A School Without Walls

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Emily Bazelon thinks American parents and educators could learn a thing or two from an outdoor school in Switzerland for children ages four to seven, profiled in the new documentary School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten:

It’s autumn. A few kids splash through a muddy creek. One boy falls down in the water, gets up, squawks, keeps going. A larger group sits and jumps in a makeshift-looking tent that consists of a tarp hung over a pole, with low walls made from stacked branches. A teacher tootles on a recorder. Later, the teacher describes the daily routine: Singing, story time, eating, and “then the children can play where they want in the forest.” … This is so intuitive to me, given my own kids’ need to move their bodies every other minute, that begging for more outside time is my main refrain at my 10-year-old’s school. I’m mystified by the Atlanta superintendent who said, in scrapping recess, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.” Actually, yes you do.

Rupert Neate talked to an educator in Germany, which has 1,500 such schools, about safety concerns:

Ute Schulte-Ostermann, president of the German Federation of Nature and Forest Kindergartens (BVNW), says there have been no serious injuries beyond the occasional broken leg in the organization’s 20-year history. “There are far fewer accidents than at regular indoor kindergartens because we have fewer walls and softer floors — leaves and mud,” she says. Schulte-Ostermann, who is also a teacher trainer at Kiel’s University of Applied Sciences, says life outdoors toughens the children up, reducing incidents of colds and flus. Head lice outbreaks are also significantly reduced because the children are not confined in an enclosed space. There is however, a much greater risk of contracting Lyme disease from tick bites. Schulte-Ostermann says the risks are outweighed by the “massive” mental and physical benefits of playing outside. “Children who have attended a Waldkindergarten have a much deeper understanding of the world around them, and evidence shows they are often much more confident and outgoing when they reach school.”