I recently spent a week in Hamburg and Berlin with a study tour for play professionals co-ordinated by ip-dip.com and www.meynellgames.org. The tour took us to scrapstores, adventure playgrounds, public parks and playspaces, community provision, waldkindergarten and green school playgrounds.
For me the Waldkindergarten was an exciting opportunity to compare what happens in Germany with what happens in the UK. On Friday morning we travel to a park on the northern outskirts of Berlin. There is a gathering of parents in the corner of the park; some with smaller babies, some on bikes but all have a child aged between 18 months to 6 years old. Some drop the kids with another parent, some wait as the group gathers. We are at the daily gathering point for Robin Hood WaKiGa or waldkindergarten which began in 2005 as the only English German speaking waldkindergarten in Berlin. The children all meet here but whilst the smaller ones stay in the park the older ones get on the bus to go deeper in the woods, fields and forests.
By the time everyone is gathered there are 23 children about 1/2 of which are in the older group. Some parents are still here and the group goes into a circle. This is in what is clearly their regular spot judging by the clear circle of bare earth where they stand. Christa, the group leader introduces their British guests and they sing some songs whilst waiting for any others to arrive. The parents leave the children here and we follow the older group, the buzzards, to the bus stop across the park leaving the little ones, the sparrows, in the park. Picking up a couple of extra children on the way we have 15 children in total.
On the bus we are briefed not to help the children climb trees or to find the solution for them but allow them to sort out their own problems. Christa gives the example of a new member of staff who came out for the first time and saw a child trying to fish a plastic bag out of the stream with a short stick. The adult gave the child a longer stick and said ‘here try this’. Christa says this experience meant that the child did not get to make the learning that was possible in this situation. There was so much more learning that could have happened without the adults intervention.
We get off the bus and walk through the fields to the wood area. The children walk up to 6km depending in the site they go to (they have a number of sites that are all accessible by bus) As they walk along the road some pick the dandelions and chat to each other. Some are silent. The second we are across the busy main road however there is a rush of children along the track. This stops the second we get to the gate where the best sticks are to be found. Some choose a stick and they run ahead, stopping whenever they get to any crossroad.
At the crossroad, while we are waiting for the others to catch up I get into a lazer fight with Simon who is Princess Leia and his friend who is Darth Vader. I am killed about 20 times.
As they walk along the gravel path lots of the children make patterns with sticks and their hands in the gravel. Christa stops every time anyone shows an interest in anything. There is no expectation they will go quickly.
Some children find small lizards in the grass, one girl carries a lizard across the field to where they have breakfast. Christa asks if them if they can take the lizard back home, so they cross all the way back the field to take him home. The focus is not on what is easiest for the adult but what is right for the child and the environment.
At breakfast everyone gets some of their fruit to put on a shared plate and eats the rest of their breakfast. Each child carries his or her own breakfast, lunch and change of clothes in their rucksack.
As we eat breakfast Christa initiates a conversation about things we can hear. “The birds”, “the traffic”, one boy says a parrot! They try and distinguish different sounds and then one child says he can smell a fox, the group sniff the wind to catch a smell of the fox. Christa goes around the group asking each in turn.
Then she asks them to tell us what they can do in the forest. They say they can play, whittle, climb, throw boomerangs, go by bus, find animal tracks, listen to bird sounds, look at animals, play down by the river side, plant plants at the garden school and ‘do wishing good for the plants’. This relates to something that had happened earlier in the week when they had planted a lot of vegetable seeds in a garden school and the children had sung songs for them and wished the plants well. This was something that was really important to Christa, but she felt that when something was really important to her then the children also really listened and engaged.
One child says they can do a lot of dangerous things in the kindergarten, Christa asks them, “what about the dangerous things; like using a knife, what are the rules?” The children tell us they have to be an arms length and a tool away for whittling, they need to cut away from themselves, you need to put the knife away afterwards. There is lots of talk from the children about how they have had to ask for plasters and how they have cut themselves. The knives they use are small folding opinel knives and these are the only equipment Christa has brought for this session.
Another rule is that children are allowed 1m from the ground for climbing. Although in reality they seem to be much much higher. The smallest girl in the group has climbed up the split tree trunk that runs all the way up from the ground. She is pretty high up and is holding onto a branch that runs vertically up from the trunk. She is there for a very long time, smiling back at first when I smile at her. After a while she starts to look perplexed and a little distressed but not very strongly so I decide to match my interventions with the staff here. She is holding on tightly and frowning. She is sitting like this again for a long time. I am watching some of the bigger girls crossing the small river by shuffling along a pipe, but whenever I turn back she is still in the tree frowning. Then suddenly she shuffles around and gingerly climbs back down.
She is probably a very young 3 year old but has been given space and time to really manage the risks for herself. I think I would have intervened much earlier, probably when she was looking a little upset rather than leaving her to work through it for herself. Similarly I think I would have allowed the shuffling across the pipe but positioned myself much much closer in order to ‘support’ those children. But actually they didn’t need or want this intervention. This makes me reflect on my own intervention and whether I am removing opportunities for problem solving and independence from the children I am working with even though I feel like I allow more than most settings there is still further to go. The children can go out of sight but they can’t go out of ear range and spend a lot of time away from the adults with each other or by themselves.
