Learning from Nature – An Interview with the Founder of Germany’s First Forest School

“Three questions that haven’t changed in the last 27 years of speaking to parents and interviewers are: ‘What about toilets?’ ‘Do the children learn enough?’ And, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’” laughs Petra Jäger. Yet the educational pioneer, who founded Germany’s first forest kindergarten with a friend in 1993, based on the Scandinavian model, is not only a state-accredited educator and successful initiator, but also an internationally recognised and sought-after speaker on the subject. A few days after our interview, which took place on her smallholding in Angeln near the Baltic Sea, she’ll be embarking on the first of eleven global tours, scheduled for this year, as an ambassador for forest kindergartens: first destination is Scotland, hopefully not just to answer these three popular questions.

But what is it that the children and their teachers do in a forest kindergarten? First and foremost it’s about being outside, in this case in a small wood, the Marienhölzung in Petra’s hometown of Flensburg. 

“We spend 98 per cent of the year outside. In extreme weather conditions, if there’s a storm or it’s snowing, we retreat into our storm hut. But we don’t first meet in the storm hut, which is slightly off the beaten track, but in the woods. Yesterday it was pretty rainy, but we still spent the entire day out in the woods.”

Every parent who has now stopped reading because they are worried that the forest kindergarten is only interested in creating a generation of mini-Rambos and Nehberg-clones can be assured that this is not at all the case. Quite the contrary: 

 “Children have different ways of reacting to the weather. That’s not to say that children don’t notice the weather. Many children are excited about puddles and rain but not all of them. Children perceive these things differently. Some like having muddy hands, but some don’t. We try not to interfere and push them towards becoming survival experts, but they come with the tools they have and can develop them in a countryside environment. If it’s raining in the morning and they’re not too happy about it, then we help the children navigate these challenges, which are normal.”

 Outside, in nature everything is possible, personal differences are respected but not anticipated or assumed. Instead of assigning each other roles, everyone experiences a common role – being part of nature – in a positive way.

 “What we don’t have at all for example is that the boys are roughhousing while the girls do something else. The children mix really well and lots of girl-boy friendships are formed here that continue beyond kindergarten. In our society, children tend to be pigeonholed from really early on: according to girl/boy, black/white, small/tall, and then later clever/stupid, and that just continues. But nature is leveller. There are also girls who like to be wild and fight and climb and show leadership and then there are boys who like to spend their time observing ants. Depending on their preferences, everyone can choose to do the things they like doing.” 

“We use nature in our games. We’re an integral part of nature and take only as much as we need. We speak different languages in kindergarten, because we have German, Danish and Iranian children, but we also speak the language of trees. Or ‘wind-ish’ or ‘tree-ish’ and the children listen to the trees. It’s not unusual to see a child talking to a tree: ‘Can I take a leaf?’ and then listening to the tree trunk to see if the tree says yes or no. Of course you can reject it as esoteric rubbish but when you spend so much time in nature, you become part of it. In that moment it just seems right.”

 While the weather is registered, nature is not seen as dangerous or hostile. It’s all a question of perspective, also of being inside or outside:

“You see wet window panes and think, it’s raining all day. But if you spend a longer period of time outside you notice that it also stops now and then.

We come together for our morning circle, that’s an important ritual. And to sit in a morning circle in the forest is of course very different from sitting in a room. We discuss what the weather is like. One child can play the ‘weather wizard’ and tell us what the weather will be like. You immediately notice what the weather is like when you’re sitting down. If it’s below freezing, we can’t sit still as long: after five minutes you notice the cold creeping in. 

 Eating together is also a wonderful task in nature. First of all the time spent outside means that the children develop a real appetite. And that opens up new opportunities for trying out different foods. An apple tastes so good after two hours of running around! The children bring their food with them but like to swap with each other. Then we spend time in the clearing, which is where everything takes place. Everything in terms of education happens as part of free play. Later we come together in the ‘parting circle’ where we always say goodbye to the forest. Of course we also have parties. We celebrate all parties in the woods with the parents. Everything is done outside, even the preparation. The children prepare Christmas presents for their parents. But naturally we have to be adaptable. You can’t sit outside knitting for an hour.”

 Despite the doomsayers and professional sceptics, things are going really well and there are now around 2,000 (!) forest kindergartens in Germany. In 2018, the 3rd of May was declared the official international day of the forest kindergarten.

kids leaning on tree

“In the first few years we were literally taken to task about everything. There was a lot of interest, with considerable press coverage. Many people said it was just a flash in the pan. The children would be neglected, would become like monkeys, wouldn’t be able to come to terms with real life later on. We have parents from very mixed backgrounds, which is really important to us. It wasn’t always that way. In the beginning we appealed first and foremost to ecologically-minded parents. Nowadays though we have a real cross-section of the entire society, we also have refugee children in the group, and children with special needs. We want this kind of mix. We also want to appeal to families who have no connection with nature. Those are families who, either for financial reasons or due to their traditional background, simply don’t have the option of spending time in the countryside every day. These parents also draw other parents in. We can support those who don’t have sufficient financial means through donations, for example with clothing.”

