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For Young Children, Nature is the Best Classroom!

Kona Pacific Public Charter School’s Forest Kindergarten is the first of its kind in Hawai‘i

Every day, rain or shine, the children in the Forest Kindergarten at Kona Pacific Public Charter School in Kealakekua make their way up the hill to a clearing in the trees above the school campus. Here, their forest classroom serves as a base for nature-based play, exploration and learning.

Today’s keiki are growing up in a time when childhood – even in Hawai‘i – is increasingly indoors and technologically enhanced. Families spend more time indoors and on screens, childhood obesity is up, and fitness is flagging. Journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book The Last Child in the Woods, helped inspire the USA movement to develop forest and nature-based kindergarten programs following the European model. Forest Kindergartens have existed in various forms since the mid 20thcentury in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the UK, and there are now thousands of thriving outdoor early childhood programs in Europe, New Zealand and Australia and Canada.

Kona Pacific Public Charter School’s Forest Kindergarten is at the Hawai‘i forefront of this innovative movement in early childhood education that is now sweeping across the USA. The first of its kind in Hawai’i, the school’s program began during the 2018/19 school year.

Worldwide research on outdoor kindergartens strongly suggests that time in nature can improve children’s cognitive functioning, academic performance and ability to focus, all while emphasizing developing the children’s’ relationship with nature. “The research strongly suggests that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves; reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calm children, and help them focus,” says Louv. “There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying. It can also be a buffer to child obesity . . . and offers other psychological and physical health benefits.”

Kona Pacific offers two Forest Kindergarten classes in order to maintain small teacher to student ratios, led by Emily Kilgore and Chloe Miller and their teaching assistants. Emily and Chloe have both observed the therapeutic effects of adequate time spent in nature on the children.  As with traditional Waldorf kindergarten, the classes follow a daily, weekly and monthly rhythm, with both classes alternating the use of the enclosed Kinder Hale for indoor activities such as painting with watercolors, baking bread, and making soup, with each class spending 2 indoor hours at most, depending on which activities are offered each day.

The center of our academic offering in the Waldorf kindergarten, our language-rich and socially engaging circle and story times, regularly takes place in our magical forest setting.  We also bring along lots of wonderful handwork projects to work on in the forest such as finger knitting and sewing, as well as working with natural materials such as harvesting and braiding ti leaves and weaving vine crowns. There is time each day to cultivate our Kinder Garden, hike, and explore our school’s 38 acres. Children who are moving over uneven terrain, balancing and jumping, are developing their gross motor skills and self-confidence all while experiencing a deep connection to the rhythms of the forest.

Kona Pacific’s kindergarten program eases the children into school life while learning about the land and developing a deep respect for the beauty and bounty that it offers. As the children explore the forest, they find special fairy nooks and create woodland homes to spark imaginative play with friends. Immersing oneself in nature tends to melt away busy mornings or feelings of anxiety and sadness. Kindergarten is a time for planting the seeds of love and excitement for learning. As we cultivate the land with the children, they will be cultivating deep friendships, growing social skills, patience and conflict resolution, and laying the foundation for healthy relationships, healthy bodies, and an excitement for discovery.

At Kona Pacific’s Forest Kindergarten, there is no “bad” weather, just wrong weather gear. The teaching staff has in their arsenal lemon eucalyptus bug spray, a first aid kit, wipes, a change of clothes, and a cell phone handy. The children bring along their water bottles each day and a rain jacket and boots during the rainy season. Having a year’s experience in teaching outdoors, the Forest Kindergarten faculty have learned that Kona rains usually arrive after the children go home for the day. Since the forest offers cooler temperatures, the children are encouraged to wear pants, which helps protect from mosquitos.

For more information, please contact Kona Pacific’s Pedagogical Director, Greg Learned, at 322-4900 or gregl@kppcs.org.