School’s outside

In a town in northern Switzerland, 4- to 7-year-olds spend the day outside in “forest kindergarten,” writes Emily Bazelon.

It’s autumn. A few kids splash through a muddy creek. One boy falls down in the water, gets up, squawks, keeps going. A larger group sits and jumps in a makeshift-looking tent that consists of a tarp hung over a pole, with low walls made from stacked branches. A teacher tootles on a recorder. Later, the teacher describes the daily routine: Singing, story time, eating, and “then the children can play where they want in the forest.” She continues, “During the play time, the children have a lot of space. They can go where they want. Usually I know where they are playing but I cannot see them always.” The camera pans to a girl on a rope swing, swinging shockingly high into the tree canopy.

Academics usually don’t begin until age 7 in Switzerland, Bazelon writes. Swiss kids soon catch up, say the filmmakers.

In their new book, The App Generation, education professors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis argue that kids today are becoming more risk averse. “Rather than wanting to explore, to try things out by themselves, young people are always pushing to find out exactly what is wanted, when it is wanted, how it will be evaluated, what comes next and where we end up,” they said in a recent Q-and-A.

When Bazelon was on a panel with Gardner, he made a related comment: Many American kids today never have been lost.  “They have never been outside, in an unfamiliar place, without a parent or a GPS or a phone app to guide them. They don’t know what it’s like to lose your way in the world around you and to make do until you find it again.”

An American teaching in Finland was surprised that elementary school kids get themselves to school on their own. Children get frequent breaks — 45 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of recess — and play outside, rain or shine.

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  1. This slate stuff is incorrect; as a father whose child went to Swisss KG, the autumn stuff happens only for a few months; once October starts, kindergadeners get to read words in a t least 2 out of 3 languages. They do less math stuff though, but I can bet first graders in CH are more ready for the school than in the US.

  2. I’d love to find a way for schools to incorporate more outside time into the school day. I’d also like for schools to find ways to have more flexibility to take advantage of unexpectedly nice days in the winter time.

    I can’t remember if it was pre-k, or K, but there was a program in the Pacific Northwest where the kids spent almost the entire day sounded wonderful.

  3. I actually currently have a kindergartner in a Swiss kindergarten. He’s in his second year of kindergarten (which is normal, it lasts two years). Kindergarten teachers in our canton (state) have a tremendous amount of flexibility over what they do.

    My son’s kindergarten rarely goes into the woods, but a friend’s son goes every Friday.

    My son did a Forest play group when he was 3/4 where they went into the forest for four hours, rain, snow or shine, every week. (They did stay in when it was too windy.)

    There has been no alphabet learning. A little bit of numbers, but no overt lessons. The kids play, they build things, they have stories. They put on a Christmas concert where they sang Christmas songs in 3 (3!) languages–German, English, and French. I take that back 4, because they also sang in Swiss German, which is its own language.

    The research shows that Swiss kids lag behind their American counterparts up until 4th grade, and then they meet and rapidly surpass them.

    Also, the kids walk by themselves, solve their own problems and get dirty a lot. And when my son made a bomb out of a cardboard box, his teacher simply taught him the German word for bomb, as well as the words for land mine in Swiss German and high German. (We speak English at home.)

    We love it.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    I noticed a gender difference. The boys were really active; running, jumping, spinning, building. The girls were more passive sitting by the fire or sitting or swinging together.

    I wonder about the transition to first grade, though. How disappointing it would be to be required to sit indoors for hours after that kindergarten experience. A hybrid experience for later years of 2 or 3 hours on academics inside with another 2 or 3 hours unstructured outdoors would be ideal for 1st-3rd grade, perhaps.

    I would send my sons to such a school if it were available.

  5. Swiss kids seem to be raised to be pretty independent. I’m also betting that there are fewer lawyers or they don’t interfere as much as they do here. My 1-12 school had a totally unfenced property. We were free to roam wherever we wanted as long as we could hear the come-i (n bell (or had someone come get us). The property had a river on one side, a hill with rock formations (great forts) and trees (yes, we climbed), a parking area, heavy swings and seesaws, a flat area with dirt and struggling grass and an unfenced entry to a farm field (farm machinery drove across play area to access it) – a modern lawyer’s dream. I never even heard of anyone getting more than the same minor injuries we got playing at home. We also played kickball, softball, BB, Red Rover, tag and a host of today’s forbidden fun. Sigh

  6. A forest kindergarten is not a standard kindergarten.

    If you search for Waldkindergärten, you will find descriptions of this particular type of kindergarten. In Germany and Switzerland, Kindergarten includes what we would call preschool.