Teaching Among the Trees

Winter story time at Cedarsong Nature School (Credit: Karen Olsen)

Winter story time at Cedarsong Nature School (Credit: Karen Olsen)

State and national forests are often used as outdoor classrooms, but in some places, the forest isn’t just a classroom: it’s the school itself! These outdoor schools — designed for young children, usually ages three to five — are called “forest kindergartens” or, in German, “waldkindergartens.”

“Waldkinder” means “children of the forest,” and in Europe, waldkindergartens abound with many such programs having no building at all. Forest kindergartens are especially popular in Germany, where there are now approximately 450 such programs, some partially supported by the government.

Cedarsong Nature School was the first school in the United States to open a forest kindergarten. This nonprofit school located on Vashon Island near Seattle was founded by naturalists and childhood educators Erin Kenny and Robin Rogers. Kenny, now principal of Cedarsong, says that she is “passionate about connecting our youngest children with nature so that they can develop early a lifelong compassion for the natural world.” These children, she notes, “will grow up to be our next forest stewards.”

While there were some concerns, at first, about how parents and children would respond to the idea of a school without a ceiling or walls, the response to Cedarsong has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s currently a waiting list — this in spite of the fact that indoors is not an option. Rain or shine — and on Vashon Island, there’s a lot of rain — children are outdoors the entire time. They come prepared with raincoats, mittens, hats and rubber boots.

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shan palmer