Imagine a kindergarten with no chairs or tables. No books or toys or pencils. No fences to keep the children from wandering into nearby lakes and rivers. And there are children using knives to carve tools.
Now imagine your child playing there.
For many parents in Europe, this scenario is very real. They form part of an education movement that is building across Northern Europe and ensuring that preschoolers learn the ways of the world by using nature as their classroom.
Kids Gone Wild, which airs on Dateline on SBS tonight at 9.30pm, explores Forest Schools, which have become an increasingly popular way for children to learn across Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland since the first open-air school was established in Scandinavia in the early 1950s.
At these preschools, parents won’t receive a phone call from teachers when their child is scratched or a report detailing the incident when they pick up their little darling at the end of the day, At Forest Schools, there is no time for kid gloves. These little adventurers are too busy climbing trees to terrifying heights, wading knee-deep in puddles and using knives to make super sharp tools out of wood.
Your heart is probably in your throat about now, right?
Children learn how to use knives to make tools at a Forest Kindergarten in Denmark.
Safety for the children is of utmost priority
This approach may be at complete odds with our own expectations of safety standards in pre-schools in Australia, but Johan Laigaard, a teacher from a Forest Kindergarten outside of Denmark, insists that safety is the school’s number one priority.
In fact, in 17 years, he has only made one trip to the hospital with an injured child.
And the isolated incident didn’t involve falling out of tree or an accidental stabbing. Not even close …
“It was a parent who drove over the foot of a kid,” Laggard told Dateline.
And rain, hail or shine, the natural beauty of the forest is the kids’ classroom – even if it dips below an icy -20 degrees Celsius.
The teachers say children shouldn’t be wrapped in cotton wool.
“Children should have the chance to be free”
UK teacher Jane moved to Denmark 20 years ago, after becoming fascinated with this refreshing way of schooling children.
“It’s important for children to learn what it is to be cold and to be wet – and survive that,” she says.
As the children are sharpening their sticks into pointy, sharp objects, Jane explains why this exercise is not dangerous.
“The children have learned to use the knives properly. It’s not seen as some kind of weapon – it’s a tool for doing something such as whittling,” she says.
“I think many cultures like to wrap their children up in cotton wool – children should have the chance to be free.”
One particularly fearless boy scales a very fragile-looking tree with its feeble branches blowing around in the breeze at dizzying heights.
This sight is enough to give any parent a heart attack but when the gallant little fella is asked if he’s afraid of anything he simply replies “nothing at all – only a little tiny branch”.
This brave little lad hangs up high in this fragile tree without a care.
The first Bush Kindergarten in Australia
It seems that many parents agree with the outdoor learning approach – the number of Forest Kindergartens has doubled in Denmark over the past 20 years. And some regular schools are looking to take the classroom out into the fresh air.
Now Aussies are starting to see the benefits of utilising our vast outdoor space as a learning environment.
Five years ago, Westgarth Kindergarten in Melbourne became the first preschool to implement a bush program in the Darebin Parklands.
The website stipulates: No toys. No tools. No art supplies.
There are as many as 80 childcare centres, kindergartens, playgroups and schools who have jumped on board the outdoor education wagon in Victoria alone.
“Children are now spending far more time indoors and with technology”
The centre’s director, Doug Farther, says the huge shift is due to the overwhelming evidence that spending time outdoors is beneficial for kids.
“Parents are deeply aware it is good for their children and that their own childhoods were in stark contrast to the way their children are growing up today,” he tells Kidspot.
“Children are now spending far more time indoors and with technology.”
With no set curriculum, the children go about setting their own agendas as they wander through the bush.
“Children are naturally curious and adventurous as they prepare to take on appropriate risks and we support them doing that,” Doug says.
The children go about setting their own agenda in the bush each day.
No knives for Aussie kids
Unlike the Europe schools, these risks don’t include exploring with knives.
“In Northern Europe, their forest tradition is often deeply connected with hunting, where the use of knives is culturally appropriate,” Doug says.
“In Australia, we are on land that has been lived on for 60,000 years, so it’s a lot more culturally-appropriate to do it an a way that’s connecting with Australia’s Aboriginal history.”
In five years of the bush program running at the centre, there has only been one cancellation due to high winds and electrical storms.
“We don’t want children to ever be in a place that is not safe. That’ s when it would be more about survival than learning and that’s not what we are about,” Doug says.
Wet weather is no excuse to stay indoors
But the typical chilly and wet weather that hits Melbourne is never a reason to keep the kids indoors. They still don their gumboots and raincoats and head out for their exciting adventures.
Denmark teacher Jane says giving children an outdoor education is a no-brainer – regardless of which part of the world they live in.
“There’s a lot of research being done now that shows that children are less stressed, concentrate more, are ill less often and their motor development is far, far better for being outdoors.”
Kids Gone Wild, airs tonight (February 23rd) at 9.30pm on SBS.
Benefits for children spending time outdoors
Supplied by: Planet Ark