Below are excerpts from my action research project conducted at West Chester University for my M.Ed.
David Sobel (2016) discusses the difficulty of taking the German Waldkindergarten and transplanting it to American soil because of differences in cultural attitudes toward early childhood. "American parents wonder what kind of balance there should be between play in childhood. We want our children to splash in mud puddles, but we also want them to score well on those first grade entrance evaluations. And deep down, we want our children to go to good colleges, and therefore, its never too early to get them on the right path" (Sobel, 2016, p. 62-63). While American parents value academic skills more, European parents feel that play is the most important value in early childhood. They believe that "preparation for school means developing motor, social and emotional skills" (Sobel, 2016, p. 63). For this reason, many American parents have difficulty trusting the Waldkindergarten, or forest kindergarten, model of education that focuses primarily on play in nature.
With little background knowledge regarding forest kindergartens or nature preschools, parents in my family childcare program were asked to complete a family survey that looked at their perceptions and attitudes toward various topics relating to nature immersion. One of the subtopics that they scored the lowest in, meaning that they had the least positive attitude toward nature immersion, was kindergarten readiness. There were three questions devoted to kindergarten readiness, as well as, 7 questions that assessed parents' perspectives on play-, academic-, and nature-based learning. Refer back to Figure 5 for parents perceptions of nature immersion. Kindergarten readiness scored 1.45 out of 5, whereas, the various types of learning scored 4.57. Therefore, parents saw the value in play- and nature-based learning but still felt that kindergarten readiness should focus primarily on the mastery of letters and numbers. Overall, like the literature review demonstrated, the parents in my family childcare program did not feel that social and emotional development, as well as, interest- and inquiry-based learning were as important for transitioning to kindergarten as academics.
Parent Intervention and Perspective after Intervention:
For six weeks, parents were exposed to a nature immersion program that offered similar play and learning opportunities to that of a forest kindergarten such as Cedarsong Nature School in Vashon, WA. Children went outside for almost 3 hours every day regardless of weather, including milder, warm weather, rain, sleet, fog, heavy frost and much cooler weather in the low 30's. Each day, parents had to ensure that their children had appropriate clothing and they had to be vigilant about watching the weather since it can change drastically from day to day, which is the norm in north central Pennsylvania during the autumn months. Parents had to contend with extra laundry to keep up with muddy pants and socks that went home daily. On the flip side, they also had the pleasure of hearing their child's excitement regarding the opportunity to go barefoot, explore the forest, measure worms, play in the rain, nap in a tent and to eat outside. Literature review conveyed to me the importance of communicating with parents regarding their concerns and questions. Family Survey #1 demonstrated that parents had both especially when many questions were answered "undecided."
Because forest kindergartens and nature preschools was a new concept not only to the families in my family childcare program, but is also to the culture of the United States as a whole, I felt it was imperative to provide an intervention that educated the parents, created discussion and a sense of community and belonging. In all, I had seven Parent Education/Interventions sessions via a closed, Facebook group designed specifically for communication and discussion among families of my program. These sessions included the following topics:
Erin Kenny (2013) feels that many parents in the United States "are convinced that academics must be started as early as age 3 in order that the child does not fall behind and is adequately prepared when they enter formal education at age 5 or 6. In America, we think this is the norm around the world and yet there are many countries in Europe that do not even enroll children in formal education until age 6 or 7 and those countries are outperforming our children by international standards" (Kenny, 2013, p. 13). For example, children in Finland spend a lot of time outdoors prior to beginning formal schooling at age seven. Finland's students have been outperforming their counterparts on international tests and are some of the highest in the world (Kenny, 2013). A study done at the University of North Florida found that children who attended academically oriented preschools had lower grades by the end of fourth grade than those who went to preschools that provided more active, child-initiated learning experiences (Marcon, 2002). Marcon (2002) believes that possible explanations include that children who attended play-based preschools gained foundations in early childhood that foster curiosity, initiative, independence and effective choice that become very critical in later elementary school grades (Marcon, 2002).
After six-weeks of nature immersion and Parent Education/Intervention sessions, parents in my family childcare program began to have a change of perspective regarding early childhood education and the importance and value of unstructured, outdoor play over academics. They began to understand how these experiences help prepare children for formal schooling. Below is a discussion among parents in my program regarding kindergarten readiness. After the parent education session, I posed the following question: "What do you feel is most important in preparing children for kindergarten?" In addition, on family survey #2, parents reported that nature immersion prepares children for kindergarten "by exploring. It gives the child a more hands-on approach to learning and how some things are applied." Ninja's mom stated, "I believe children learn through play and should not be forced to sit all day in chairs to learn." Princess' dad, who scored lowest on his attitude toward nature immersion and its ability to prepare a child for kindergarten, stated that "I think nature immersion may better prepare students for kindergarten. I think it fosters curiosity, problem solving, and creativity. Maybe more than a traditional school environment." Pooh's dad believes that a nature immersion "will adequately prepare them...it seems that a nature immersion program covers everything a conventional preschool covers. The NIP does a good job using real world example."
In comparing Family Survey #1 and #2 regarding family perspectives relating to kindergarten readiness, there was a shift in attitudes. As discussed previously, in Family Survey #1, parents believed that academics and the mastery of letters and numbers was most important in preparing a child for kindergarten. Family Survey #2 demonstrated that they still felt this was important. However, parents also scored the following learning objectives as essential for kindergarten readiness. They included follows limits and expectations, interacts with peers, uses fingers and hands, uses writing and drawing tools, follows directions, attends and engages, shows curiosityand motivation, uses and appreciates book and explores musical concepts. Many of these, like curiosity, were shown to be important learning objectives that helped children perform better later elementary school years (Marcon, 2002). Despite most parents seeing the value in play-based, child-initiated experiences in early childhood, some parents still expressed concern regarding the transition to kindergarten posing a similar question like Hulk's dad had during the first parent education session. Pooh's mom asks "Will the change in structure from nature immersion to classroom setting in kindergarten be a difficult transition?"