Forest Playgroup

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to send your child into the forest for a playgroup or kindergarten?  Are you interested in the benefits nature will have on your child?

Bee

A couple of years ago, I conducted an interview with Iris Spahr, founder of the Muttenz forest playgroup (waldspielgruppe).  Here, Iris discusses in the detail the benefits the natural world has on children.  Oh, and both of our children went through/are going through her program and love(d) every minute of it.  I am a HUGE proponent of outdoor education and have seen first hand the health, physical, educational and emotional benefits that nature has on children!

  1. Are you the original founder or one of the original founders of the Forest Playgroup in Muttenz?

Yes, I founded the program in 2004.

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2. What made you want to start such a group?

As a child, I played a lot in the nearby woods. I have fond memories of that time. I could live out my creativity and felt a challenge to achieve something outside the home. I learned to climb and balance. I passed on this treasure to my own children and accompanied them to the woods to play in and with nature.

In the Kindergarten Council, we discussed starting a forest class in Muttenz. That’s when I got a new boost to start this playgroup outdoors rather than inside.

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  1. How long has the playgroup been in existence?

Forest playgroups started many years ago in Scandinavia. My group began in 2004.
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  1. What are the educational benefits children receive from a forest playgroup?

In nature, children learn with all their senses (smell, feeling, hearing, touch, etc.) We guide them with themes throughout the year (all the seasons). They learn how to balance, climb, jump, listen to stories, sing, eat and play together. Children also learn how local animals live or behave and they get to know some of the trees; all according to their age.

Fall leaves

  1. What is the structure of each playgroup?

In our structure rituals and repetition are very important. That gives the children confidence (they know what is coming) and time to be creative in their free play time.

We start with singing & playing a game together, such as hide and seek. Then we walk to the place where we picnic together, have some time for free creativity, and we integrate the theme according to the season. Then there is free play, cooking together (fire and lunch in one group) story and songs. We end by walking back and saying farewell.

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  1. How old do children have to be to participate?  How many children participate per playgroup?

The children are two and a half to four- years -old. In each group , there are typically eight – 12 children.
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  1. If parents want their children to participate in forest playgroup, how do they go about registering and how far in advance should they register?

Parents can contact any of the playgroups by phone or mail. The school year starts in August and ends at the end of June. Registration begins in November/December until March, or up to August if there is space available. If there is a vacancy, children can participate during the year. Although, children feel more part of the group when they join all together at the beginning.

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Main Gate

If you are interested in reading deeper into the benefits nature has on children, one of the most influential pieces of literature I have read on the topic comes from Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods.

Forest Playgroup – Where Dirt is Learning

Mud – Check
Education – Check
Dirt – Check
Exploration – Check
Social Skills – Check
Friends – Check
Great Teachers – Check
Fun in Nature – Check

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What can I say; forest playgroup (what an awesome idea) seems to have it all. While I can appreciate a traditional classroom, when the opportunity arose for our son to spend two mornings a week last year, frolicking in the woods, I was sold. I am a firm believer that fresh air and nature are essential to good health – both mentally and physically and after reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv the book only confirmed my desire to have our children in nature as much as possible. On page 86 of his book the following is stated and gives me great comfort in our decision to send our then four –year- old into the woods each week, “Natural settings are essential for healthy child development because they stimulate all the senses and integrate informal play with formal learning.”

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Another aspect of education that is important to understand, according to Howard Gardner founder of Multiple Intelligences, is that each individual has certain areas in which they excel. Or simply put, we are all smart or intelligent in our own way. Of his multiple intelligences (linguistic intelligence, logical –mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, musical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence), natural intelligence or nature smart was recently added to the list. A benefit of allowing children to play and explore freely in nature might just tap into an innate gift they possess.

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Certainly forest playgroup may not be for everyone. It is sometimes cold, wet, and always dirty, but I believe the benefits certainly outweigh the occasional inclimate weather. We have noticed a dramatic difference in our son’s behavior in nature. He seems to be curious about his surroundings, always tinkering and picking up materials (some of which we do wish he would leave in their rightful place), he is able to hike with us now as opposed to being carried, and once he is in nature, he seems to feel at ease in his surroundings.

Of course there are times when he would prefer that we accompany him for the duration of the playgroup, but every time I pick him up from school he is filthy dirty (in my mind that is an indication of a successful morning) and always smiling. He is usually carrying a stick, rock or some other treasure he has uncovered in the woods and anxious to tell me all about his day. Once he is home from forest playgroup, we usually do a tick inspection, jump into the bath, eat a big snack and relax during the afternoon. And another benefit of being immersed in nature for several hours is that our son sleeps extremely well on the nights of forest playgroup!

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I believe our son is too young at this point to value the skills he is learning in forest playgroup, but I certainly hope that his love of nature and deep respect for our world is somehow harvested in those woods. To me, this is one gift that is essential to give our children and that is the love of the great outdoors.

In closing, I will leave readers with this thought obtained once again from Last Child In the Woods. “The great worth of outdoor education programs is their focus on the elements that have always united humankind: driving rain, hard wind, warm sun, forests deep and dark – and the awe and amazement that our Earth inspires, especially during our formative years.” Page 22.

Forest playgroup in my mind, is an invaluable educational tool for children.  Switzerland is an incredible place to raise a family and by creating opportunities for children to explore the natural world through play, is one more reason we are grateful to call this country “home.”