By Erin Kenny ©2017
In the U.S., kindergarten readiness is a buzz phrase that is code for reading and writing. All entering kindergarteners are now expected to know how to read, write and do simple math. Unfortunately, because of this myopic view of what constitutes kindergarten readiness, developmentally inappropriate academic lessons are being pushed on preschoolers in place of the critical social and emotional life skills lessons and play-based curriculum that this age group needs to holistically prepare them for kindergarten.
I believe that the only developmentally appropriate curriculum for children five and under is free play, especially in nature. Young children achieve every expected developmental milestone through outdoor play, including physical strength, sensory integration, balance, coordination, literacy and social skills. However, many corporations are irresponsibly preying on parents fears that their child will somehow “fall behind” as a way to sell more curriculum, worksheets and tests for three year olds. Ironically, this educational approach is exactly what will cause these children to fall behind in their relationship-building. Children can learn to read at any age however important relationship skills such as compassion, empathy, respect, and positive communication must be instilled before age six.
Sadly, today’s kindergarten curriculum is the first-grade curriculum of my childhood. When I was in kindergarten in 1965 we still finger-painted, enjoyed dress up, played outside a whole lot and took naps. The teacher read us stories but we were not expected to be reading on our own yet. We did not put pen to paper nor do much table work other than art that I remember. As we turned 6, entering the first grade, we were developmentally ready for more sit-down table work and that’s when the program shifted from play-based to curricular based.
Many kindergarten teachers in the U.S. today lament that 5 year olds are entering with poor social skills, low emotional resilience and weak postural control. Teachers report children are melting down, frustrated, depressed and anxious much more noticeably than in the past. The problem is so acute in some districts that public schools require children to attend a transition class in the summer before kindergarten to teach those neglected lessons in social and emotional development. Recent studies have found that poor socio-emotional skills at age 7 can be a predictor of future negative outcomes such as substance abuse and depression.
The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten model is by nature an early intervention program which builds character and leads to self-esteem, positive relationships and social connections. The model perfectly prepares children for formal education by encouraging and instilling lifelong skills that set them up for later academic and career success. In the child-driven unstructured flow learning environment of the Forest Kindergarten model, teachers can readily see what draws each child and what challenges specific children may be having. Teachers are guides and mentors modelling and coaching respect, compassion, helpfulness, kindness and positive communication.
Through the inquiry-based teaching style of The Cedarsong Way, children develop problem-solving and divergent thinking as their experiential learning is enhanced through open-ended questions when their curiosity is piqued. Interestingly, the new World Economic Forum report cites that the most needed job skills in 2020 will be problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity, all areas in which most formal education programs fail. Through teaching to the test techniques and the emphasis on standardized testing, all three of those future job skills are being crushed in favor of rote memorization and multiple choice testing.
Other life skills promoted through The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten model include self-motivation, excitement about learning, creativity, imagination, willingness to take risks, perseverance, emotional balance and resilience, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-awareness, peer-to-peer communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, cooperation and teamwork, respect for others, kindness, compassion, empathy, physical stamina, self-regulation, and risk and hazard assessment.
I want to acknowledge that the term “Forest Kindergarten” is problematic in the U.S. The term originally derived from the German educational model called Wald Kindergarten, literally forest child’s garden. This outdoor learning approach, very popular in Europe, was developed over a century ago by a German educator named Friedrich Froebel. When I was developing The Cedarsong Way I chose to use the term Forest Kindergarten to convey a specific pedagogical approach, namely the commitment to complete nature immersion and child-driven flow learning. To be clear, the forest kindergarten model does not have to operate in a forest and the program is designed for 2-5 year olds – what we call preschool-age – children. Interestingly, in most countries around the world, U.S. and Canada being the exceptions, the word kindergarten refers to this preschool age and the word preschool is nonexistent.
In a young child’s developing brain, the pathways that are nourished and supported are the ones that thrive and grow, while the pathways that are neglected begin to wither. It is critical that early childhood programs include rich experiential lessons in compassion, positive communication, helpfulness, consideration, spatial awareness, and emotional coaching. I believe that a lack of attention to these critical subjects is disabling our children’s ability to become positive members of their community as well as socially conscious global citizens.