This award winning documentary by Lisa Molomot and Rona Richter is set in the town of Langnau am Albis in Switzerland where parents of 4 to 7 year olds can choose to send their child to the conventional indoor kindergarten or to an equivalent in the forest. The curriculum in these state run institutions is the same, with no reading, writing or mathematics being explicitly taught but in the Wald (forest) Kindergarten, children aged 4 to 7 are outside all day, every day whatever the weather. Listening to the parents featured in the film, it was interesting that choosing the forest setting is perhaps not such an oppositional choice as it is for some in the UK where parents are perhaps not just opting for outdoor immersion but for a totally different pedagogy and attitude to childhood.
With an hypnotic glockenspiel soundtrack, the opening scenes show the Kindergarten children walking to the bus stop and then with kindergarten leader to forest. Children’s voices take prominence in the first part of the film as they confidently show the audience around their forest kindergarten with its forest sofa, bag store, compost toilet, stream and climbing tree. After the session we follow the children home and see Cedric aged 4 walking home on his own from the bus stop and letting himself into his building with his own key before meeting his mum at the door of their apartment. Over lunch they chat about what he likes best during the day- surprise surprise it is splashing in puddles.
The film contrasts the Swiss Wald Kindergarten with an early years setting in the United States. The curriculum is much more formal and the frustration of the teacher about the highly structured day is evident. Both the Swiss and American practitioners show the same understanding of the importance of outdoor physical play, risk taking and choice making but I felt sorry for the American teacher who was hamstrung by the structural constraints in the education system and the societal focus on outcomes and narrow measures of ‘success’.
The Wald Kindergarten has definite elements of structure to the day with story-time, craft activities, snack-time etc. but the emphasis in the video is on free play with minimal adult intervention. Mud kitchen play features but with a low key, minimal infrastructure approach rather than the elaborate pallet and kitchen sink constructions increasingly found in many UK settings. The children in the film are exhibiting the same behaviours that we would expect to see at a long term forest school programme in the UK. All the elements of children’s activity and play in the forest are evident with rope swings, sawing, hammering, whittling with their own swiss army knives,weaving, climbing, wading in streams, small world play, climbing, making fire,sliding in the snow, singing, balancing, cooking and much more.
Parents from a variety of cultural backgrounds talk about their own fears and hopes for their children and explain very clearly why risk taking and play in the outdoors are vital for the growth and development of their children.
So what are the lessons from this Forest Kindergarten?
For the new comer to this form of education, the lessons are really all about the benefits of an outdoor, child focused early education as opposed to an indoor, structured setting. For the outdoor experiential educator, there may be other things of interest to do with the specific environment, the capacity of the children and the role of the adults in the setting.
For me it was a useful reminder of just how neurotic and dogmatic some forest school practice can be in the UK. Some UK forest school practitioners might balk at some of the scenes in the film such as the unsupervised tool use and the group management around the fire but we need to make longer sessions and longer programmes the norm here so that we can develop trust in the children’s ability to manage themselves, relax and let the children get on with it a bit more.
The video may leave some questions unanswered for the UK forest educator such as the approach to ecological impact and the funding, management bureaucracy behind the setting. Of course this was not the point of the film and would make for pretty boring viewing so I will just need to find a way to visit and find out for myself.
Overall this is a really uplifting and inspiring film which challenges us as a society to look at out early education system and to find a way to facilitate this sort of experience for more of out children. It challenges parents to think about what their children really need and question the whole idea of ‘school readiness’. It challenges outdoor educators to think about their role and their personal attitudes to competence, risk and challenge.
Despite being only 36 minutes long, this film is well worth the price of 20 Euro and I would especially recommend it to managers of early years settings as inspiration for them and their staff. For me this was a gentler, more subtle and much more powerful film than Project Wild Thing and it deserves at least as big an audience of educators, parents and policy makers in the UK and elsewhere.
I’d encourage you to watch the trailer above and visit www.schoolsoutfilm.com to purchase the film.
12.01.16 UPDATE – Twitter tells me that you can also rent the film via Vimeo on demand