Czech parents discover nature kindergartens

Photo: Petra Čechurová

Nature kindergartens are a relatively new phenomenon in Czech society, although elsewhere in the world they have been around for more than half a century. At present they are not part of the Czech school system and are functioning as private hobby classes, but with growing interest on the part of parents that may be about to change.

Photo: Petra Čechurová
When the very first nature kindergarten in the world was founded in Denmark in the 1950s Czechoslovakia had just entered the hard-line communist era. When they first appeared in Germany in 1968 Czechoslovakia was facing a painful period of normalization following the crushing of the Prague Spring. It would be another 20 years before the return to democracy enabled free enterprise and 10 more before anyone embraced the concept of nature kindergartens in this country.

The first attempt to break away from the rigid teaching methods of the communist era and introduce something different were the Waldorf schools, which quickly gained popularity among parents who wanted their kids to have a different education than they themselves had received. A few years later came the first Nature kindergarten, or Lesní školka in Czech the direct translation of which is “forest kindergarten”. Despite initial wariness on the part of parents it proved a big success and over the past decade 40 such kindergartens have emerged around the country mainly in the vicinity of big cities where children generally spend too much time cooped-up indoors.

One thing nature kindergartens guarantee is that children will get plenty of fresh air. Come rain or shine they spend most of the day out in the open playing games, exercising and learning from Nature. They not only tend to be healthier, but are generally more self-sufficient with a greater understanding of how things work and being able to release their pent-up energy are less inclined to be frustrated, bored or badly-behaved. Jitka Valehrachová, a Nature kindergarten teacher in Moravia describes a typical day at school.

Jitka Valehrachová, photo: Czech Television
“The kids usually arrive between 8.30 and 9am. At nine we all gather outside, greet each other, sing a few songs and talk about what we will be doing that day. Teachers plan the day according to the season, but we make sure that the children are able to make some choices of their own; they get several options and have a debate among themselves to reach agreement on what they want to do that day or where we should go. We go back indoors for lunch at 1.30 and have a short nap before heading out again. If the weather is really bad we’ll stay indoors and engage in something creative like art classes or singing.”

At nature kindergartens children learn about the cycle of the seasons and the flora and fauna surrounding them. They gradually learn to distinguish various types of trees and flowers, recognize different herbs growing on a meadow and learn to create things from natural materials that are all around us. They use a stick to draw in the sand and pebbles to count, playing with objects that can be found in nature and learning in the process. Teachers focus on developing respect and empathy with young children taught to mind the feelings of others and help each other out.

For the first few years of their lives children are shielded from excessive commercialism and our growing reliance on technology and given time to bond with Nature. Many parents feel that learnt early in life these lessons will stand their children in good stead for years to come and will help them to achieve the right balance later in life and make the right choices. While the food served at these nature kindergartens is vegetarian, teachers say there is nothing orthodox about the practice:

“We feed children a balanced vegetarian diet –grains, pulses and vegetables- which should cover their needs but if parents want to give their children meat and milk, that’s perfectly acceptable. They can have these things for breakfast or in the evening and if a child likes meat parents can always pack a schnitzel for them as a snack.”

Photo: Petra Čechurová
Parents who like the idea but are not completely certain its right for their child may start by putting their offspring in a nature kindergarten for just two or three days a week to “test the waters”. These two mums say things look very promising:

“The expectations are great. Of course every mum wants her child to spend as much time outside as possible.”

“My little one looks a fine mess after her first walk in the woods. But I think she’s really enjoying it.”

One of the things that worry parents is their child catching cold, but Jitka Valehrachová says these kids are much healthier than those who spend time indoors where viruses spread much faster.

“We go out in all kinds of weather. Come rain, snow or frost. Of course we make sure the kids are bundled up properly and when it’s cold we pick vigorous activities such as skating or sledding that keeps them warm. To tell the truth I think that we grown-ups feel the cold much more than they do not having had this experience. When we think they’ve had enough we go indoors, warm up and come out again. We’ve not had any complaints from them and I think they’re happy.”

Somewhat paradoxically many of these nature kindergartens are located in eastern and southern Moravia where the smog situation plagues inhabitants throughout the winter months and where the authorities often warn people to keep children indoors as much as possible.

Jana Slavíčková, the head of a nature kindergarten near Ostrava, one of the most polluted parts of the country, says that although the smog is a problem for everyone, her kids are better off and make the most of good days.

Photo: Czech Television
“We keep an eye on the forecast. A day or two ahead you have a good idea of what the weather will be like and can make alternate plans; we’ll organize an outing to the Beskydy Mountains or go swimming in an indoor pool. And if the smog gets really bad, we’ll stay indoors.”

Another bonus is that these nature kindergartens are smaller than regular ones, giving teachers more time to interact with each child. The downside is the price. Since they are not part of the school system these kindergartens are essentially private pre-schools that are quite expensive. The education ministry has sent inspectors to report on the activities of several in view of eventually integrating them into the school system and enabling them to benefit from state funds. A decision is expected in the course of this year.