“The research strongly suggests that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves; reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calm children, and help them focus,” Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods and co-founder of the Children and Nature Network, said in an email. “There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying. It can also be a buffer to child obesity and overweight, and offers other psychological and physical health benefits.”
Improved cognitive functioning, Louv added, has been associated with nature-based learning for years. For a recent example, he pointed to a 6-year study involving more than 900 public elementary schools in Massachusetts, in which researchers found a link “between the greenness of the school in the spring (when most Massachusetts students take the [state-wide] tests) and school-wide performance on both English and Math tests, even after adjustment for socioeconomic factors and urban residency.”
Time spent in nature, according to Louv, is “obviously not a cure-all” for children, however, he suggested to me that something like a forest kindergarten could “be an enormous help, especially for kids who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control.”
After observing the Finnish forest kindergarten for an hour and a half, I knew I had seen something magical, but I couldn’t help but think that this sort of arrangement was so far from being realized in most American kindergartens, where play-based learning has significantly decreased, and young children typically spend many hours inside one cinderblock classroom, on a daily basis.
Still, I wanted to know: What would it look like to bring the forest kindergarten concept to a public-school setting in America, where unlike Finland, such things as standards and benchmarks exist?
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In the spring of 2013, Eliza Minnucci was teaching kindergarten at the Ottauquechee School in Quechee, Vermont, when her principal invited the staff to watch a documentary called School’s Out about a forest kindergarten in Switzerland—similar to the one I visited in Finland. At the conclusion of the film, Minnucci blurted out, “I’d do that in a heartbeat!” Those words caught the attention of her principal.
A few days later, Minnucci met with her principal and he pitched the idea of beginning an initiative called “Forest Friday,” where she would take her kindergartners into the woods, for an entire day once a week. Minnucci loved the plan, and she teamed up with a former student-teacher of hers, Meghan Teachout, who shared her enthusiasm for forest kindergartens. Later, Teachout received a grant to visit weekly as the paid “forest teacher,” and in the fall of 2013, they launched Forest Friday.
Since then, Minnucci and Teachout’s efforts may have sparked a small movement among New England educators. Recently, over a dozen nearby schools have implemented something similar to Forest Friday, according to Minnucci. Through Antioch University New England’s department of education, Minnucci and Teachout teach a year-long course for 20 teachers on the subject of nature-based education. Also, Minnucci and Teachout—who both have young children—work as paid forest teachers at the Ottauquechee School, assisting two kindergarten classrooms to keep a forest day once each week. (They maintain a website, too, called ForestKinder, where they’re regularly contacted by teachers around the world who seek advice in launching similar initiatives.)