"Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls!"
When I was a teenager and it felt that the world was crashing down around me, there was a certain beech tree I would climb for solace. In those limbs I felt safe, protected and I could feel myself calm as I lay in its branches. I learned that nature was a source of comfort: Something I could run to that would accept me no matter what, without judgment, and where I would be embraced unconditionally. I recall a self confidence in nature from an early age. I have many childhood memories of knowing that I needed space and going out for a walk in a wild place. It calmed me. Even as I grew older, whenever I felt unease in a social setting, I knew I could walk out into nature and be myself.
I am one of those people who was born with a love for and an affinity with nature. I also am blessed with strong observation skills and excellent discernment. I joke that my super powers are super vision, super hearing, and super smelling. I notice things in nature that others’ just brush over; I can distinguish all the different plants, I can multi-track my auditory input and I can smell rain coming. These super powers were honed by my mother, my first naturalist mentor. My Mother not only taught me how to observe and identify nature discoveries, she taught me how to love and respect nature. I have many childhood memories of my Mother modeling a caring for the natural world. She taught her children not to pick moss because it is alive; she stopped our car on the side of the highway to move migrating turtles off the road; and she once stopped a road building crew from taking out an old tree by circling her 7 children around it. My Mother also has “Nature ADD” as we jokingly refer to it, meaning that we are both easily distracted by nature observations.
Running free in nature is just what we all did as kids; that is, anyone born before 1970. It never would have occurred to me that those opportunities for adventure in free exploration of nature, with its high imaginative play, self empowerment and places to escape to, would be denied to this next generation of children. Most modern children are continuously micromanaged and hovered over and children are inhibited from normal childhood activities and behaviors such as running, climbing, yelling, spinning, hiding, playing with sticks, getting dirty and going barefoot.
Young children today are on a continual merry go round of scheduling, structured activities and transition. They are shuttled around throughout the day, scheduled from the moment they get up until they go to bed. That sense of timelessness that we of a certain age know so well is missing from their activity driven lives. Children today are not experiencing that downtime, the stillness that enables rejuvenation. With so many transitions every day and being constantly on the move, where can today’s child can go when they need to decompress? Where is that place for them that for me was the stillness of those beech tree limbs? And, just as importantly, where are the mentors who will teach them to love and respect all of nature?
A decade ago, when my son turned 3, I was seeking a preschool for him and was astonished that even on our small rural island of outdoorsy people all of the preschools operated primarily inside. If the class went outdoors, it was only in “nice” weather. I had already noticed with my own child, and many others over the years, that children under age 5 have a strong affinity with nature and seek to immerse in it whenever possible. I had observed how much deep learning took place when children were allowed to just free play in nature. And I realized also that I was perfectly equipped to nurture this tendency and was in fact becoming the nature mentor for many small children.
I dreamed of an outdoor prechool model where children could freely explore nature as their learning experience. After researching the internet, I discovered that my dream school school exists in Germany; they are called waldkindergartens and they are quite popular. With these German programs as a guide, I - with the help of my dear friend Robin Rogers - started the Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten program in 2007 based on my knowing that children learn best when playing outside in all of the universal ways children love to engage with nature, from running to climbing to balancing to digging.
Physical, Emotional and Cognitive Benefits
The physical benefits of an all outdoor program are easy to measure and the most commonly cited are increased body strength, including grasping and hand strength; improved balance; higher immune system functioning and better eyesight. Through free play in nature, the program is transformed into a physical therapy session.
The emotional benefits of an all outdoor program are also recognizable to those in the field. Children in nature are visibly more relaxed and less stressed, have higher perseverance and improved emotional resilience in the outdoor setting, especially with the type of flow learning and non-structured programming at Cedarsong.
The cognitive benefits of an all outdoor program are also easy to quantify as these young children are well-versed in physics, engineering, biology, botany, etymology and ornithology. In studies from Germany, forest kindergarten children excel academically once they enter formal education because the program results in superior problem solving and critical thinking skills.
Nature Therapy – The Mental Health Benefits
The most difficult benefits of nature immersion to measure are the mental health benefits. When I started the Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten in 2007, I did not anticipate that I would re-discover the healing power of nature and its profoundly positive effect on my mental health. I began to joke with people that I started the nature immersion program for me, because I have a core need to be outside for holistic balance.
I was always interested in doing activities in nature yet I had forgotten the pure pleasure of relaxation that comes from doing nothing outside and just being. Simply laying on the ground, feeling and experiencing the timelessness of nature is not often seen as productive, although it has the power to transform energy and I sometimes refer to it as the reset button.
Soon after I started the Forest Kindergarten program for 2-6 year olds, I began to see that the children were experiencing the same kind of calming and relaxing in nature that I had noticed for myself. I began to think about the difference in childhood today from my experience. It never could have occurred to me that spending large periods of each day completely immersed in nature, with no structure or schedule (and very little supervision) would not be the very definition of childhood.
Children Need Nature for their Mental Health
When I first bought the land that is now Camp Terra, where Cedarsong Nature School runs its programs, I was exploring and introducing myself to the land. I hugged a particularly beautiful western red cedar and as did, I clearly heard in my head "Clara". Years later all the children refer to that tree as Clara and seek it out when feeling out of sorts. So many children gravitate towards the safety of the space underneath that big tree, we teachers have come to call it "The Therapy Tree".
One day the children noticed the tree roots were exposed and began to work together bringing buckets of mud to cover them. They then got chalk and colored the bark, wanting to decorate it. Finally they got rakes and moved out all the debris under the surrounding huckleberries. One 3 year old expressed that "This can be my spot when I'm sad and I don't want anyone watching over me".
Sometimes when the forest kindergarten children are angry, they will throw themselves on the ground or sit near a tree saying “I just want some alone time”. We absolutely encourage these children to find their solace in nature as this can become a lifelong emotional management skill. On days when a child is repeatedly having challenges with their behavior, I ask if they want to go for a walk or sit by a tree with me. I then generally do not talk or ask questions; instead we just sit. I may possibly make a small comment about a nature find or discovery. It is okay to let children have that space of stillness and not to require them to tell us what is wrong. We can be there to support the healing that the natural space is doing.
ABOUT ERIN KENNY
Erin Kenny has been designing programs to connect children with nature for over twenty years. She has a B.A. in environmental education and a J.D. in environmental law. In 2007, Erin co-founded the nonprofit Cedarsong Nature School with Robin Rogers and together they started the first U.S. Forest Kindergarten, an entirely-outdoor preschool that was originally based on the German waldkindergarten model.
Over the years, Erin developed a teaching method known as The Cedarsong Way, a specific pedagogy of teaching science that is distinguished by use of an outdoor classroom, child-driven flow learning, child-inspired emergent curriculum and inquiry-based teaching. This pedagogy encourages children’s natural love of science resulting a deep understanding and superior retention of natural science principles, while promoting advance social skills, teamwork and cooperation, and a high level of emotional intelligence. Erin regularly runs The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten Teacher Trainings.
Erin has attended international study trips in the Netherlands, Iceland, Germany and Scotland to further her own learning and has been keynote speaker at international conferences in S. Korea, Australia, Iceland, England and Canada. Erin wrote the book Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way and wrote a chapter in David Sobel’s book Nature Pre-schools and Forest
Kindergartens. Erin and Robin recently released a new book called Teaching The Cedarsong Way: Lessons from an award- winning forest kindergarten.
Erin also is the founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association and her pioneering work has been showcased in major media such as PEOPLE magazine, Sierra Club magazine, ABC News Nightline and UK-Daybreak.
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