Our children are in grave danger of losing connection with nature and the four elements. The emphasis in American schools is on computer skills and literacy. Some programs say they bring children outside for a good while, but when pressed the reality is the children are going outside for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes a day and only if the weather is good.
In fact, a whole best selling book has been written about this topic. It is called “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. I highly encourage you to read this book for the sake of your children.
.Our European friends are attempting to do something about this. In Scandinavia and Germany, there has been a recent explosion of Kindergarten programs that take place in the woods all day – not just that the children go outside for part of the day, but that the children literally have their program outside. I have a friend who experimented with this at home and you can read about her experience on her blog at this link: http://naturesrhythm.blogspot.com/2008/11/wood-kindergarten.html
Mothering Magazine (www.mothering.com) recently covered the topic of forest kindergarten programs in the article, “Forest For A Classroom” by Andrea Mills in the November-December 2009 issue. In this article, Ms. Mills writes: “American parents and educators can learn a lot from the Waldkindergarten. The media ensure that American families are plagued by fears of strangers, bug, sharp items, and other threats, both real and imagined. Technology makes it more likely that our children will be spending their free time plugged into TV’s, computers, or other media.”
The only forest preschool program I am aware of in the United States is the one Marsha Johnson runs in Portland, Oregon. If anyone knows of any others, please leave it in the comment section for me.
We recently spent several hours outside at a Nature Center. Typically attendance slows down in the winter months because not every family feels the way we do – that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes. Despite the chill in the air, we got outside every day for 2 to 4 hours. It is that important to the life of a small child (and to the grown-ups as well!).
Here are a few excellent reasons to get your children out more:
“The four elements, earth, water, air and fire, are the basic elements which children are nourished by and from which they grow. No shaped toys-be they wood or plastic-can compete with these materials. The seriousness with which the children play, the deep concentration speaks for itself, and shows how important this “playing” is. Nobody needs to fight about anything –there is plenty of mud for everybody.” –You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, page 184
“Young children are close to the realm of nature because they are natural beings. Because their consciousness is not yet parted from the environment, because they still live in the consciousness of oneness, of unity, they still belong to the natural world…..The process of separating from the parents and from the environment buds only around age seven..” -Heaven On Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children, Sharifa Oppenheimer, page 99.
Rudolf Steiner wanted the children to be able to connect to and feel at home on the land, to feel at one with the cycles of the year and the cycles of night and day, to really care for the land and he wanted the children to be able to work together socially and value the work that was done before them so that the children understood we all depend on the work of others (Adapted from -Gardening With Children Audio CD, informedfamilylife.org).
So, if you are trying to think about creating your own playspace, perhaps in your backyard or somewhere wild you have access to , here are some thoughts of things to include:
-flat grassy areas
-a hill of some sort
-natural screens (bushes, hedges, places to hide)
-play structures – tipis, igloos, houses. Sharifa Oppenheimer talks about letting your child add things to the igloo or tipi structure – give hints for adding things to the structure – “When I was a small girl, we used to put pine needles on the floor as a carpet.” Or “I wonder what it would be like to put a few seashells around the outside, as decoration.” – page 102, Heaven On Earth
.-classic structures such as swings, slides, seesaws, hammocks
-mud play – digging is important
-sensory play area inside or outside…….Some children need these sensory areas and inputs more than others. Waldorf kindergartens rarely have a “sensory table” available, but this may be something to work with at home, and it could be a way to bring the outside in if you have no yard. I have a dear friend who taught in a traditional three year old classroom for over ten years before having children of her own, and she volunteerd some of her wonderful sensory table ideas as follows –For example, a sensory table could be filled with:
sand-add water, shells, sticks, (sand will mold if it left very wet and covered), animals
beans-start with one kind and over time add different varieties-
water-add color, bubbles, funnels, waterwheel, clear plastic containers of all sizes, animals
soil-add rocks, sticks, acorns, etc. It is fun to add in lima beans or corn kernels as they will start to sprout in the moist soil when left for a few days
For autumn-Indian corn, acorns, seed pods, colorful leaves, pine cones, cranberries
Winter-build dens from bark, there are directions for making snow in the Earthways book, wooden snowflakes, ice cubes (freeze a dish of water for pond)
Spring-soil, seeds, small gardening tools, new leaves, flowers from trees, buds to explore
Summer-water, sand, green plants, wild flowers,
Thank you to my dear friend!
Think about equipment:
-small shovels, rakes, wagon, basket of tools (including hammers, wrenches, paintbrushes, pliers, nails), nails half driven into a log or stump for the children to hammer. There are also more ideas in that little book Toymaking With Children.
how about using your GARDEN as a playspace?
-“Care of plant life is a fundamental lesson in outdoor play.” -from Heaven On Earth
-Make a child-sized scarecrow in the fall or even early spring as you are planting
-Choose seeds that have a short time until maturity – lettuce, radishes, berries, snow peas
-try potatoes, pumpkins, corn
-make a bean tipi
-think about gardening with bees and butterflies in mind, with night blooming flowers for the moths
-encourage backyard wildlife – bird feeders, bird baths, bird houses, squirrel feeders, bat house, hummingbird feeders, owl houses, toad hotels
-Think of exploring the garden with all 12 senses!
Steiner discussed the importance of agriculture within the Waldorf curriculum, and “Being a teacher, we should avoid botanizing, taking the botany drum into class and showing the plants to the students. We should rather take the children outside to really emphasize the understanding of the context between the plant kingdom, the earth and the radiant sun.” – Steiner, Dornach, 1921-22. (Gardening usually occurs between the 6th and 10th grades as a yearly subject, but more and more Waldorf teachers are bringing beekeeping, composting, gardening etc into their classrooms as early as Kindergarten and First Grade).
Bring the Outdoors Inside!
-Try raising tadpoles, butterflies, praying mantis, ant farms, ladybug houses
-Try bringing play equipment inside – swings and small trampolines
-Try container gardening inside
-Try sprouting sunflower seeds and other seeds and beans
Other Major Ways to Connect Your Child to Nature:
Spend time outside every day, no matter what the weather – there is no bad weather, only bad clothes!
If you take a daily walk, focus on exploration, not distance, and have a basket to collect small treasures
Assign parts in fairy tales to dramatize which include the natural elements of the story – ie, children can be the trees, streams, etc. in different tales.
Celebrate FESTIVALS (see blog post regarding Changing Your Rhythm with the Seasons).
Celebrate the moon and phases of the moon – some Waldorf teachers have made hats with the moon phases on it for different fairy tales where a moon phase is mentioned
Have a color of the month that connects it to nature – ie, March is the color green and grow wheat grass on your nature table
Which of course, leads to the inevitable :Have a nature table!
Celebrate the elemental beings – gnomes who take care of the earth, fairies, etc. in circle time or fairy tales
Think about joining a CSA or going to farmer’s markets so children can meet farmers, beekeepers and other folks who work with nature and love it!
Crafts should involve natural items, playthings as well!
Experiences with Nature connect us with the Mysteries of Life and help the young child learn wonder, awe, reverence and respect!
For More Ideas See the Following Books, CD’s and DVD’s:
-Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots – Sharon Lovejoy
-Sunflower Houses – Sharon Lovejoy
-Gardening Classes At The Waldorf Schools – Krause
-Gardening With Children: The Waldorf Curriculum – Carolyn Brown, Audio CD from the Children, Nature and Us Conference -Available from www.informedfamilylife.org
-“Creating a “Kindergarden” for Young Children by Betty Peck, DVD from the Children, Nature and Us Conference – Available from www.informedfamilylife.org
Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.