(Cedarsong promotes environmental stewardship in young children. Photo (CC BY-SA): Karen Olsen / Cedarsong Nature School)
For four hours a day, a group of preschool children and their teachers in Washington State head into a forest. Rain, snow, or shine, the children are free to run, play, climb, explore, sit quietly, or play musical instruments. The teachers are there to support children’s natural curiosities and exploration.
This nontraditional school setting in the northwestern United States is Cedarsong Nature School, a Forest Kindergarten on Vashon Island. Opened in 2008, Cedarsong is a model Forest Kindergarten program, designed to connect children with the natural world and their place in it.
“My impetus for starting this type of program was to nurture the bond with nature that children are born with,” says Cedarsong founder Erin Kenny. “This leads to environmental stewardship. People who are disconnected from nature don’t care if the ancient forests are being cut down – they don’t care that the Amazon rainforest is being cut down. It doesn’t affect them.”
The Forest Experience
Cedarsong takes place on five acres of undeveloped forestland. Parents drop children, ages two to six, off at the trailhead in the morning. The group walks into a camp area where there’s a firepit, buckets, shovels, musical instruments, and magnifying glasses. There are no toys—the children rely on their own creativity.
Meeting at the same location day after day, season after season, allows children to bond intimately with the land. They notice when new plants come up and can observe entire lifecycles of species. There’s a picnic shelter and table, a composting toilet, and a storage shed for snacks, extra clothing, and emergency supplies. There is no indoor school space.
“For four hours, we just help the children manage if they’re having any discomfort,” says Kenny. “There’s nowhere to retreat. If they start getting a little shivery, we can just put another layer on them.”
For Elizabeth Fitterer, Cedarsong provided an alternative preschool experience for her family. Her daughter Lorelei always preferred natural materials to plastic toys. When Fitterer saw a poster for Cedarsong, it seemed like a good fit. “As a baby, if Lorelei was upset, I’d take her out into the yard and it would calm her down just to be outside,” she says. “When she started walking, she liked to go on big walks, stomping around in puddles, climbing up small hills, and just exploring.”
Lorelei, now 11, and her younger brother Grant, 8, attended Cedarsong for several years. Her favorite memories include running down the long, straight forest trail, making mud soup, and climbing trees. She also liked the snacks. “We’d have really hot baked potatoes,” she says. “We called them edible hand warmers. That was one of my favorite things ever to do.”
Asked if she thinks other kids should go to a Forest Kindergarten, Lorelei says yes, because it increases awareness about animals and plants. “Kids should learn more about nature,” she says, “so they don’t feel weirded out about things like slugs.”
Fitterer has observed that kids who went through Cedarsong seem to be especially content to play on their own. “They’re not looking for a lot of adult intervention,” she says. “They’re not coming out saying, ‘I’m bored.’ There’s an inner resourcefulness.”
The Evolving History of Forest Kindergartens
Forest Kindergartens have existed in Europe in various forms since the early twentieth century. In 1993 they were officially recognized as a form of daycare in Germany. There are now over 1,000 Forest Kindergartens in that country.