If You Love Your Kids Let Them Eat Dirt
It was my second week of kindergarten and I was sitting in Mrs. Kraft’s music class. To this day it bothers me that she didn’t teach art. We were probably learning a song about dinosaurs when I raised my cute little hand, sighed, and said, “Um, we’ve been in here a long time.” Mrs. Kraft fell silent. “Amanda, we need to stay for a little while longer!” What I was politely hinting at was that I wanted to get the hell out of there and go play outside. But no. I had to keep clapping my hands along to the beat of Octopus’s Garden. My parents did alright, but if they cared about my balance with nature and education at all they would have moved the family to Germany so I could have been a student in waldkindergarten.
In English waldkindergarten means “forest kindergarten,” which is pretty straight forward. And the idea of letting kids run around in the woods ties back to the original roots of kindergarten than one might expect. Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, a German forester, wanted to further children’s education. He had experience acting as a tutor for Germany’s elite and opened the world’s first kindergarten in 1837 in a town called Bad Blankenburg (although it wasn’t called “kindergarten” until 1840). It should be noted that I will be updating my Facebook location to the badass German town of Bad Blankenburg. The activity center was designed to help children work on their motor skills but because of Froebel’s forestry background he also wanted the children to spend as much time outside as possible to explore and learn on their own. And in case you didn’t realize it, kindergarten means “children’s garden” in German. Over the years, educators forgot that gardens are outside and not in classrooms with a hamster to be passed around every weekend to disgruntled parents like a hot potato that they hope doesn’t die on their watch.
Waldkindergarten was brought back to it’s true form by a Danish woman named Ella Flatau in the 1950s. She was a kindergarten teacher who incorporated nature hikes into her class curriculum. As the years passed and more women entered the workforce waldkindergartens continued to grow in popularity in Europe. Most would agree that scooping up a sleepy kid telling you about a bird’s nest he found in the woods is much more adorable than picking up a kid full of energy because all she had to do was sit inside on a carpet singing Octopus’s Garden while complaining to Mrs. Kraft’s face about her stretched out music classes. The first National Forest School Conference was held in 2002 and created this mission statement for all forest schools.
“An inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a local woodland environment.”
Doesn’t that just sound effing fantastic? Followup question, where can I as an adult experience learning in a local woodland environment? The closest I’ve gotten is joining dozens of MeetUp.com hiking groups and never going.
The one thing that gets changed more frequently than diapers is technology, and with that technology comes new advice yelling at new parents for doing the wrong thing. Sesame Street has been on the air since 1969 and as television has increased, so have the numbers of shows for children. And obviously parents want to feel their best so they find shows like Sesame Street and Little Einsteins to plop their bundle of joy in front of for an hour while mom or dad takes a little break to “fold laundry” or “call the pediatrician” or whatever it is parents do.
These shows are marketed to increase children’s understanding of language and stimulate their tiny brains by explaining to them how musical instruments sound or to clap whenever they see a masked fox sneak up on a small Mexican girl with a bowl cut. The problem is at the end of the day a video is a video and a child needs to interact with living, breathing people and experience the natural world around them. Scientists at the University of Washington found that babies eight to sixteen months old were learning six to eight fewer vocabulary words by watching an hour of videos than babies who were not watching educational videos at all. The researchers also found that nearly 90% of two year olds are spending up to three hours a day in front of screens. Overstimulation exists, and having kids watch educational videos instead of interacting with people is detrimental to their development. Additionally, the research group found that with more exposure to videos, children found reality boring and had shorter attention spans.
I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by nature as a child and ran around the woods without adult supervision. There weren’t hoards of clowns hiding in the woods in my day! My favorite memories were fishing in northern Wisconsin, climbing trees, and building snow forts and I usually did all of those things alone or with other kids. Sure, I scratched a cornea rubbing a rock against tree bark to get mud off and I got a fishhook stuck in my hand a couple times. I cried when my mom made me release the frog I raised as a tadpole and screamed when a pony bit me (that’s a whole other story in itself). But being around nature furthered my exploration and curiosity, and it definitely toughened me up. A lot of news outlets stress there’s danger lurking around every corner but people have to get outside more. Whether you’re a toddler or thirty five years old just go for a hike and stare off into the horizon rather than a screen for an hour and tell me if you don’t feel more relaxed and centered afterwards. Your brain actually releases endorphins when you focus on the horizon the same way your body releases endorphins during a runner’s high. There, I just gave you a loophole that lets you feel like you went running. So go out into the great blue yonder, grab your toddler, and let them eat dirt. Waldkindergarten is going to save us all!