All across Scandinavia small children are running wild! From Lapland to Jutland, you will see flocks of youngsters chasing through meadows and woodland, with mud-spattered faces and small rucksacks on their backs. You will find them splashing in streams, crawling through the undergrowth, clambering up trees or sitting quietly on a log eating a sandwich. These are children from one of the many ‘naturbornehaver’ (nature kindergartens) that are currently mushrooming up all over Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Yes, this is the pedagogical hit of our time - the startlingly simple concept of taking children out in nature as often as possible, for as long as possible, in all weathers and in all seasons. And research shows that these “nature” children gain far more than rosy cheeks and bright eyes; for it is now evident that nature nursery school children are socially, physically and intellectually at an advantage over their contemporaries in conventional nursery schools. No wonder then, that the rate of growth in this area of child-care is phenomenal. In Denmark, nearly all county councils now have one or two such schools.

Although there are many variations on the theme, nature nursery schools are most often based in a forest. “A forest gives the perfect frame for a child’s natural physical development, ” explains Inger Pedersen, leader of Soro Forest Kindergarten. “I am convinced that when a child experiences the freedom and stimulation offered by the forest, the result is a more balanced and peaceful child who is able deal with social and intellectual challenges far more effectively.”

The forest offers a multitude of learning opportunities. Children can run around as much as they want; noise is absorbed by the immensity of the sky. Children can use their bodies to the full; climbing, swinging, crawling, carrying, leaping. What’s more, the forest is filled with an abundance of playthings: a stick transforms into a horse or into a baton to conduct a brass band. Imagination can literally run wild through the trees.

For these children, the world is teeming with life: slugs and beetles, wild raspberries and hazelnuts, woodpeckers and jays. What better way could there be to learn about animals, plants and the changing of the seasons? What more effective way to teach children about basic ecological concerns, when they arise so spontaneously and in such a genuine context?

The benefits of nature nursery schools are not just reserved for the children. Bethina, who works in ‘Blue-Sky Nature Kindergarten’, tells how she now suffers much less stress than when she worked in a conventional kindergarten. “I don’t come home so tired in the evening, and I’m hardly ever sick nowadays. It’s just nice being outside on a picnic every day - and getting paid for it!” The three curses for any Danish nursery worker are known as the three S’s, ‘Sounds, Snot and Stress’, but in a nature nursery school, these three problems are significantly reduced. It is not surprising, therefore, that trained personnel, who are in great demand here in Denmark, are flocking to the jobs that take them out under blue and grey skies.

Most often, such nursery schools are‘green’. They buy organic and environmentally-friendly products, and work with the concept of environmental sustainability, e.g. composting and energysaving. They give children a chance to establish a meaningful, intimate and responsible relationship with the natural world. Today, I was out with the nursery school my son attends. I watched my son climbing a pine tree, sure-footed as a mountain goat, his body strong and supple, focussing with intense concentration on the task at hand. He reached the top and shouted jubilantly. In that moment I was confirmed in my belief that we must let our children experience nature more. It must be a regular daily practice for them to touch the earth, to hear bird song, to collect berries and mushrooms and get to know animals and plants. In wind, rain, snow and shine, let the children run wild!

(Reprinted with permission from Resurgence, Volume 199 Mar/Apr 2000, p 44. )

You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest,
and I smile,
and am silent,
and even my soul remains quiet:
it lives in the other world
which no one owns.
The peach trees blossom.
The water flows.

[Li Po]