In this month’s issue of Mothering magazine, Andrea Mills, shares an inspiring account of her children’s preschool experience at a Waldkidergarten in Germany. Waldkindergarten literally translates (I think, correct me if I am wrong) as a forest children’s garden, which is a lovely metaphor for this early-childhood program that nurtures children’s souls, you guessed it, in the forest. Envision children gathering at the forest edge for a journey to their “classroom”, a dedicated forest space that has been created from the forest itself to provide all the little waldkinders need: a place to build fire for cooking and warmth, benches and shelters for gathering together, and playthings and art supplies that are fashioned from the bounty that Mother Nature so aptly supplies. And the curriculum, well there isn’t one, other than what the children provide in their innate curiosity to observe, question, imagine, construct and explore. Yup, that’s it. A forest, some children, and some really good winter clothes. This is school, after all. It goes on in the rain, snow, sleet and sun.
Mills writes, “the philosophy is that children learn best when they are able to develop creatively in the the most open and natural setting: the outdoors. Direct teaching is minimal, in the belief that children who are permitted to freely explore nature’s resources will naturally develop the skills they will later need for more formal schooling.”
I couldn’t agree more, but I think this runs much deeper than setting kids up with the skills that they need later in life. This experience is all about setting all of us up for what we need to exist later in life: a sustainable future in which our human needs are seamlessly intertwined with the needs of the earth. There is no doubt that such a future will require us to make important choices. It is these little forest children who will propel us through many of these changes. Sure we want them prepared intellectually with the knowledge and skills a sustainable future will require. But more importantly we need our children to value the earth and all of its inhabitants as an integral part of their being and, conversely, we need our children to recognize themselves as an integral part of the earth. No matter how impassioned the teacher, kids aren’t going to learn that in textbooks or lab experiments, or even through scientific analysis of the natural world. That kind of learning happens only through being alive and being free in the wild without an agenda, where the only thing that matters is presence. Categorization is irrelevant, boundaries disappear and a connection is made that is so deep that it will be protected, at all costs, regardless of the quality of science education that follows. But it has to happen now. And it has to happen with the youngest of our young people, those who are so new to their notion of self that the earth is folded into the fabric of their being.
This is an encouraging thought, a blissful way to plan for our future. This is a call to get out in the wild with a child and to get out of the way. Do nothing but observe, support and encourage. And then do it again the next day and the day after that. Go be free in the wild!