A radical preschool movement that advocates toughening up the little darlings with a back-to-nature approach – including turfing them outdoors in all but extreme weather – is gaining momentum in New Zealand.
Forty preschool teachers visited "forest kindergartens" in Europe in June and July, and came back ready to take off the bubble-wrap and expose their Kiwi charges to the elements. Teachers in Auckland, Dunedin, Tauranga and Wellington are planning to adopt some of the practices they saw abroad.
Forest kindergartens started in Denmark and Sweden in the 1950s and are now well established in Europe and the UK, where there are more than 1000 operating. The Scots call them "secret garden" kindergartens and in England they're known as "forest schools".
In the European schools, each day's childcare session begins at "base camp" – which could be a building as basic as a caravan with no plumbing or electricity. Once all the children have arrived, they walk en masse to a forest, beach or reserve. They play with whatever materials they find in nature, and dig a hole in the ground if they need the toilet.
Several weeks ago, Auckland kindergarten owner-operator Cathy Catto decided to base some sessions outdoors – starting with a one kilometre walk three times a week to One Tree Hill reserve and back.
The children carry their own lunch, and there is no such thing as bad weather. "You just dress appropriately. If a parent says `My child is too sick to go out', my response would be `Your child should be at home'."
Catto wanted to "roll back the clock 30 or 40 years" when Kiwi kids took more risks. She put the proposal to all 20 families and "no-one said no".
"Some of the parents were going, `But it's one kilometre'. I'm going, `So what? They'll get fit'."
The kids don't have to dig a hole to go to the toilet though - there are public toilets at the reserve.
Catto will teach maths, science and language using nature. At European kindergartens she visited – in Emmendingen (Germany), Copenhagan (Denmark) and Roehampton (England) – children do "real" tasks such as making fires and cooking soup for lunch. They whittle sticks with tiny knives and saws – honing fine motor skills – and count and classify them. They climb trees – improving gross motor skills – and build mock shelters from branches. She says those three kindergartens have had "no major accidents and haven't lost anybody".
But Bob Drummond, who teaches at Aro Valley Preschool in Wellington, thinks safety-obsessed New Zealand may not be ready for the back-to-nature approach.
He returned from a similar trip to Denmark seven years ago enthusing about forest kindergartens but since then "I've been growled at by senior kindergarten teachers for letting children climb trees".
The Education Ministry's group manager of early childhood education, Karl Le Quesne, says the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008 do not restrict children playing in public places, going outside in all weather or taking risks. But he says preschools must ensure the safety and well-being of children. They must also have plumbing and electricity, and provide 2.5m2 of indoor space for each child.
But New Zealand Kindergartens chief executive Clare Wells said: "The current regulations are based on children being inside, not being outdoors... There would obviously have to be some discussion within the sector and with the ministry about what we'd need to put in place to make this happen."
She says having children outside all day would be "challenging" because teachers were not supposed to let them out of their sight, or allow children to go beyond what they were capable of. But the movement was worth looking at, she says.
Kathy McFarlane, an executive member of the Federation of Steiner Schools in New Zealand, says Rudolph Steiner teaching follows similar principles.
Children play with natural materials instead of commercial plastic toys, and use adult tools and equipment.
"Some of the basic principals are the same, that children need to learn about life, from life, in context, and have real experiences instead of virtual ones."
- Sunday Star Times