Whilst in the Czech Republic in October 2008 I had the opportunity to visit three nurseries which had undertaken very different approaches to getting children outside and ensuring frequent regular contact with nature. This is the first of three blog posts about my experiences. I realised back in the summer that I had never actually written any thing about this trip.
In the Czech Republic, a German model of forest school is being given serious consideration by environmental organisations. Just under a year ago, the first state approved forest nursery school opened where children play outside all year round in all weathers. Last Spring, the Association of Forest Kindergartens was established which ensures that such ventures are legitimate alternative education approaches.
Children attend nursery school from the age of two and a half until they are six or seven years old. The nurseries often open at 7am and have children attending until 3pm or even as late as 5pm. Nursery staff do not require teaching qualifications and so the salary is lower than that of primary and secondary teachers.
The children then begin formal schooling. From play based learning children enter a very formal system with rows of desks and predominantly secondary learning experiences. Like Scotland, the Czech Republic has a variety of primary schools. Some are large urban schools. Some country schools take children aged 6-15 years and then the children move onto a technical college or high schools for 16-18 year olds. There are also small rural primary schools which cover grades 1-5 (P3-P7), with children moving onto high school afterwards. Most of the children that enter small village primaries continue their studies at secondary grammar schools in a bigger settlement and a minority make it to high school after that.
A forest outreach programme
In 2005, a state-of-the-art forest school, Jezírko, opened on the outskirts of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. This day centre provides a range of practical and hands on forest activities for children to develop their understanding of natural ecosystems, environmental awareness and forestry production for 3-18 year olds. The children travel by coach to the centre and spend two or three hours undertaking an activity led by one of the centre staff.
The centre staff realised that nursery staff needed more support, beyond that which could be given directly by the children coming once per year to Jezírko. For the 2007-08 academic year, a series of monthly activities were developed specifically for the kindergartens in the Southern Moravian area.
Nursery staff were able to visit a forest near their nursery and undertake the activities based upon a puppet gnome who lives in a chestnut tree. In addition to a teachers’ guide, equipment for planting flowers was included. The teachers could contact the Jezírko staff whenever they wished to get further advice and ideas.
There followed a series of short meetings with the nursery staff coming to Jezírko to find out more about the projects. At the end of the year there was a conference where everyone shared their thoughts and ideas and gave informal feedback to the Jezírko staff.
Thoughts of the participants
I visited the nursery in the small village of Krásensko, 25 miles north of Brno. Here the staff worked with children aged 2.5 – 6.5 years old. There was 1.5 FTE staffing for the nursery which opened at 7am and did not close until 5pm. As there were less than 20 children, only one staff member needed to be on duty. The 0.5FTE teacher mostly worked in the afternoon.
However as a consequence of participating in the project, the teacher now takes the children to the woods or the meadow beside the woods every week all year round.
She was very happy with the project and the type of activities suggested. There was follow-up work to be completed back at the nursery too, which for the older children, sometimes included a worksheet. She thought that some tasks were quite challenging but the positive impact of the woodland visits and activities was overwhelmingly clear. She now saw that the children needed to have first hand experiences of connecting with nature and this programme worked. The children learned a lot about woodland animals, plants and seasonal changes. The routines for going to the woods are now established and all the children looked forward to their weekly visit.
The ratio of staff to children is much smaller with only one adult required to supervise 25 children. The Krasensko teacher takes all 14 children in the nursery by herself, through the village and into the woods where deadly nightshade grows and where poisonous snakes and wild boar live. When asked if she was worried about children getting hurt, the teacher smiled, stated that there had been no incidents last year and “touch wood” there would be none this year either. Parental help was not an option as the nursery provides child care and parents work.
The Krasensko teacher had signed up for the second year of the project. In 2008-09 session, the materials were based around two children who get lost in the woods and have to acquire practical skills and knowledge of woodland plants and animals to find their way home. For example, in the month of September the children picked rosehips to make tea.
In October the children needed to find the sorts of food squirrels collect and store over winter and leave any collected in the woods in order to help the squirrels. Each month, despite going out weekly, there were more activities given than the teacher had time to do with the children. So she used her discretion over deciding which tasks to do and whether to amend them to suit the needs of her children.
The weekly outing was clearly integrated into the play experiences planned for the children. The teacher was fond of artwork and created displays to promote the woodland visits to parents and visitors.
What impresses me is the interest and uptake of this programme by such a large number of pre-schools in South Moravia. Here in Scotland, the only equivalent I have seen is in Fife, where almost 80% of local authority nurseries ensure children have frequent and regular access to woods, beaches and other natural habitats. For more information about the Fife Nature Kindergartens Project, read this case study.