I first came to Denmark 23 years ago with a group of students training to work in the early years sector. We’d heard so much about Danish kindergartens and wanted to see for ourselves what was so special about them.
The first kindergarten I visited was a nature kindergarten on the outskirts of a town. Nothing seemed so different inside the building – apart from the fact that no one was there!
Venturing out into the woodland beside the kindergarten, I discovered the children and their pedagogues, as the early years educators are known.
Children were climbing trees, playing out of sight of the pedagogues and whittling sticks with sharp knives beside an open fire – I was shocked and terrified, but also fascinated.
The children seemed so competent, happy and at ease and the pedagogues looked relaxed – how could that be? Weren’t they worried that the children would come to harm?
Looking closer and talking to the pedagogues, I realised that the children were skilful in what they were doing, the pedagogues trusted them and treated them as competent and there was a feeling of cooperation and teamwork across the ages.
I have now spent 19 years working and living in Denmark and have come to fully understand and appreciate the pedagogy of children learning, developing and just being outdoors.
It’s not always easy and the pedagogues and parents need to have a very clear understanding of what is going on and how they can nurture and support the children.
Over the past 14 years I have run many residential courses, with participants from many countries, including Australia, Bermuda, China, the UK, USA, South America, Canada and Greece.
Forest Kindergartens in Australia
There are already forest kindergartens in Australia, although here they’re more commonly known as bush kindergartens.
The first, Westgarth Kindergarten, opened as a pilot project in Melbourne in 2011.
Now groups like The Early Childhood Outdoor Learning Network provide information on similar programs elsewhere in Australia.
Dr Sue Elliott, a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of New England in NSW, has also written on what Australia can learn from Denmark's example.
Most have experienced the same as I did all those years ago – a mixture of fear and fascination and many have said that it has been a life changing experience!
Of course, what happens here in Denmark can’t be ‘exported’ - there are cultural, societal and environmental differences, but there are parts that could work outside Denmark.
I have visited kindergartens in Australia and seen fantastic practice taking place in the bush or on the beach – the teachers said that once they’d been here in Denmark on a course, they felt inspired and confident enough to start using the outdoors more back home.
I have had so many emails from previous participants, telling me of their experiences using nature with children.
One participant from the USA said, “I just had the best day playing the kids in the rain. This is such a revolutionary concept for my school. I just wanted to say thank you again for everything I leaned from you in Denmark.”
I don’t count myself as an expert – I’m still learning! But I am so happy that I can in some way facilitate people’s self-confidence to get outside with children – no matter what their outdoor environment is.
Research is showing the huge benefits of children spending time outdoors – better brain development, better bone and muscular development, better social and cognitive development, emotional wellbeing and less illness.
You’d think this would convince even the worst couch potato, but unfortunately not so. Just in recent weeks, I’ve read reports with very worrying findings.
The first, from the British Heart Foundation, says that 91% of children aged two to four years do not meet the Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines of three hours a day.
The second from Natural England, states that one in nine British children have not visited a park, forest or any green space in the last year.
One commentator even said, “why waste time walking when you can be surfing!!”
On a similar note, when I was giving a course in the UK a couple of years ago, a participant (who was an early years teacher) came up to me and said she’d had to buy a pair of gumboots to do the course. I expressed amazement as I thought everyone had gumboots – her response was, “I have a car!”
I know there’s some great practice of using the outdoors with children all around the world. Let’s celebrate that, but keep up the fight to have even more.