This February, my family and I are out in all the weathers of an Australian autumn. But last February…
My six-year-old neighbor bounced down the hall from her apartment. It was a blustery morning with rain, hail, and snow, but Anna was the picture of coziness. Her wool sweater was buttoned up high, and strawberry-blonde braids framed her rosy face. “I’m staying home with mom this morning,” she informed me, “Could you please tell Johann?” (Her teacher, my husband.)
I was in the middle of sorting clothes. I had just picked out a pullover, winter jacket, and raincoat for my six-year-old to wear, and I envied the comfortable prospects of her classmate. Anna would not have to go out. She would most likely be quilting with her mom. I could almost smell the hot chocolate, and here I was sending my own daughter out in a downpour that couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be rain or snow, so it was both.
“OK,” I replied. And against my best maternal instincts, I kissed my daughter goodbye and watched her walk to school with her siblings and dad, a comic picture in so many layers of clothes.
At the end of the morning, I called Johann: “How was your outdoor kindergarten class?” He usually leaves the excited-practically-gushing to me, but this time it was his turn: “We’ve never had such terrific sledding! There was a thin layer of ice on the snow and the kids were flying down the hill. It was hard to convince them to come inside.”
The first hour and a half of every morning, Monday through Saturday, Johann takes his eleven kindergarteners out into the forest. This happens on almost every Bruderhof and has for almost a century, because the outdoors is such a rich learning environment. Undirected outdoor play leads to “productive self-activity” which, according to Friedrich Froebel, the kindergarten founder whose philosophy of education inspires our curriculum, is fundamental for true character growth, intellectually and spiritually.
With enough time in the forest, almost effortlessly, children learn balance, coordination, gross and fine motor control. Physical development in turn fosters cognitive development and creativity. There’s an emerging discussion among psychologists and neuroscientists about how to teach kids creative problem solving. Neuropsychologists who study creativity like Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaun Center for the Biology of Creativity in LA, say that children need the freedom to solve problems with no predictable answers. “It’s essential for their futures.”
A few days later I was co-teaching with Johann. The temperature hovered miserably around freezing, but I was the only one who noticed. I parked myself at the classroom exit and inspected each child to make sure they were dressed warmly. (The Free Forest Schools in Europe say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”) The children went sledding, Anna in the lead. Before long, they could slide down the gradually sloped track standing upright on their sleds. (Moderate risk-taking is good for kids, if not for us mothers’ peace of mind.)
On a recent afternoon in the hemlock forest on the far side of the swamp, I saw four boys traipsing up a small stream wielding sticks that were big enough to hunt alligators. But what fascinated me the most was another group of children playing on a large black cherry tree on the bank of a small tributary. They climbed up to a fork in the trunk and launched themselves down the other side. Over and over, each child in turn (or not) would slide down and stop (or not) before falling into a few inches of icy water, then scramble up the muddy bank and wait patiently (or not) for the next wild ride.
I watched them as discreetly as possible and thought about what I’d say to their moms, how to explain the wet muddy clothes, if I should stand in the stream and break their slide, if I should remind them to make enough room for each other, or if I should check that their fingers were still warm.
No. I would refrain from clumsily intruding into their “free republic of childhood” as Froebel describes it. All on their own, in this forest kindergarten classroom without lesson plans or curriculum, they were teaching each other to take risks, take turns, not push, not jump the queue, stop quickly, not climb up the down slide, and that when you are a little too carefree going down, you might get a bump. They were learning persistence, patience, resilience, delayed gratification, endurance, toughness, a love for the wild out-of-doors, and the ability to overcome adversity. These things are hard to learn in our age that prizes comfort, convenience, and safety above all, but are absolutely essential for their futures as human beings.
As my feet turned numb, I thought back to high school Shakespeare and remembered that “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” reflecting on my goal for these children and how to attain it. The experts have proven over and over again that free play – especially outdoors – is the best preparation for academics and adulthood. But I want more than reading readiness for these kids. I want them to be free, independent individuals who one day will have the courage, fortitude, and vision to serve the greatest cause I can think of: the cause of mankind. I do think we can prepare them best for the future in the hemlock woods.