For Forest Kindergartners, Class Is Back to Nature, Rain or Shine
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*/For Forest Kindergartners, Class Is Back to Nature, Rain or Shine/*
By LIZ LEYDEN
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. --- Fat, cold droplets splashed from the sky as
the students struggled into their uniforms: rain pants, boots, mittens
and hats. Once buttoned and bundled, they scattered toward favorite
spaces: a crab apple tree made for climbing, a cluster of bushes forming
a secret nook under a willow tree, a sandbox growing muddier by the minute.
They planted garlic bulbs, discovered a worm. The rain continued to
fall. It was 8:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and the Waldorf School's
"forest kindergarten" was officially in session.
Schools around the country have been planting gardens and planning ever
more elaborate field trips in hopes of reconnecting children with
nature. The forest kindergarten at the Waldorf School of Saratoga
Springs is one of a handful in the United States that are taking that
concept to another level: its 23 pupils, ages 3 ½ to 6, spend three
hours each day outside regardless of the weather. This in a place where
winter is marked by snowdrifts and temperatures that regularly dip below
The new forest kindergarten, which opened here in September, is an
extreme version of the outdoor learning taught at more than 100 Waldorf
schools, all but a handful of them private, scattered throughout the
United States. They are based on the teachings of the Austrian
philosopher Rudolf Steiner and emphasize the arts and the natural world,
with no formal academic curriculum until first grade.
"I loved the idea of her being outside every day," said Kim Lytle, whose
3-year-old, aptly named Forest, is the youngest in the class. "If you
have the proper gear, I think it's a really healthy thing to experience
the elements and brave the world --- and not just on a sunny day."
The children's "classroom" is 325 acres of state parkland known as the
Hemlock Trail, and a long-empty farmhouse, which the state has licensed
Waldorf to use for the year. The school also has regular indoor classes
at its main building.
On this day in the fledgling program, whose tuition is about $7,000, the
rain did not taper off, yet the kindergartners remained outside until
lunch. Circle time --- songs and dancing --- took place in the center of
a field, behind a farmhouse, followed by a snack of apples and pineapple
chunks at picnic tables. The children cut bittersweet vine to make
wreaths, splashed in puddles, and, in the sandbox, did some imaginary
"We're making something that's cheesy," said one girl.
"It's cookies," said a boy.
Max Perez, nearly 5, carried a bucket to the swampy edges of the field
and scooped up some water. He and the others mixed the sand into gobs of
glorious mud. After an hour, Max paused, peering out from his wet hat,
and asked, "Is it raining today?"
In some ways, the program is not unlike other kindergartens. Signs
declaring a peanut-free zone are taped throughout the farmhouse. There
are bruised feelings and scuffles and potty jokes. But the biggest
challenge is one not found in traditional classrooms: ticks, lots of them.
Though virtually unknown in the United States, forest kindergartens are
increasingly common in Scandinavia and other European countries like
Germany and Austria.
Sigrid D'Aleo and Carly Lynn, two Waldorf teachers, proposed adding one
in Saratoga Springs because, over the years, they had seen students at
their best when outdoors.
"Their large motor skills developed, they worked out their social issues
in a better way, they had more imaginative play," Ms. D'Aleo said.
"Children's senses are so overtaxed in these modern times, so here, it
is very healthy for them."
Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," a book arguing that
children have suffered from diminished time outside, said he had heard
similar things from educators around the country.
"It helps us use all our senses at the same time," he said. "It seems to
be the optimum state of learning, when everything is coming at us in
lots of different ways."
Alane Chinian, regional director of the New York State Office of Parks,
Recreation and Historic Preservation, said of the Waldorf school's use
of the Hemlock Trail: "We are delighted to have them there. It expands
our mission and furthers the park's goals of providing nature education
Here in Saratoga Springs, the children crossed into the forest at
midmorning, greeted by the rich smell of earth and leaves. A fallen
branch had created an arch to climb through as if they were entering a
hidden place straight out of a storybook.
Trails had been worn through the thickets. An old stone wall ran through
the center of the trees toward huge tepees the children had built from
sticks and vines.
Everywhere, there were things to discover. A branch balanced on a split
tree trunk became a seesaw. A teacher sawed thick stumps into logs the
children used to bridge bogs. A pit became a monster house, complete
with boys standing in the rain shouting warnings: "You don't want to
come over here! You'll get smushed!"
Piper Whalen, 5, turned toward her own treasure: an enormous fallen
tree. She climbed on and lifted her arms. "I'm riding a roller coaster,"
she said. "Come on and ride with me."
The raindrops continued to fall until, finally, it poured, hard enough
to splash though the canopy of trees. The children were delighted.
"It's wet!" exclaimed one.
"My hair is getting a drink of water!" another said.
Piper began to laugh. She stuck out her tongue and turned her face
toward the sky.
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