In the countryside it’s easier to be part of a community and the parents are naturally also part of that. 

“When you spend three years in the countryside every day with a group that interacts harmoniously together, with empathetic teachers, then naturally that does something for the children and the parents. In 27 years we’ve never had a child who has changed kindergarten or stopped coming.”

But even in a forest close to a large city there are limits and it can’t be explored endlessly. In large cities and urban areas the question of space is a particularly acute issue. Where do we draw the boundaries? 

“For children the forest is enormous. Grownups often think that children are in constant need of new impulses. But children don’t even want that. Nature has new stimuli built in. There is a stimulus in each bush. The path that we have taken a thousand times before looks different every time. Suddenly there’s a slug, yesterday the river landscape was a big hit, there were small streams across every footpath. In the spring things begin to grow, there’s always something new. We have twenty different places that we’ve given a name. Over the years we’ve claimed them all, but often the children want to return to the place they were the day before where they’ve already built something. Boredom is a term that we use in a positive way – having something less to do for a while. In the meantime neurologists and psychologists have confirmed that such periods are important for brain development. With us, every child that complains of boredom is congratulated with: “How great that you are bored, that’s the time gap before your next idea.”

So everyone’s content?

“I think it’s great to rise to the challenge of adapting to what you don’t have. When we arrive at a river with the children, then that’s a gift for them. Not being able to immediately master something and then thinking about it. ‘How am I going to get across the river?’ We wait, because children have the most original ideas. Children also get a feeling for time and structure in the woods. Thanks to problems that aren’t immediately solvable, they discover creative solutions for themselves. And they are open to new approaches and can adapt to what is there. The desire for adventure and the willingness to take risks and to experience challenging situations equips them positively for later life so that they are also better adept at structuring their daily routines later.”

Later starts now. Currently Petra Jäger is collaborating with schools, teachers and authorities in the Flensburg area on how to take this established concept further in order to open the first official forest school in 2021. As with the forest kindergarten, it was imperative that everything should be state accredited and not something created by a private institution as a privileged niche for wealthy parents only.

“With us, every child who comes into the pre-school is also kindergartener. Kindergarten work begins on the first day at pre-school. We don’t divide the children according to age. We prepare them for school, for life in school. We don’t want to be subject to the stress of giving the children competencies that they won’t need at school. Because what they need at school is not the ability to write a perfect ‘A’ fifty times in a row. If you asked a teacher many years ago, they would have said, ‘They need to be able to use scissors properly,’ Nowadays the teachers say, ‘They need to be able to listen.’ And our children can deal fine with that.”

The real question anyway is, who can say what children (and adults) should really learn? What will they really ‘need’ one day and who should decide what that is?

“There is nothing that we all have to learn. After all, when it comes down to it we want to have a happy life, in that there is enough scope for learning and I think we fulfil that. We don’t want children who will simply conform, we want a revolution in the school system. We want things to change. 

The children who have spent time with us are motivated and self-confident. They have had so much time to develop, to get a sense of themselves, to behave in harmony with others, be considerate, empathetic, in order to succeed within a group. No elbowing others out, but being able, in conflict situations, to say, ‘OK this is where I step down, this isn’t my thing, I have a different opinion.’ and still feel comfortable about it. That’s something that needs time and the outdoors provide the space to resolve conflicts.” 

Kid playing with leaves

One conflict that Petra Jäger needs to resolve, as an active pedagogue, mother of two, founder of future schools as well as active expert on the international stage, without any help from ‘outside’ is the issue of energy management. Luckily for the children and parents her enthusiasm knows no bounds. 

“That’s been my secondary passion over all these years, travelling around the world in order to talk about our work and offer support when it comes to launching these kindergartens in other countries, obtaining licences etc. I’ve been invited to South Korea by universities several times to talk about this and we have a partner-forest kindergarten in Seoul. It’s a great experience, seeing that this kind of concept is also possible in large cities. You don’t need a massive area because children aren’t passionate hikers. They don’t want to march through a landscape two by two. When it comes down to it they want to explore the path. For the children, the path is the destination.”

Petra Jaeger

Petra Jäger is the founder of Germany’s first forest school Waldkindergarten Flensburg and a global ambassador for nature education