Children of the Forest

At Waldorf's forest kindergarten in Saratoga Springs, the children spend almost their entire day in the woods


Story by Felicia Bonanno
Photos contributed by Catherine Wink

It’s no secret that people are spending less and less time outside. This is especially noticeable in the younger generations, who spend more time inside playing video games and see the woods as a 'scary place.'

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At Waldorf's forest kindergarten, a tree is a playground.

“I think we have a lot of children nowadays with a lot of physical and emotional problems,” says Sigrid D’Aleo, a teacher at the forest kindergarten at the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “By not letting children spend more time outside, what we are really doing is setting them up for failure in the world.”

At the forest kindergarten where D’Aleo works, the value of children simply spending time outdoors is at the core of the education. Children spend almost their entire school day in the woods—climbing trees, splashing in puddles, interacting with their peers and with nature, and learning all the while.

The forest kindergarten, which is one of only a handful in the United States, began two years ago when D’Aleo, a longtime Waldorf teacher, took to the idea of children learning through being outdoors, a concept that originated in Europe. Twenty-one students arrive each school morning at the farmhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, which the park licensed them to use. The children almost immediately head out to the woods to play for hours, rain or shine. In the morning, an hour before going out, the children help cook their organic, vegetarian lunch, made with fresh vegetables from their garden and greenhouse, which the children help tend to. “There are always vegetables that need to be chopped, cheese to be grated, or apples that need to be sliced,” D’Aleo says.  Then, the children wash dishes, fold laundry, and do whatever other farmhouse chores need to be done before going outside.

“We think it’s important that the children feel needed in the world,” D’Aleo says. “The forest kindergarten is their little community in which they participate in everything that goes on.”

“The forest kindergarten is their little community in which they participate in everything that goes on.”

D’Aleo had seen several forest kindergartens sprout up around Germany, Scandinavia and her home country of Austria, and she dreamt of starting one in Saratoga. The question was simply whether people would take to it in the U.S. or not. “American parents are not like European parents,” D’Aleo says. “I wasn’t sure how parents here would react to the idea.” Then, says D’Aleo, Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods was published, a book about the rise in what he calls “nature deficit disorder” and the importance of children experiencing nature.

“A parent in one of my classes at Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs handed me the book and said, 'Look, it’s what you’ve always talked about,” D’Aleo says. Waldorf parents’ enthusiasm, along with the book, inspired D’Aleo to go through with her plan. Now she is a lead teacher at the kindergarten.

The forest kindergarten has four teachers, two lead teachers, and two assistants. “The faculty is truly gifted,”says Katie Capelli, whose son Quinn attended Waldorf’s forest kindergarten for the 2009-2010 school year. “It’s amazing how they watch and care for the group through their day. Even with so much time outdoors and with such a big space, the day has an orderly rhythm and calmness to it, where you could easily imagine chaos.”  At all times there are two teachers indoors and two outdoors, so that some students can be inside and others outside, all still supervised, although according to Capelli, the children are all aware of the boundaries of where they are and aren’t allowed to go.

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Children spend most hours of the day outside, no matter the weather.

Inside, the teachers are with the students doing farmhouse chores while others are out on one of their three trails, playing, raking leaves, planting, harvesting, helping stack wood, or doing whatever other seasonal chores there are to do. “At the heart of our education, though, is free play, so the children are pausing to have fun while all this is happening,” D’Aleo says. “The older children are more involved in the work, but always sort of go between play time and work. The teachers are always working though, and the children see the adults caring for the environment all the time.” The children also care for the trails they create, build fairy houses and forts out of sticks, gather stones and logs to build paths and bridges, and climb trees.

Waldorf schools don't teach academics before first grade, so kindergarten really is all about playtime for the students. “Neurological tests show that children should not be taught academics until after about seven years old,” D’Aleo says. “That is why Waldorf schools don’t teach academics until first grade.” Instead of focusing on reading and math in kindergarten, Waldorf’s forest program focuses on being a child. “It’s about letting children be children,” says Anne Maguire, Waldorf's enrollment director.

“Our program is not us teaching them through play, but just allowing them to play, which helps them make the world their own,” D’Aleo says.

