School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten

Reviewed by: Ellen Jakubowski
Categories: Educators

School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten \ Lisa Molomot (director)

This emerging American director’s second documentary opens like a travelogue, with vistas of grand mountains and an idyllic village. The enchanting destination is one where kids can still be kids and obesity, hyperactivity and nature deficit disorder are nowhere to be seen.

Langnau am Albis is just outside of Zurich, Switzerland. The film focuses on the region’s forest kindergarten, a two-year, publicly funded program for children aged four to seven. This forest kindergarten is dedicated to child-directed outdoor play – no matter the weather. A tarp-covered hut is the only human-made shelter; teachers provide just a few simple tools and toys to supplement Mother Nature’s abundant entertainments.

Through footage of the children and interviews with teachers, parents and child development experts, the film builds a powerful case for outdoor play. We see imaginations flourish as the children play with sticks and leaves, creating elaborate settings, characters and stories from simple materials. Empowering, “do-it-myself” experiences develop students’ competence, confidence and maturity. Running, sledding, climbing and swinging keep their bodies in shape year round. Even the activities you’d see at a standard kindergarten – story time, crafts and games – come with added psychological benefits since they take place in the calming presence of nature. Parents report that their kids haven’t caught a cold all year. A neuropediatrician says he hasn’t seen hyperactivity disorder in forest kindergarteners in 20 years of practice.

Scenes from a more conventional kindergarten in New Haven, Connecticut, offer contrast. The American kids appear content with a busy schedule of reading, writing and math, but their curriculum seems a sad trade-off compared with the unbridled exuberance of splashing in creeks and careening down snow-covered hillsides. Though the Swiss kids will start academics two years later, we’re told they’ll catch up to their American counterparts by age 10 and that they’re laying the developmental groundwork through play in the meantime.

The Swiss parents interviewed are happy their kids are enjoying lots of outdoor playtime, but they also have reservations. The children are encouraged to take risks. They’re expected to walk to the bus stop by themselves. They’re taught to use real tools, not Fisher-Price stand-ins, and sometimes they cut themselves. They have a lot of freedom when outside. According to their teacher, “usually I know where they are playing, but I cannot see them always, all the time.” Some parents have a hard time accepting these risks but decide they’re worth it after seeing how much confidence, competency and independence their children gain.

School’s Out does an excellent job of arguing that outdoor play is wonderfully beneficial to kids’ bodies, minds and souls. Even if you think distributing Swiss Army knives to five-year-olds is a bad idea, the film will probably inspire you to get kids spending more time outside. Forest kindergartens are popular in northern Europe, but here in North America the movement is still in its infancy. Will North America’s forest kindergartens please make yourself known to A\J? We’re ready to share your story with our readers.  

School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten, Lisa Molomot (director), USA: Linden Tree Films, 2013, 36 minutes. Educational distribution by Bullfrog Films.

Reviewer Information

Ellen Jakubowski is a former A\J editorial intern with a BSc in Biology from the University of Guelph and a science communication diploma from Laurentian University. She works as an interpreter at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory and blogs about animals in The Wild Side.

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