Concerns About Forest Kindergartens

I have worked with children, largely on the land (city farms, youth projects, farm visits–all sorts of outdoor adventures and play) for more than 35 years. Ten years ago, had you asked me if children could be outdoors too much I would have said ‘no!’ But I no longer say that.

The reason for this is my observation throughout all these years of how the human ‘I’ develops and how, through that right development, a young adult becomes resilient and can face the painful challenges of our world with something approaching equanimity.

For me, the most important aspect of Waldorf education is its healing mission to humanity. We all incarnate, slowly, into our human bodies, onto this Earth, with our own issues and challenges. My separation from Unschooling came largely through this recognition: that children come to Earth to learn but that this is not an inbuilt ability due to the fact that children also come to this Earth to heal. We have parents, we are in relationship with others, we learn. To learn is to heal and many times this is a painful process. Whereas many Unschoolers assert that children need to be entirely free to guide themselves, from an anthroposophical (Waldorf) perspective, this is mistaken because each human being comes to earth to learn and heal: we are all wounded. The path through childhood needs then to be guided by compassionate adults who can aid the child in his/her journey of healing.

One of the most important aspects of the healing mission of Waldorf education is its recognition of the need for something as complex and as simple as rhythm. Especially in the first seven years of childhood, there is a great need for mindfulness on the parent-teacher’s part for the rhythm of in-breath and out-breath throughout the days, weeks, and seasons of the child’s life. All living beings on this Earth live and grow in rhythm–the Cosmos itself expresses rhythm (see my in-depth video on this subject in our Bookstore).

Being outside is an out-breath. All children need to be outside every day and in all weather. They need to feel cold and wet and hot and dry. They need to climb trees and rocks, they need to play in mud, in a stream, in piles of raked leaves. There is absolutely no question about that. But–but–there is, I would say, a serious pedagogical question about how that necessary out-breath of being outdoors is balanced with the equally necessary in-breath of being inside, in a held and lovingly ensouled home (or possibly classroom for children who go to school–not quite as desirable as home, but a really good Waldorf teacher can ensoul his classroom very thoroughly).

My family lived for a number of years in a Camphill Community (intentional communities where differently -abled people live and work together). These communities work out of the most mindful aspects of curative education, of Waldorf education, which speaks deeply to the needs of each human soul as she incarnates on this Earth.

One of the greatest lessons I learned while I worked there was how to ensoul a home and how absolutely fundamental this ensouling was to the well-being of the developmentally handicapped folks I lived with (and for the young 20-something volunteers as well).

Everyone reading this knows what an ensouled home feels like–it is a home that is held and loved with awareness and where the soul of one of the people who lives there, usually the homemaker, carries, permeates and warms that home. Everyone has had the experience of walking into a home–that feels like a house, where people pass through it but do not live and play and laugh and cry together. An ensouled home has a therapeutic aspect to it–it nurtures those who live there and those who visit. Time is an important aspect to developing ensoulment, giving enough time to the individuals and to the relationships within that home.

In Camphill, we all worked–some worked on the land, some in various workshops, some in the home. When those outside the home came into the home,  they could breathe into the ensouled strength of that home–they could take an in-breath and relax. They had been out of the home, in an out-breath. The simple rhythm between this in- and out-breath carried and nurtured all of us.

We live in an increasingly dark and dangerous world. The impulse to be in Nature and to love it is one of the most noble and important we can embrace. But the fact remains that every human being needs healing–and to be able to develop one’s ‘I’ so one can act in the world, be able to meet others and have the strength to also act out of love and not fear, requires that childhood be as healing a time as possible. Working with rhythm is an important part of that. There is much to be admired about Waldorf Forest kindergartens (and I am not at all keen about non Waldorf forest kindergartens as most have a very strong precocious learning element to them which is entirely misplaced for young children) but without the equally strong presence of ensouled, loving indoor spaces–homes– I think that much of their potential as agents of healing is lost.

NB–our new kindergarten publication, First Steps on the Journey, at Home with Children 3–6 (available end of February, beginning of March) has a lot more information about working with rhythm and understanding how to bring the benefit of the in-and out-breath to one’s children.

Posted on February 11, 2020 in Kindergarten (and pre-K)

  • Mo says:

    Thank you for this post; it echoes several of my concerns too. However, sometimes the ideal option isn’t available to us as parents. My youngest child does spend two mornings per week at an outdoor kindergarten. My eldest went to a lovely Waldorf kindergarten part-time and, although I wanted the same for my youngest, we moved house (out of necessity) and the area we now live in has no Waldorf kindergarten within a reasonable distance. I’m in the UK and know that Waldorf education is just unavailable to many due to cost / location, and that full-time home education is also not possible for every family. Although the Forest School model does not match my values so closely as Waldorf, it matches them more closely than “mainstream” nurseries, hence my choice!
    Personally I then make sure I am then bringing Waldorf ideas, values and practices into our home life outside of those two mornings per week. (For example, afternoons following those mornings are usually an indoor “breathing in” time with gentle play, stories and craft). It’s not perfect, but my circumstances are not!
    I really enjoyed your insights about living in a Camphill community. I would love to do this. However, in the UK just as our government agencies seem to be determined to shut down Waldorf schools, I have heard that they have been making things difficult for several Camphill communities too. 🙁
    Thanks again for your interesting and thought-provoking post.

  • Andrea G says:

    Being outdoors all day does not equate with no rhythm. Agree! that rhythm and an ensouled community-space are essential. This can easily be accomplished outdoors. Many Waldorf schools have established all-outdoor programs that include a strong predictable rhythm of in and out breath while still being in the outdoors.

  • Donna Simmons says:

    Hi Andrea,
    Of course any good Waldorf forest kindie program will have its rhythms–perhaps I was not clear enough that of course it is possible to create rhythms of a kind. However, a recent conversation with several of my colleagues who are eurythmists helped me clarify my thoughts on this–the outdoors is one big etheric outbreath. Being outside is being in the etheric realm–and thus it is much, much harder to help the children experience an inbreath if they do not have specific times indoors. BTW these eurythmists are also very concerned about having tiny children outside all day long as well. I was very interested to hear their perspective.

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