Jun 1, 2017

Importance of Outdoor Playtime Emphasized in Unconventional Preschools Around the World

In a society that has an increasing reliance on technology, it seems people need to be reminded how therapeutic -- and perhaps even necessary -- spending time outside in nature can be. Prior generations of kids used to spend hours outdoors, but parents today are lucky if they can coax their children (or themselves) away from the TV or computer screen. After all, 97% of those aged 18 to 24 have cell phones, and the number of kids with access to tablets, smartphones, and laptops continues to grow.

Now, some preschools around the world are finding a unique solution that encourages children to get outside and away from their gadgets.

In Germany, the answer is known as "waldkitas," or "forest kindergartens." The country has upwards of 1,500 of these outdoor preschools which encourage learning through wilderness play. It may sound like new-age hooey to some naysayers, but there's evidence to show that the approach has a positive effect on kids.

The concept behind the forest school movement is that their methods promote a healthy relationship between children and the natural world around them. But evidence suggests that these schools encourage both an appreciation for nature and important developmental concepts. In 2003, a Ph.D. dissertation showed that graduates of these German forest kindergartens had a distinct advantage over those who attended primary education programs indoors. These children not only performed better in terms of cognitive and physical ability, but they also had higher levels of social development and creativity.

Germany is unique in that it has three times as much protected land, proportionate to its size, as compared to the United States. The general sense is that Germans give more thought to nature and the role it plays in its residents' emotional and physical health, especially for children.

Pico Peters, who works at Robin Hood Waldkindergarten, just one of these outdoor schools, noted to The New York Times, "It's terrible that kids today know all about technology but nothing about the little bird outside their window. In life, bad things happen -- you lose your job or your partner or everyone just hates you -- but you'll always have this."

Germany may have a large number of these outdoor kindergartens, but they're emerging in the U.K, too. And while the educational systems in Japan and South Korea are notoriously strict, surprisingly, waldkitas are becoming popular there, as well.

In Ireland, there's a push for primary schools to adapt a similar model. A recent Growing Up in Ireland study found that 25% of three-year-olds were overweight. Authors feel that an overabundance of screen time is probably a contributing factor and that measures need to be taken to combat technological dependence and obesity.

As a result, outdoor and forest preschools are being opened throughout the Irish countryside. One of them, called the Nature Kindergarten, is an entirely outdoor experience that happens rain or shine. Children explore, play, and develop outdoors in a way that's otherwise barred from their experience, given society's growing love of screens.

Not only does this method help with the children's social, emotional, and physical development, but those who run the school say it actually makes their immune systems stronger.

Sarah Quinn, who works with the kindergarten's parent company, Park Academy Childcare, told Irish Times, "We have very little illness because there is a good bacterium found in the soil which helps boost their immune system and because they are in the fresh air all the time, what little sickness we do get doesn't spread."

She went on to say that their activities build up their resilience and decision-making skills that will help them throughout their lives -- something many children don't seem to be getting.

"Nowadays children are so protected from harm that they rarely have to look at a situation and determine if it is safe and if not, decide how they can make it safe or should it be avoided -- because all these decisions are made by an adult. But they should be able to self-risk assess for their own safety both now and in the future."

The country recently formed the Irish Forest School Association, which will hold its inaugural annual conference to discuss how to grow their exposure and give more children the chance to get involved in outdoor life.

In America, though, there's likely still a stigma about forgoing formal public or private education to let your children run wild in the forest. Around three-fourths of young children in the U.S. participate in a preschool program. But unlike preschool tuition in Berlin, which is completely covered by the government, American preschools can cost as much as (or more than) a parent might make in a given year. Still, some schools are trying to make a natural change.

The Sprouts preschool program in Unity, Maine is provided by Broadreach Family and Community Services to give young kids -- many of whom have behavioral or developmental problems -- a chance to learn through nature. The program is essentially child-led, based on their interests. While some were skeptical at the onset, the program now has around 40 children involved. But while Sprouts does receive some state funding due to the high percentage of special needs children enrolled, parents do have to pay tuition.

But nature-based preschools are more popular in the U.S. than forest kindergartens are. There are around 180 of them throughout the nation today.

The difference for countless kids is like night and day, according to parents and teachers. At a time when ADD seems to be at an all-time high and technology couldn't be more popular, nature serves as a foil that actually provides relief for both students and parents. However, outdoor preschools probably won't become the American norm anytime soon. Until then, experts recommend parents do everything they can to ensure their children get plenty of outdoor playtime and take a break from their screens.

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