Out of the Woods—Forest Education and Outdoor Learning

Out of the Woods—Forest Education and Outdoor Learning
Keren Sharon—PreKindergarten Teacher

Hello. I am a brand new member at  AES—a parent, an early childhood educator, and a person with a serious culture shock (even though, years ago, I spent over 3 months in India and old Delhi was my lovely home base). Lastly, I am a city girl. Born and raised in Tel Aviv + 3 public high school years in NYC. I have always felt comfortable when there are buses, subways, cafes and restaurants (which are the best in big cities and especially metropolitan areas). People coming and going—things happening. Culture. Life. Everything you might need or want is at the tip of your fingers. City life is great! Or it can be great, but I always needed to have a “nature shower” every now and then. For that reason I wanted to marry someone from the countryside, so we could have someone to visit on the weekends—and I DID.

Our kids grew up gaining the best of both worlds. They, too, are city boys knowing how to use public transportation and have high culinary standards, but they also liked walking barefoot in the lanes of the Kibbutz, riding bikes in the hot temperatures of the Beit Shean Valley (and I mean HOT, sometimes 44 degrees Celsius hot, which meant staying inside playing Remicubes with grandma). But outside, they became aware of possible encounters with animals that might come out of their winters’ sleep (snakes or scorpions), learning how to pick up a rock even when they knew it could be some reptile's house, and it might not want company from a curious child. 

But it was the one-year-olds in my Pre-K class who changed something fundamental in the way I wanted to work and be with children. Before all the toddlers were stable walkers, we had a big stroller upon which five of them could stand when we did outdoor walks in the neighborhood—discovering our surroundings, not aiming at reaching any particular destination. After a few months, we started taking 10–15 minute walks with two children at a time, holding their hands all along the way. Every cat sitting on top of a car was a fascinating little tiger. A child noticing the big shadow of the cat on the ground, and then our own shadows—trying to see if they were tangible was the inspiration for a new “catch the shadow” game. Snails, slugs, ants, flowers, and fruit (edible and not), houses of different kinds, feathers, birds—everything! Endless sounds and smells. All became our teachers and initiated projects for investigations. 

In our pre-school we had a teacher, Yuval, who was the modern interpretation of a “prehistoric man.” Not only did he create endless things from seemingly nothing (meaning from anything that seemed to other people unuseful), but he built and inspired creativity; he constantly worked with wood, sand, water, and fire. Yes, fire. In Pre-K. I remember telling him: “Once in a while it is OK to light a fire, but I don’t want the parents to start complaining about this” (as I knew the three and four year-olds  would go on and on about the fire once home). He said: “I am not doing it just for the sake of lighting a fire—I am educating them about many important things.” A subliminal pyromaniac, I thought to myself. Didn’t really get it at the time, but I knew he knew something I didn't. 

Around the last year of operating my Pre-K, I came across a TV documentary news report about a Pre-K and Kindergarten in a forest in Mitzpe Ramon, a desert town in the south of Israel. I was fascinated, but couldn’t help but think it is a little bit “out there,” on the verge of extreme. Everything everyone said in that interview—teachers, parents, and children—made me think, and I saw how it all went hand-in-hand with the experience and knowledge I had in the Reggio Emilia approach. The lead teacher there, Ron Melzer, showed understanding of the children’s developmental stage—not being some kind of Kamikaza navigating children carelessly into a disaster. Everything he said made perfect sense to me: the influence on well-being of spending the majority of the day outside in the fresh air, building resilience to different kinds of weather conditions and not being dependent on the perfectly monitored temperatures of the air con. All was stimulating: the contact with the soil, water, stones, and rocks—spurring imagination and games, learning through direct contact with nature and natural phenomenons. I was particularly impressed with the way children learned how to be careful and manage their physicality and balance in the topography of the landscape they called Kindergarten, and how they came to understand boundaries (as there were no doors, no fences).  

What happens in the begining of the year when the parents need to leave and the child still has not adapted to the new teachers and environment? Do they cry and go running to their parents? How do the teachers guarantee a child doesn’t disappear off somewhere? and that was just the tip of the iceberg. I had more questions than answers at the time. I bet you do too.

(NEXT TIME: some answers and what happened next in my educational journey)

A link to an article in English about the kindergarten in MItzpe Ramon, not long after the TV news story aired:


Pictures from my ex Pre-K (2011):

1. One of Yuval’s creations: A wagon made from a window box/planter and wheels from a broken children’s ATV. 

2/3. A sort of zip line created from a rope and part of a pipe.

4. Many different uses for a rope and a branch.

5. The one-year-olds out and about. 

About the Author—

Keren Sharon, PreKindergarten Teacher