When we planned the forest kindergarten it was spring. The woods were still sparse from the winter, but green was showing everywhere — that certain shade of green that summons up something deep within us and makes us want to breathe more deeply, walk more slowly.
When we opened the forest kindergarten it was autumn. The woods were bursting with blackberries and the water in the stream was warm. The children played on the rocks and in the shallow water, making forts out of kudzu vines. The teachers sat in the sand and watched them play, full of joy and wonder at the natural ability of children to find purposeful work in nature.
And now it is winter. Even in Georgia, this means cold days and icy rain. The beavers have retreated to their lodge for the rest of the season, and our favorite game of looking for freshly gnawed stumps has petered out. The children waddle into the woods in layers of warm and waterproof clothes, awkward and round. The teachers’ hats are pulled down over their ears and when they stomp their feet and clap their hands along with the songs and poems at morning circle time, they do so with extra motivation. Geese arrive in honking masses, descending onto the pond and leaving again. Even they look cold.
This is the hardest time of year to send our children outside for the day, and the most important. We have developed what Richard Louv calls an “indoor culture,” in which children are raised to prefer sedentary indoor activities.
Even when our children do spend time outside, it’s usually on a manicured sports field where their actions are directed by adults. And when it rains? Or it’s hot? Or cold? Or windy? We cancel outdoor activities and come inside.
The message our children are getting is crystal clear: nature is not to be trusted. It’s all well and good on mellow, sunny days, but if there’s any risk of discomfort, we’re better off indoors.
Giving our children the opportunity to fall in love with nature may be the most important thing we can do for their own long-term health as well as for the health of our planet.
The consequences are myriad, from bad health, poor eyesight, and sensory processing disorders, to the reality that we are raising a generation who may be unable to value nature and unwilling to protect it. Giving our children the opportunity to fall in love with nature may be the most important thing we can do for their own long-term health as well as for the health of our planet.
So here in the forest kindergarten, our pride and determination are greatest in these winter months. The wind drops as the children enter the forest, and it’s suddenly very quiet. It takes a minute for the other sounds to register — the chirping of the chickadees, the melancholy burble of the stream, the rustling of dry leaves, as fourteen pairs of warm rubber boots tramp along the path. Other sounds will surface soon — the crackle of a warming fire in the fire pit, the hollow thwack of sticks on sticks as forts are built and sword battles fought, the comfortable murmur of children at play, and the occasional delighted shrieks of cold mud in between adventurous toes.
This is winter in the forest kindergarten, and although they don’t know it now, our children will look back on this season as the time they understood that a connection with nature and the natural science of the woods is dependent on nothing more than their willingness to show up.