Christa says, “the children have a deep level of learning, they notice things that other children are not even aware of.” She is right in this, Dave was walking with a boy who is chatting with him, Dave watches as the child turns to pick up an interesting stick to show him even though the stick was in the opposite direction to where the child was facing. It is this level of awareness and peripheral vision that is really interesting and I am struck by how the outdoors and woodland environment encourages this.
I like the way Christa describes why she lets the children work things out for themselves. “When you know the answer, the in-box on your head gets closed. So teaching is like a trickster.” She gives an example of finding some badger tracks, the children did not know what they were, but made many suggestions including rabbit and giraffes, talking all the time about size and shape and type of tracks. Later she showed them a book about a badger but without linking this to seeing the badger tracks, when the children looked at the footprint again they then had another possible answer which they connected together for themselves.
“Learning is about learning to learn rather than learning to count. The children will learn to count in school, but in Kindergarten if they do what they will be doing in school their motivation for learning will go down.”
She tells us about instances of differences with parents in the past. When it rained some parents wanted the children to stay inside and learn English, this wasn’t felt to be supporting the ethos of the project and “it is this sort of non agreement within a cooperative which makes projects stuck.” The pedagogues felt frustrated as their expertise wasn’t being valued in this decision making process.When the project originally set up some parents could not deal with all the mud and because the project was working as a cooperative the project split into two.
The waldkindergarten pedagogy started in the 90’s in Germany with some kindergartens that didn’t have a place to work from…
“Except maybe a caravan, but you are only allowed to take care of children for 5 hours with a caravan, for any longer there are so many regulations. So this wasn’t possible with a caravan, but when parents have long day at work, they need to have kindergarten for longer.”
Waldkindergarten’s in Germany examined the legislation and realised that without a building there weren’t the same issues. So now they work most of the time in the open air. If it rains they move into the bushes and all the children have warm clothes and waterproofs.
“In a room everything is very loud, outside you work with nature and you don’t have to tidy up.”
The Waldkindergarten don’t ask permission to use the land. They make sure they leave as they found it and try and work with a deep respect to nature. From the kindergarten many children go into mainstream school. There is a nature school locally and one of the ex-kindergarten child who goes to the nature school told Christa “Today I learnt my multiplication up to 200, then to relax I went outside and made a fire.”
The waldkindergarten movement draws strength from a few German writers and supporters like Andreas Weiber who Christa says is Germany’s equivalent of Richard Louv. Much of the work they do draws on the work of Gerald Hüeters research on the brain. There has been some research comparing kindergartens to waldkindergarten. And the developmental outcomes for children are seen to be very good. For example more than 20% of children going into school from mainstream kindergarten can’t move in a backwards direction. The recent Pisa report comparing educational outcomes across the countries has caused a shake up in Germany which was seen to be doing quite badly. This means it is quite hard to put forward the wood pedagogy as the decision makers didn’t make the connection between how well the Swedish and Danish did and the outdoor pedagogy in those countries. But instead they are putting the pressure onto schools, which in turn falls onto the kindergarten and preschools. This report was part of what influenced the policy that has extended the length of the school day. Parents pay €60 per month per child. There isn’t a rule about how many adults need with a group. It can be one in the first and last hour. In the beginning they took lots of things, tools and resources and shelters for when it rained. Now they bring nothing but a few tools and maybe a bit of string but everything else they can make.
In this WaKiGa the spiritual connection to nature is particular to Christa and her connection with wilderness and mother earth. She is inspired by Tom Brown Jr, Coyote teaching, the wilderness pedagogy and recent training with John Young who has been making contact with the wilderness schools in Germany and is now coming to England She describes it as ‘making strings to nature’.
“When you see a mole you make a thin string, when you get closer to it it makes a stronger rope. This gives you a level of resilience.”
During the time while the adults sit and talk, children pop over and check in with Christa regularly. “look Christa, my sock is wet.” “ah, so it is!” The childshows Christa her wet socks then goes back to play, “A lot of teachers would have taken the sock off, that’s not what she wanted she wanted to show me and have body contact.” The children are very relaxed during the session. Christa says she lets them walk until they have ‘let their power out.’ When they are calm they have breakfast otherwise it wil be a tricky day. When it is windy they walk more, one morning when they had lots of excess energy they went to the pond and hit the ice until all the energy was out.
Whilst we are sitting in the breakfast circle on of our group, Claire is fiddling with a stick in the grass. One of the oldest boys notices and we have a conversation about sticks; ‘stock’ in German, a language game develops, pointing to our three sticks; “stock stock stick. Stock, stick stick. Stock, stick, stock.” This develops into digging at the long grass with sticks, which then develops into a farming game, raking the dead grass like hay. The boy co-opts two of my colleagues into the game telling them when they can have a break and stop for coffee. Another boy in his peer age group comes over and is invited to join the ‘work’ a much smaller girl wants to join in too and us given a stick to work with. He spends the whole morning at this work and creates big pile of grass which he surrounds with sticks.
When Christa wants to call the children together she calls out “Cuckoo cuckoo.” The children respond. We have to leave so we scramble and slip across the stream and up the bank back to the road. The children are staying there a bit longer before heading back to their building for lunch and the afternoon. But first they want to bury the mole found by the big tree. The mole looks like it has been killed by a bird of prey. One girl finds there are number of organs and bits of fluff stuck to the tree above. They sniff the dead mole, examining it’s wounds, looking at it’s teeth, one boy is fascinated by the size of it’s feet which he uses to dig the ground with.They are going to make grave for the mole.
Read my journal from Hamburg and Berlin here: Mobily trip journal