Waldkindergartens, or Life in the Forest Schools

I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden or Life in the Woods (1854)


We went to the woods of Freiburg because we wanted to know about Waldkindergartens, those schools where children between three and six spend every day outdoors, running, rolling about, climbing up trees, playing with sticks and leaves, getting knee-deep in mud, and discovering all forms of life however tiny they may be.

At Waldkindergartens you will not find toys, desks, blackboards, nor homework. There is 'only' fresh air, space to gaze into the horizon, soil, rocks, plants and animals, rain, wind, silence. At this age, no Maths lesson can be better than to fill your hands with soil, and nothing is as valuable as learning to appreciate the simplest of things.

Some of you may be wondering how these kids can spend the whole day out in the open, what if it rains or if it's cold outside? They might get their clothes soiled or fall from a tree! Don't they even have a proper toilet? Those precisely were the doubts José Manuel had –he is Spanish and father to twin girls whom we met on our visit to the Waldkindergarten directed by Simone Maier-Ruppe, founded in 1996. Overcoming his initial scepticism and, as he himself says, 'deprovintializing' himself, Joe has become an unconditional fan of Waldkindergartens, and feels sorry that this kind of 'nursery' is almost completely unknown in Spain (when Freiburg boasts some 10 and Germany more than 700). His conversion took place when he realized that it's out in the open where his twin girls have been happier.

At Waldkindergarten Wiehre, another forest nursery founded in 2009 by Wolfgang Schmidt, children walk into the forest till they reach a clearing where the group has a hut –which is only used for breakfast when the weather is bad. On the way they will learn, for example, about wild edible plants and their properties, as well as not to take anything with them in order to minimize the impact of their presence in the forest. Oliver, another father who is accompanying his son on his first days at Waldkindergarten Wiehre, points out that his family has always enjoyed being in contact with nature, something which for him is vital to a child's healthy development.

Both Waldkindergrtens we've visited share certain rituals which are repeated every day: forming a circle, the children will welcome each other first thing in the morning, they will sing and dance together and sit down to have breakfast. But the core of all these activities is always free play, in which the children can explore, create and move about as they please. Adults are close by, but they don't guide them. Neither are there commercial toys, at most a bucket and a spade. Because in nature, where every child's creativity is allowed the freedom to fly, anything can become a toy and every stone, leaf or stick can adopt infinite imaginary forms.

At the sight of some girls huddled up in a tree-top, or of a group of boys rolling down the hill-side, it is easy ti understand why this pedagogy promotes balance and psychomotor activities, creativity and autonomy (especially in the case of girls, as a study carried out by Peter Häfner for Heidelberg University has revealed), but there is something perhaps more important than that: Jose and Oliver have both remarked that what strikes them most about forest nurseries is the children's ability to cooperate among themselves and to form close relationships from a very young age, something which other studies have confirmed, even in respect to teenagers and adults: nature enhances cooperation.

In the two days we have spent at these two Waldkindergartens we have been impressed by the serene vitality of the children, their laughter and their curiosity, and by the absence of tension. Jose adds that his two girls would not miss a day at the Wladkindergarten for anything in the world. Maybe because that's the place where they feel they can live each moment deliberately, and discover the truly essential facts of life.


April 8 and 9, 2014