary.” The lack of toys, he explained, means less fighting and more inclusiveness. “They realize that they need friends if they’re going to play.”

Just then, Peters bent down and picked a frosty leaf — an English plantain, I later learned. “We use this instead of Band-Aids,” he said, “You just mash it up a bit and stick it on a cut. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties.”

A collection of feather sticks, used to help start a fire.

By the time a secluded spot had been chosen for breakfast, the childrens’ fingernails were black with dirt, and although it was exceptionally cold nobody was complaining. Instead they all arranged their backpacks into a circle and wandered off in various directions to pee semi-privately, each one undressing out of their snowsuits without help. They returned and took out small Tupperware containers full of fresh produce from their backpacks.

Two girls, both under 5, began arranging the fruit into an elaborate mandala atop a wooden tray. They piled carrot coins in the middle and surrounded them with concentric circles of tangerines, bell pepper slices and cucumber sticks; dates went in one corner and apple chunks in another, with a scattering of walnuts on the opposite side of the plate.

Baule had encouraged them to organize the food “neatly” but provided no further instructions. The girls did all this slowly and wordlessly, rearranging items when they didn’t like a particular combination. The end result was as beautiful as anything you’d see in a restaurant.

As it is on most mornings, breakfast was eaten in complete quiet. Children took turns silently presenting everyone else with the tray from which they each chose a single piece of fruit until it was all gone.

For months, they had been reminded that by not making any noise at all while eating, it is more likely that a deer might approach them, and at the very least they’ll better hear the bird calls. In over 45 minutes I didn’t hear a single giggle. When they were done, Baule excused them. There were sudden laughs and yelps and everyone vanished into the forest.

Adult minders oversee the waldkita, though children are often out of sight
(but not out of earshot) of supervisors.Credit: Emma Hardy


THERE ARE SCATTERINGS of forest kindergartens in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. Even in Japan and South Korea, where education is famously strict, waldkitas are becoming increasingly popular. They have spread mostly through word-of-mouth among parents. And in Germany, it’s not just the wealthy — or the eccentric — who send their children.

Like all other preschools in Berlin, tuition at Robin Hood is covered by the government for kids aged 2 through 6 (apart from a 100 euro per month fee because it’s a private school). New York City preschools can cost upward of $40,000 per year.

Though it was below freezing and we had been outside for five and a half hours by the time we made our way to the bus stop, nobody — besides me — wanted to go back inside. When we returned to Robin Hood’s modest three-room building, which is filled with indoor plants and wooden forts, the children immediately kicked off their boots and stripped off their snow clothes. I suddenly saw them as they really were: tiny. In every case, their volume had decreased by at least 60 percent.

They ran into the main play space where a long table had been set for them. Ceramic plates were heaped with salad and polenta, which they devoured with real flatware. One particularly squirmy boy was gently instructed to “please sit properly” five times. For dessert, every child was given a mug filled with elderberry juice, made from fruit that they had picked the summer before.

After lunch, Baule showed me a photo album, filled mostly with pictures taken in the last couple of years. A few children got interested and came over to sit in her lap, excited to see themselves “as babies.” One photograph captured the image of a towheaded boy of about 3, stripping bark off a stick with a jackknife. In another, a different boy was crushing walnuts with a log. A third picture depicted four children walking across a gravelly path, completely naked and covered with mud.

The room, which was warm and lined with pillows and books, suddenly seemed stuffy. The children would be picked up in about an hour, but I left early. I hailed a cab, and within five minutes regretted it. I rolled the window all the way down, and stuck my head out.

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