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Running Free in Germany’s Outdoor Preschools

The American journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” is cited often by Robin Hood staff, as is “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature,” by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown. (“Savage Park,” by Amy Fusselman, is another book that chronicles uninhibited play and was inspired by a visit to an adventure playground in Tokyo.) The pedagogical philosophy of waldkitas, which privileges outdoor play and hands-on environmental learning, comes originally from Scandinavia, but, as one teacher put it to me, “they don’t make a big fuss about it like they do here.” The trend’s non-Teutonic origins are somewhat surprising: There might be nothing “more German” than a state-funded preschool based primarily in a forest.

Germany has nearly three times as much protected land as the U.S., proportionate to the countries’ sizes, a nontrivial fact that highlights the way much of the country thinks about nature and its role in the emotional health of its citizens. “It’s terrible that kids today know all about technology but nothing about the little bird outside their window,” Peters said, gesturing out toward the woods and sounding like any number of quotable Germans, from Goethe to Beethoven to Bismarck, all of whom have rhapsodized on the psychic benefits of spending time in the forest. He continued: “In life, bad things happen — you lose your job or your partner or everyone just hates you — but you’ll always have this.”


Robin Hood Forest Kindergarten

The Berlin-based preschool is one of 1,500 so-called waldkitas in Germany, most of which have opened in the last 15 years.

By MARCUS GAAB on Publish Date May 18, 2017.

Photo by Emma Hardy.

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AT AROUND 9 A.M., one child discovered a gruesome scene and pulled Baule over. “Ah,” she said, beckoning everyone else over. She pointed to the ground, where a pile of dark feathers lay lumped beneath a fir tree. She asked the children to guess who “killed” the blackbird. One small boy suggested that it was maybe the work of a fox. Baule, the school’s director, pantomimed exaggerated thought. “Well, no,” she said. “See how smooth the quill is?” The boy ran his fingers along the feather and nodded. “That means it was plucked. So the blackbird was killed by a bird of prey, not a fox.” She gathered the dirty feathers from the ground and distributed them one by one to the children. A wild-eyed girl with snot dripping from her nose rocked back and forth with impatience and squealed when she finally received her feather.

Within a few minutes, the children were spread out over an expanse of at least 10 acres. Some were jumping from boulders; others were dragging logs through marshland. Most were sucking on filthy icicles that had fallen from the eave of a greenhouse. At Robin Hood, the children are allowed to be out of eyesight of their minders, but not out of earshot. “Being secretive is good for child development,” Peters said. But whenever an adult called out “cuckoo,” the children all dutifully returned from whatever dangerous thing they were doing, which on the day I spent with them included climbing at least 10 feet up a tree and sliding unsupervised across a frozen pond.

“We used to bring very simple things, lengths of rope for instance,” Peters said. “But soon we realized even that wasn’t necessary.” The lack of toys, he explained, means less fighting and more inclusiveness. “They realize that they need friends if they’re going to play.” Just then, Peters bent down and picked a frosty leaf — an English plantain, I later learned. “We use this instead of Band-Aids,” he said, “You just mash it up a bit and stick it on a cut. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties.”


A collection of feather sticks, used to help start a fire.

Emma Hardy

By the time a secluded spot had been chosen for breakfast, the childrens’ fingernails were black with dirt, and although it was exceptionally cold nobody was complaining. Instead they all arranged their backpacks into a circle and wandered off in various directions to pee semi-privately, each one undressing out of their snowsuits without help. They returned and took out small Tupperware containers full of fresh produce from their backpacks. Two girls, both under 5, began arranging the fruit into an elaborate mandala atop a wooden tray. They piled carrot coins in the middle and surrounded them with concentric circles of tangerines, bell pepper slices and cucumber sticks; dates went in one corner and apple chunks in another, with a scattering of walnuts on the opposite side of the plate. Baule had encouraged them to organize the food “neatly” but provided no further instructions. The girls did all this slowly and wordlessly, rearranging items when they didn’t like a particular combination. The end result was as beautiful as anything you’d see in a restaurant.

As it is on most mornings, breakfast was eaten in complete quiet. Children took turns silently presenting everyone else with the tray from which they each chose a single piece of fruit until it was all gone. For months, they had been reminded that by not making any noise at all while eating, it is more likely that a deer might approach them, and at the very least they’ll better hear the bird calls. In over 45 minutes I didn’t hear a single giggle. When they were done, Baule excused them. There were sudden laughs and yelps and everyone vanished into the forest.

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