Education

Nature Kindergartens

Claire Warden
Nature Kindergartens

A nature kindergarten is a model of early years education that has evolved through Germanic and Scandinavian traditions of outdoor nurseries for children from 2 to 5 years old. However, there are also many other models of nature-based education we can explore that embrace the same underlying values of nature pedagogy (Warden 2018), but which are culturally and climatically situated in other parts of the world. This article explores an example of a nature kindergarten in Scotland in order to stimulate discussion around what a nature-based model in India might look like.

In 2006, Mindstretchers founded the first nature kindergarten in Scotland. It was called Whistlebrae and operated as a site of innovation to drive change in people’s awareness and understanding of nature-based models of early education. It developed conversations with the authorities responsible for licencing early education and care by providing a tangible context for those conversations; it drew people from across the globe to see and feel how a nature kindergarten model operated; it provided a situation to engage in dialogue to determine which educational models may be culturally relevant to Scotland; and it provided a framework for professionals to question and explore the values and beliefs in the pedagogy of practice - a process which ultimately became my PhD in nature pedagogy.

Throughout the world, there have always been people who place nature centrally to their lives, and now the number of educational settings that embrace the teachings of the natural world in their day-to-day practice has increased to a level that is growing exponentially. There are many different types or models of settings that are nature-based and they have evolved in their own cultural locations and are therefore affected by climate and curriculum. They have a wide range of names, such as Schogsmulle (Sweden); Barneharge (Norway); Waldkindergarten (forest kindergarten in Germany); Nature kindergartens (UK); Nature pre-schools (USA), but they all provide children with immersive experiences in the natural world. All of these settings share a connection and similarity in their work, in that they embrace the values of nature pedagogy (Warden 2011, 2015, 2018). I define nature pedagogy as a relational pedagogy that embraces the art of being with nature inside, outside and beyond (2018: 2).

When nature pedagogy is fully embedded in practice, it is manifested as a way of working with children and families that creates settings for care and education that embrace nature and place it at the heart of their values. Its impact is all-encompassing, from the biophilic educational environments, to the child-centred process of assessment and planning, through to the active learning journeys that we encourage children and families to take to support the children to be sustainable in their thoughts and actions (Warden 2012:7). The range of models around the world can be placed along a continuum of practice based on the amount of time they spend in contact with the natural world in their day-today practice. Our definition of a nature kindergarten is that it sits at the end of the continuum where nature pedagogy is integrated into everything, in order to create a sustainable way of educating children that brings together the health of the mind, body and spirit with education and the need to teach skills, concepts and knowledge. Models such as forest school or nature clubs are more reductionist, as only blocks of time are spent in the forest, rather than fully embracing a pedagogy for day-today living and learning. In practice that means that our current nature kindergarten, Auchlone Nature Kindergarten, is the manifestation of our nature-based, pedagogical values of love, hope and justice. We support place-based learning as it gives us cultural identity and a history-making potential that is valued by children and families.

The programming is mindful of children’s authentic experiences across three nominal spaces to ensure connection and relevance - inside the setting, outside in the outdoor area and beyond the fence to learn with the community and natural landscapes around the setting. The Auchlone site has a homestyled inside area in a 19th Century stone house; and a landscape designed by children with hills, sandcastle, hiding spaces, small pond and mud area. This links seamlessly to the area beyond the fence where the natural landscape of fields and forests exists on nature’s terms, not cleaned up, ordered or tidied. At Auchlone, children can be outside 70-100% of the time all year round, five days a week if they want to be. The staff are trained to work inside or outside. Given the damp climate here in Scotland, we sometimes settle in an open-fronted kinder kitchen that allows daily cooking, provides warmth from a log stove and light from a child-created, stick candelabra. It is in this space, where we stay in our outdoor clothes, that we develop a real sense of community, resting after a strenuous walk or sharing our tales of risk and adventure.

There are many routines that are often the backbone of our daily and seasonal rhythms - collecting wood for the fire, harvesting food, making our felt slippers, packing backpacks for our journeys, designing and making forts and shelters and celebrating the joy and love of it all through story, song, writing, drawing and making artefacts.

