The Kinder Garden
Warning! Bad bilingual pun above! Kindergarten means ‘children’s garden’ in German. It was chosen as a world for pre-school education and care centres by an early nineteenth century German educator, Friedrich Fröbel, because he wanted to convey the idea that pre-schools should be places – like gardens – where young things are nurtured and cared for and helped to grow. In other words – kind places where nurturing and nourishing are the order of the day.
Some of the first kindergartens were in real gardens, or had a strong garden element, and today many preschools and kindergartens in New Zealand have gardens and the children engage in gardening activities. But there are also too many which have limited outdoor space, and no chance for children to engage with nature. That’s a huge loss for the children themselves, and also for the nation as a whole, because all the evidence by educational researchers points in one direction – the more time children spend outdoors in nature from an early age, the better it is for their mental and physical development and health both at the time and on into adulthood. Brains as well as bodies grow fitter for purpose in outdoor environments where there is lots of stimulation from the diversity of nature and the challenges it can pose.
The bigger and wilder the ‘garden’, the better. Parks, riverbanks, beaches, forests, hills… they’re all good. Where there are trees to climb, materials with which to build huts and castles and bridges and anything else that takes the child’s fancy, shells and stones and feathers to collect, space to run free, puddles to jump in, vines to swing from, birds to watch and listen to…
I am remember a very happy children’s nature play event I organised in the Dunedin Botanic Gardens in the late 1980s, where I got permission for the children to do something I had always wanted to do when I was a kid – burrow into the huge piles of autumn leaves in the service yards. They enjoyed it a lot, just as I had enjoyed the tamer version of shuffling through smaller piles in the Gardens before the staff had made them into big ones.
I have been aware for some time (and especially since I read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods) that interactions with nature are very important for healthy child development. But it is only very recently that I have got to know how important movement is not just for physical development but also for brain development and healthy functioning. The neuropsychiatrist John Ratey found himself becoming an inadvertent expert on this subject when he started working with children suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, depression and other mental impairments which all turned out to be helped if the child got outside and got moving on a regular basis. He has written a couple of books on the subject – Spark and Go Wild – which show that regular and varied movement is good for adults and children without mental health issues too – in fact, it enhances mental ability and protects against mental degeneration. As any keen gardener could tell him…
It’s good to know the science behind the huge benefits of outdoor play, but even if the impact were smaller, the fact that it is way more fun than being cooped up in an artificial environment should be enough to recommend it to any parent or teacher who wants the best for those in their care. Having been pretty much a ‘wild child’ myself, and having seen other children enjoy being out in nature too, I am very keen that every child should have this opportunity. So when I was sent a link to this petition – https://our.actionstation.org.nz/petitions/allow-full-time-nature-based-early-childhood-education-in-nz – which asks for the the current Early Childhood Services Regulations to be changed to enable early childcare education providers to set up and run full time nature-based early childhood education centres, I signed it immediately – and now I’m spreading the word in case you’d like to do so too.