Written by Natalie Gubbay
Most people can’t remember what they learned in preschool, nor will many say that they learned much at all. Maybe they could count to 10 or 30, but beyond that, preschool seems associated more with napping than knowledge. Even the handful who learned how to read likely did so at home. As such, when I got a job teaching preschoolers, I didn’t know where to start. When I learned that the preschool—a Waldkindergarten—had no curriculum, I was understandably confused.
Waldkindergarten is a German word that translates directly to “forest nursery.” And that’s exactly what it is: a nursery where the forest acts not only as a backdrop but also as a teacher and an interactive member of the school community. Emphasis is placed on exploration of nature and imaginative play; there is no curriculum, as each child is simply encouraged to play with the forest and his or her peers in the manner he or she chooses. Each child, in essence, is responsible for his or her own learning.
It seems a lot to ask of young children. A lack of curriculum is rooted in the assumption that children are capable of providing for themselves, both physically and mentally. When parents dropped their children off at nine in the morning, they carried their child’s backpack, they carefully applied sunscreen, they lingered until the last possible moment, and they often even carried their child. As soon as we walked into the forest, though, students had to take responsibility for finding their water, for leading us down the trail, for using their own two feet to walk the hour-long loop we wandered each day. And they could. Never once did I carry a child for more than a few feet; never once did we have a student so inconsolable without their parent that they needed to go home. Three-year-olds consistently shocked me with their ability to understand that a hole in the ground might be a home for an animal, that a lack of rain would cause the stream to dry up, that bees allow for the pollination of flowers and feed us in doing so. The lessons learned through self-discovery are real and valuable. These lessons are not lost upon a child who is rarely afforded the chance to be in charge of anything, whether it be what they wear or eat each day.
Indeed, recent developments in psychology reflect what some preschool teachers have known for decades; young children are far more capable than we give them credit. For example, one study found that even nonverbal babies could grasp basic physical laws and devise appropriate experiments so as to observe when objects seemed to defy those laws. When shown toy cars that seemingly hovered in midair, babies tried dropping them from their high chair to see if they’d fall; when shown cars that seemed to pass through walls, they would bang them on the chair to test for solidity, in an approximation of the scientific method. One day, I witnessed a three-year-old make the discovery that objects look smaller as they get farther away from the observer. That took artists years to figure out, but all I did was push her on a swing; she came to that conclusion entirely on her own. The same holds true with ecological laws. Preschoolers can quickly learn basic rules of plant growth, seasonal variation, animal interactions, with their own attentive eyes. Unprompted exploration yields learning even before a child can speak, and the understanding that results from that learning comes in a flash of excitement.
When preschool focuses on building strength and resiliency, rather than operating as a glorified daycare or as a quasi-elementary school, learning comes about organically. Curriculum becomes unnecessary, because what is learned is less important than how the child gets there. The natural processes of observation and trial and error lead to self-discovery in all senses of the word. These processes lead to self-directed discovery of a phenomena such as the realization that there are different types of trees, the discovery of individual skills such as a child knowing how many logs they can carry, and a discovery of others in relation to oneself, such as knowing that preferences in color can be different between individuals. These are all valuable lessons which can be achieved without a curriculum. Ultimately, a Waldkindergarten teaches children how to look and how to explore. It expects the children to be capable and rise to the challenge. Not only does the success of Waldkindergarden demonstrate that curriculum is not necessary for powerful learning, it also tells us what we should have already realized: don’t underestimate kids.