The planning and programming of the nature kindergarten model stems from social constructivism, where we create a balance of adult intentionality with children’s voices and theories. We use Participatory Planning through Floorbooks (Warden 1996) to combine four voices. The first is to raise and honour children’s voices; the second is the voice of the natural world as an authentic context, the third is the professional analysis which tracks the learning journey that evolves over time; and the fourth is the parent or carer who creates a link from the home to the education setting. Given that nature pedagogy embraces the natural world, we use the elements of Fire, Earth, Air and Water to guide our fascinations and project inquiries. This lends itself easily to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.), as many great thinkers, such as Edison, took inspiration from the natural world.

There are those who suggest that there is an unrealistic, romantic notion of childhood and nature that we seek to support in a nature kindergarten. My research (Warden 2018) suggests that although childhoods are indeed situated and complex, there is a purity in the moment where a child studies a worm or is fascinated by water droplets on a leaf, that exists below these larger cultural worlds. The unspoken question is around whether these models of nature immersion, such as nature kindergartens, are relevant in other climates and cultures, and do they have relevance in the urban landscapes where many of us live.

The answer lies in our understanding of the pedagogical values, not simply a site or name, but in the interconnectedness all the models have with nature pedagogy. An experience that uses nature as the context for learning inside or outside; a setting that seeks to be sustainable by embracing holistic learning of the mind, body and soul; a place that allows children to connect to animals and plants on a regular basis; an environment that embraces biophilic design in the décor - these aspects are not about the sites but about the situations we want to encounter. A flower vase on a children’s dining table, gentle tones of colour in the furnishings, images of the natural world on the walls, the sound of birdsong inside - all have a positive effect on the emotional wellbeing of young children, as well as the intellectual and physical benefits they offers. This is the holistic world of nature pedagogy and it can be applied anywhere.

Adults are key to the quality and intentionality of the education of young children. Auchlone Nature Kindergarten has received the highest ratings from the Scottish inspectorate for care and education. As an educational entrepreneur, my focus was to achieve this status so people could clearly see evidence that children could engage in high quality learning outside the walls of a setting. This quality of interaction was achieved through staff training in nature pedagogy that supports them to understand and connect to how to learn with nature, rather than just being in it, or learning about it. The pedagogy and landscape have become intertwined in a way that they work seamlessly together. Children and families feel this when they come to be with us - it’s a relational pedagogy that places value on all living and non-living aspects of the natural world. The staff/child ratios we work with are 1:8 for 3- to 5- year-olds and this doesn’t alter across the three spaces unless we are near water, as we don’t perceive there to be more hazards outside, in fact the reverse is normally the case!

We have built on Gill’s (2007) work, so that the risk management process records children’s voices and their ideas as the stake holders, and includes dynamic risk assessments that change daily and residual risk assessments that are written up for the site itself and the experience offered. Rather than risk assessments preventing adventure, we suggest that they enable us to think collectively as a team and therefore support us to give children the freedom they seek.

The physicality and complexity of the nature kindergarten model allows the body, brain and soul to grow. The range of simple materials provides complex learning through a range of provocations that authentically emerge from the context. The potential of nature’s store cupboard has been celebrated by theorists such as Montessori, Froebel and Pestalozzi, who give us a framework to understand the place of nature in children’s lives.

There is a rising interest in naturebased models of early education around the world. However, rather than impose one possibly inappropriate model on top of a culture context, it is vital to create place-based models that draw on culture and context to shape and define them, whilst holding onto core values and guiding principles that connect us as a profession. My husband and I founded a charity in 2010 called Living Classrooms, which was designed to bring learning alive for marginalised groups. This now runs the International Association of Nature Pedagogy, which is a free professional association that seeks to connect practitioners globally who believe in nature-based practices. The focus has tended to be towards Germanic and Scandinavian immersion models, such as nature kindergartens or forest schools, however there are many, many ways of engaging with the natural world that are rooted in Indigenous pedagogies or other cultures that embrace different ways of knowing and being with the natural world. The association seeks to embrace rather than segregate people into separate silos defined by names, and to connect them through debate and research about how to learn with nature, hence the term nature pedagogy.

When we view nature pedagogy as a way of being with nature, we can start with whatever nature we can access. It may be the park, the vegetable stall at the market, the weed in the pavement - it all has potential for learning. It is how we enter a relationship with it, to care about it, to respect it, to gather it in a sustainable way, to understand the natural world, that is the key to raising it as an invaluable element of the learning process. It is this relationship that lies at the heart of models of nature immersion, such as nature kindergartens, so it can take place anywhere - urban or rural, hot or cold, wet or dry!

International consultant Claire Warden is Director Mindstretchers, Founder Living Classrooms Charity and International Association of Nature Pedagogy.

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