Quinn has had no trouble adjusting to first grade this year, though, says Capelli. “He has done well transitioning and has had no difficulty sitting and focusing on the academic work that is expected of him. I would say, however, that the forest kindergarten is more than just having outside play time. The children still do circle time, listen to stories, sing, finger knit, sew, chop vegetables, sand and saw wood, and prepare their lunch together.”

 

“Our program is not us teaching them through play, but just allowing them to play, which helps them make the world their own.”

“In the process, they are developing their motor development and language and speech skills, along with their senses,” D’Aleo says. “By senses, I mean the five senses, but also the sense of balance and movement, life, touch, and warmth, which are all experienced most strongly in nature.”

The children play for an hour or more in the woods, building shelters and swinging from branches. “The toys are the stones, wood, and mud,” D’Aleo says. “I find they play much more nicely if they don’t have toys they can fight over.” What toys they do have are simple wooden toys, hand-me-downs from D’Aleo’s daughter.

“People create a lot of artificial toys for their children to play on and with nowadays,” Maguire says. “But if you look around, these things are found right in nature. The roots of a fallen tree are like a rock wall in a gym, for example. The children love playing on fallen trees, and so at the Forest Kindergarten, we allow them to do that.”

After an hour or more of building shelters and playing, they have story time in the woods. The teachers tell all of the stories orally. Fairytales, folklore, and nature are the usual themes. Then there is circle time, with songs, verses, and movement. When it’s time to go inside, the children change their wet clothes, do tick-checks, wash their hands, go to the bathroom, and sit down to a hearty, warm lunch at a table they set with candles and pottery. “We don’t use any plastic,” D’Aleo says. “We actually have some lovely, lovely pottery.”

When lunch is finished and cleaned up, the children’s parents pick them up around noon.

“Every day is about having an outdoor experience,” says D’Aleo, who spent her entire childhood playing in thewoods. “It’s imperative because a lot of the problems we see in people today could be solved by having our children outside doing real work and eating nutritiously with the guidance of their parents and teachers. That way, they have a really good, healthy foundation to work. It is the birthright of every child to be able to be outside when they are young, instead of in front of a desk or a television.”

D’Aleo sees a difference in her students as opposed to other kindergarteners, as well. “I feel that they are much more capable physically. I like to see their round and rosy cheeks when so often now I see children who are skinny or pale. Also, our children don’t get sick as often because they are getting exercise and fresh air.

The benefits are more than just physical and mental. Capelli says that watching her son acquire an emotional attachment to nature was fascinating: “He would come home each day in the spring telling me what was changing and how—what new flower opened or what fern was just waking up. When we visited this winter, we found some ice on a creek. He wanted to follow it to see where it would cross on the different trails he knew so well. He clearly developed a real relationship with this small part of the natural world, and it was really incredible to witness. He adored his time there, and it is clearly a special place for him.”

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The students clean up the woods and build forts on their trails in Saratoga Spa State Park.

D’Aleo hopes that the love and emotional attachment will carry over. “I feel that the children are going to be more selfless in the way they contribute to their communities,” D’Aleo says. “They are always contributing to their little community here, so it’s not focused on them all the time. When they grow up, they won’t feel like, ‘What is the world going to offer me?’ but they will say, ‘What can I offer to the world?’ It’s very important that we instill that in the children.”

“Every day is about having an outdoor experience.”

D’Aleo hopes the lessons the children learn will cause them to contribute to the nature they are so fond of. “One of the central ideas at the forest kindergarten is caring for the land and the earth and the forest,” D’Aleo says. “These children are the future generation, so it is our responsibility to teach them to take care of our natural world. They learn to do that through experiencing it. If they live in that environment and remember the joy they had playing outside in the forest and working in the garden harvesting vegetables, they are most likely to preserve it.”

Quinn benefited so much from his experience at the forest kindergarten that Capelli is enrolling her daughter, who is now four years old, next year. “I really couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful kindergarten experience for my son,” Capelli says. “They always have space and time to just be outdoors and let the forest inspire their play. There are tasks they can be involved in, or they can just explore, which seems like such a gift in a world that always has you rushing to the next thing on the list.”

What benefits do you think a forest kindergarten can offer?

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