From Head to Toe in Motion: The forest as a natural Development Space

Every morning at around 8:00, the “Wildlinge” – in English “The Wild Ones” – trundle into the forest in weatherproof clothing and equipped with a small backpack with breakfast. The two- to six-year-olds spend the morning outdoors in nature with their teachers. Most of them live in the neighboring Schloss Tempelhof community, an ecological settlement in northern Baden Württemberg. They are joined by other children from the neighboring communities. Together they experience the forest with its changing seasons, on sunny as well as rainy days – and they are constantly in motion. For extreme weather days they now have a unique building to retreat to: with the support of the Software AG Foundation the organization was able to purchase a circus wagon, which was renovated for them by the students of the Free School at Schloss Tempelhof as part of a building project.

Experiencing Diversity and Change
Femke Stollberg has been leading the kindergarten since 2019. She is a trained speech therapist with a background in children’s education. “The forest offers a natural and unbelievably diverse environment. We don’t need to create anything artificial, everything is already there,” she explains. “There are trees for climbing, hills for sliding, brooks for mucking around in– and behind every corner there is a surprise; nothing is predictable.” Rüdiger Bachmann from the Schloss Tempelhof organizations adds: “A central difference to any enclosed play environment, however well planned, is that the forest is not only multifaceted, but also constantly changing.” Bachmann has been living here for eight years and participated in the founding of the Free School; today he manages quality and development for the community’s diverse pedagogical initiatives. On occasion he joins the teachers and Wildlinge children in the woods.

“A tree is made slippery by the rain and is completely different in winter than in summer. There is a new opportunity for movement each time,” Bachmann continues. “Both of these aspects – diversity and change – train the children’s facility for movement in a much more comprehensive way than is possible indoors.” In a forest, with its unlimited opportunities for exploration and movement, there is no need to purchase additional playthings or sports equipment with predefined rules for use; instead, there is space for fantasy, creativity, and individual learning.

Finding Your Own Pace
The children are encouraged to follow their own movement needs at their own pace, as the teachers emphasize: “We give the children the space they need for their own personal experiences. We are of course present to ensure that they feel safe and protected. We help when they need it, but we intentionally try not to be overbearing.” An established daily rhythm provides structure and orientation: the arrival of the group, a morning circle, a certain location where they begin and end their explorations, and a closing circle at noontime.

Depending on the children’s temperament, their activity level may vary; there are the fearless children for whom no tree is too high and no branch too wiggly, as well as the more reserved children who move carefully, step by step expanding their circle of movement. No one is placed under pressure, and no one artificially pushed out of their comfort zone. “We have a deep respect for the children’s inner plan,” said Stollberg about her attitude. “If they want to climb a high tree, we tend to watch and let them do it alone.”

The experiential space of the forest naturally counteracts excessive digital media use: the children enjoy a wide range of diverse and authentic experiences, and in addition they also learn to find validation and satisfaction within, instead of becoming dependent on the instant reward system of technical gadgets. Femke Stollberg also treasures the forest as a unique work atmosphere and a welcome contrast to the environment in a standard indoor kindergarten. She, too, enjoys considerable freedom of movement: “I don’t need to visit a gym in the evening,” she says. “I’m close to nature and feel relaxed and even-tempered. Working here is almost self-serving,” she says with a laugh.

Learning With All Senses
Motor and cognitive development go hand in hand with running and playing in the woods. The word “grasping” can be used here literally, as the children learn new things with all of their senses. “A key to encouraging movement competence is by giving children enough time,” explains Bachmann. “Thanks to neuroscience we know that it is good to gather as many different impressions as possible, which then consolidate into learning experiences. It’s even better when this entire process takes place in a relaxed atmosphere where one has the chance to connect personally and emotionally with one’s environment. Predetermined movement sequences minimize these effects. The best thing that we can do for our children is to offer them a varied environment and provide sufficient space and time for their own inner rhythms.” Furthermore, he sees forest kindergartens as an effective strategy to encourage health and resilience even in later stages of life. After all, these experiences are laying an important foundation that allows the children to develop into self-assured individuals. “They develop a positive view of themselves and the world: because they are capable, because they can do something and find joy in it. And when I experience mastery in my own movement, then I can later, as an adult, find my way in a challenging environment.”