Preschool Matters Today

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

March 9, 2017
by Shannon Riley-Ayers, Ph.D.

Seen any good movies lately? I recently joined a group of pre-service and graduate students in education at Centenary University to watch School’s Out.

The film takes the viewer into the “Forest Kindergarten,” an outdoor school for four- to seven-year-olds in northern Switzerland. Students are outdoors every day, regardless of the weather, and explore and play for most of the day, climbing trees (way too high some may say), playing in creeks (with lots of mud), climbing mountains, and even whittling with a pocket knife.

As someone who spends most of my waking hours thinking about early education best practices, the takeaway was neither an urge to replicate the forest kindergarten nor to recommend all children spend all day outdoors–although we do know outdoor play has decreased significantly for children yet remains crucial in developing key skills such as gross motor.

Rather, for me, the film demonstrated that skills, strategies, and competencies children obtain in this unique setting are both critical and replicable in more traditional US schools. Although they were in a forest, the teaching approach was developmentally appropriate and student-centered, with active engagement, self-directed learning, and exploration–techniques applicable in any classroom.

In Switzerland, the film notes, children do not begin “academics” until age seven. I would argue that while they may not begin “formal academics” characterized by didactic learning and rote practice of skills using paper and pencil, meaningful cognitive and academic learning is already underway all day in that forest. Students were learning concepts such as speed, elevation, acceleration, and were actively engaged in the scientific learning process as they worked collaboratively to send a ball on a particular path down the mountainside. Students were also experimenting and learning about a fulcrum, pivot, and force as they played with long planks by positioning and jumping on the plank to create a “ride” for another child bouncing up and down. They experienced rich language learning through explorations and discussions, as well as literacy opportunities by listening to stories read by the teacher and sharing oral stories while creating scenes with sticks and other natural materials.

The Forest Kindergarten method of engaging in academic skill building puts strong emphasis on approaches to learning, important skills not only in early childhood, but well beyond. Approaches to learning are often found in preschool standards (for example, The Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework), but are seldom detailed for early elementary education. The New Jersey Department of Education has released guidance on approaches to learning in Kindergarten through third grade and refers to them as “EPPIC skills”–engagement, planning and problem solving, initiative, and creativity. These important skills are certainly addressed in the forest kindergarten, but they also can be–MUST be–addressed in the typical US classroom, too.

Watching those children giggle and play, learn and develop, in that forest kindergarten reminded me that young children are not “empty vessels” and renewed my conviction that early education can be done better. We know typical whole group teaching and individual worksheet practice does not enable students to engage actively, plan and problem solve, and tap their own initiative and creativity.

So I challenge all educators–teachers, administrators and policymakers–to reframe our policies and practices to enable young children to gain academic skills needed to succeed by casting off worksheets and lectures and embracing child-centered activities, self-directed learning, and exploration–and, because young children SHOULD be active, enjoy some additional outside time, too!

Shannon Riley-Ayers, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor at NIEER, has experience as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, state education systems co-director, pre-service teacher educator, professional development instructor, and researcher makes her a well-rounded leader of projects.  She conducts research and provides technical assistance in preschool through grade three with a focus on teaching quality, assessment, and professional learning.   She led the writing and implementation of the New Jersey First through Third Grade Implementation Guidelines. She is first author of the Early Learning Scale (NIEER), a comprehensive performance-based assessment system for preschool and kindergarten.