With the success of the Finnish education system, European education methods and schools are taking an increasing place in the spotlight. One particularly unique approach is that of the forest kindergarten: an early childhood education centre based entirely outdoors, year-round. This distinctive education method is now spreading worldwide, with nature kindergartens in New Zealand, forest schools in the U.S., outdoor nurseries in the U.K., and bush kinder in Australia. But do the positives of this early learning approach outweigh the risks? Isn't it dangerous for very young children to be out in the forest all day? Don't they get lost, cold, and hurt? Proponents of the idea don't think so, and instead believe that forest kindergartens provide unique and important learning opportunities for pre-school age children.

Indoor Play and Sedentary Lifestyles are Taking Over

One of the main issues that these forest kindergartens can begin to solve is the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of today's children. Some evidence suggests that children are spending up to seven hours per day using screen-based media, with less than 10 minutes of outdoor unstructured play per day. What's more is that a study performed at Sydney's Westmead Children's Hospital found that from 1985 to 2012, the number of severely obese Australian children increased markedly, with over 30,000 children now affected. Forest kindergartens can help to mitigate the toll that electronic media takes on these young minds and bodies. Dr. Sue Elliott, senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England, performed a review of the Westgarth Kindergarten Bush Kinder Pilot Program (a program set up to establish bush kindergartens in Australia), finding numerous benefits, not least of which was the increase in physical activity.

Further Benefits of Nature-Based Play

The primary features of a forest kindergarten are that it is outdoors, and children learn in a natural environment regardless of the weather. Children use natural resources such as sticks, rocks, trees, and other woodland structures as the foundations of their play, learning creativity, risk-assessment, self-discipline, and independence. Elliott's review also discovered that the "value of unrestricted outdoor play" was immense, for both children attending the kindergartens, and the parents and teachers involved in the kindergarten community.

Research suggests that for school-age children, a greater exposure to natural and green spaces can significantly improve academic performance. For pre-school age groups, playing in nature can also improve mental health, allow social and emotional skills to develop as children play more freely, and can also improve the behaviour of children struggling with ADHD.

What About the Risks?

The main aspect of forest kindergartens that seems to worry parents is the aspect of risk involved. However, in Australia, early childhood education is tightly regulated, including regulations set up explicitly for increased risk management in bush kinder. For example, the Victoria State Government guidelines require that bush kinder must ensure that "every reasonable precaution is taken to protect children being educated and cared for by the service from harm and any hazard likely to cause injury". Risk assessments are also required to be undertaken, including assessment of water hazards, transport risks, adult-to-child ratios, equipment requirements, and weather conditions. Just like any other kindergarten, adequate emergency procedures are also required to be put in place before the bush kinder will be allowed to operate.

Overall, bush kinder and forest kindergartens provide numerous benefits for children, and allow early learning opportunities that are more play-based and less structured. With research pointing towards the benefits of outdoor and play-based learning, forest kindergartens are a positive trend that can be adopted by children and families around the world to improve children's early learning outcomes.