The temperature outside is 15 degrees, and there’s lots of snow on the ground. But the 21 young children in the Forest Kindergarten program are enjoying the sunshine and their daily walk in the woods.
“They love to be out,” said Carly Lynn, one of the program’s two kindergarten teachers. All of the students are dressed warmly — snow suits, boots, mittens and hats.
The kids — between the ages of 3 and 6 — climb on snow piles, hide behind trees and throw an occasional snowball during the long walk.
The Forest Kindergarten was started in 2009 by the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs at Saratoga Spa State Park. The idea of the early childhood program is that the children are outside most, if not all, of the day.
This winter has been much colder and snowier than the winter of 2009-10. Yet the students seem to take the weather in stride.
“They key is to be dressed properly for the rain, the cold and the heat,” said Katherine Scharff, administrator of the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs.
The Waldorf School also has a more traditional early childhood center on Lake Avenue, as well as an elementary school (grades one through eight) on York Avenue and a high school on Regent Street, all in Saratoga Springs.
Scharff said on bitter cold days, such as those below-zero days experienced two weeks ago, the children will spend more time in their “school” building, which is a large, old brick farmhouse on Saratoga Spa State Park land on Kaydeross Road West, well south of the main state park property.
Woods extend behind the farmhouse on state land, and this area has three nature trails created for the students. Some trails are longer than others, and some include natural play areas the students helped create.
The interior of the spacious farmhouse has been remodeled for the students, with a dining area featuring a large, rustic wood dining table and matching wooden chairs. Other rooms include play areas where the two teachers and two teaching assistants lead the students in songs, hands-on woodworking projects and circle games.
“We let the kids play as much as possible,” Lynn said. She said there are no academics taught in the traditional way but the students learn counting, singing, using their hands to create things and getting along with each other in the Forest Kindergarten.
“The older students help the younger ones,” Scharff said. This is a central theme that is encouraged. The 3- and 4-year-old students look up to the older kids, who are encouraged to be helpful models for the younger ones.
The students also help prepare the noon meal that includes healthy items, such as whole-grain muffins, millet with cheese and lentil soup. The students generally have good appetites because they have been exercising outdoors for a good part of the morning.
Teacher Lynn said even in the winter, the students spend about an hour of the half-day (8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) program outside.
“There hasn’t been a day we haven’t been outside at least for a little while,” Lynn said.
On Wednesday, despite the foot of snow that had fallen in the past week, packed-down trails led into the woods where the students were taken for their daily walk.
They played on tree stumps and visited locations where they had built little forts and play areas in the fall.
The Forest Kindergarten concept was started in Denmark in the 1950s and has grown in popularity across Europe, according to Waldorf officials.
Scharff said the Waldorf School hasn’t done specific research on the issue, but the students in Forest Kindergarten don’t seem to get as sick as often as classroom-bound children, despite being outside in cold or inclement weather.
“They are definitely not ill more of the time,” Scharff said.
The Waldorf system stresses “creative playing.” Scharff said the playing with other children and outdoor exercise are “building blocks” that prepare the young people for more academic work in later years.
The program stresses the social element. “They learn to be together, play together and create together,” Scharff said. “Pre-schoolers are not ready to sit at a desk.”
The program costs $6,965 per student, but there is financial aid available. The cost includes a hot lunch.
Anne Maguire, Waldorf’s enrollment director, said there are more boys (15) than girls (six) in this year’s Forest Kindergarten class. This will change in the 2011-12 school year because more girls have already been signed up for the outdoor program, Maguire said.
Maguire said there were 26 students in the first program in the 2009-10 year and 21 students this year. The number is expected to be back to 26 students next school year.
“Early childhood is not a time for academics,” Maguire said. She said in the Waldorf system the teachers wait for the ideal time to introduce various learning skills.
In the Forest Kindergarten the students learn verses and songs. They have circle time for games, use tools to make things with their hands and generally develop “good, strong bodies,” Maguire said. “These are simple concepts that make sense.”
Susan Conway, a teaching assistant in the program, said she brings her two children from Johnstown each day to attend the Waldorf elementary program. One child attends fourth grade and the other attends seventh grade.
“It’s a huge commitment but it’s well worth it,” Conway said about the long commute to school.
‘Healthy and happy’
Conway said that when the weather is really nice in the spring and fall, the Forest Kindergarten students will spend almost the entire morning outside in the woods or working on projects behind the farmhouse.
She said the program includes five 3-year-olds who appeared to be doing just fine walking through the snow. During the daily walk one young student had to have a teacher tuck one of his snow pant legs into his boot because snow was getting in and making his leg cold.
Waldorf education is based on the research into child development conducted by Austrian educator and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who lived from 1861 until 1925. A key part of his philosophy is that a person “consists of a body, soul and spirit,” according to the local Waldorf website (www.waldorfsaratoga.org).
Steiner’s body of work is called “Anthroposophy,” or wisdom of the human being.
Neither the word “Anthroposophy” nor the philosophy is taught to students, but it serves as an inspiration and guide for the teachers.
Lynn, one of the Forest Kindergarten teachers, said she has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from SUNY Potsdam and an advanced degree in Waldorf education from a Waldorf institution.
“It’s very healthy and happy here,” Lynn said as she walked outside next to one of her students. “It feels really good and really right.”