Lately, I have noticed quite a few postings about "Forest School". There are links and videos showing children roaming about in the woods, doing all kinds of fun stuff. Comments following these posts are usually enthusiastically positive and supportive of these environments, with lots of "wish my kids could go to one" and "yes!!! Too much pressure put on kids to learn academics these days!" I have also been asked very directly what I think of the Forest School and other play based schools in general.
First off, I can say that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the Forest School environments and how they operate. Opinions people are forming about them on this side of the pond are based on snapshots and film shorts. So, I can say quite confidently that what most people think Forest School is, it is not. For more real and complete information about Forest School, read HERE.
Linked to the fascination with Forest School, is the notion that children are not getting enough play time. This concern is expressed from people who call themselves experts in child development and also from teachers. There is great support for play based environments. There is concern that schools are pushing very young children to perform tasks that are geared toward success in state testing (and school reputations).
I will be the first to say that the typical school system as it is organized throughout a significant portion of the world is completely incompatible with actual child development. The best place to understand all of this is below.
All that being said (and so persuasively), I don't accept that children must play all day long in order to learn effectively and to be happy and well-adjusted. It's not toys or games or wandering around completely self-directed that they need. As a matter of fact, the notion that somewhere in the not-so-distant past, children used to play all the time and were better for it is a fantasy.
Historically speaking, and in so-called primitive or indigenous societies, children did not play all day at the feet of their elders. They were, at very young ages, taught simple tasks that were important to the overall well-being of the family or social group. Little ones could throw feed to the chickens, pick kindling from the woods, turn skeins of wool into balls, sweep, clean, grind grain, pick rocks from the fields, and so on. Now, I'm not talking about the sort of appalling hard labour that children were forced to perform during the Industrial Revolution. Simply put, there was a time when children, even very small ones, were given valuable tasks to do. Their play time was woven in and through these activities, and adults would guide them along to refine their skills and to impart wisdom. These activities were both pleasant and satisfying because they mattered, they were actually valuable. The image of the unspoiled child at play all day long is more of a projection of adult desire to get away from it all.
I am a Montessori teacher because I have seen its success. Children move about the room purposefully. They WANT to learn. They want to know about colours and shapes, and weights, and why bugs have 6 legs and arachnids have 8. They want to count, they like to do math work. They love learning their letters. The materials that I have to work with are wonderful and the children appreciate the structure in which they are working and the guidance they receive that helps them expand their knowledge. Nothing they do is forced.
At one point, I was at a crossroads about whether I wanted to be a Montessori teacher or a Waldorf teacher. I was leaning heavily toward the Waldorf for a number of reasons. One long day of observation in the early years room changed my mind though. Children in the Waldorf system are not taught anything academic at all until they are 6 years old, in first grade. As I watched the 3 to 6 year olds play in their lovely room full of activities, I noticed that the older they were, the more they were bored. Their boredom quickly turned into a sort of aggressive, nasty play that bored children engage in. It was quite surprising to me. I wasn't looking for it. It was there, staring me in the face.
Conversely, Montessori believes in sensitive periods. These are intellectual and physiological windows of opportunity where children can acquire knowledge and ability almost effortlessly. Montessori teachers are (supposed to be) trained to notice these sensitive periods and take advantage of them by presenting the appropriate material. This is why early education is sooo important. There is so much they can learn and so easily! And the best part is that it's the sort of learning that becomes hardwired into them and so is never really forgotten. It's not so much the facts that they remember, but the concepts. And these they can apply over and over, all throughout their lives. When these sensitive periods are missed, then they must revert to rote learning. This is much more tiring, and can be much more discouraging.
Sadly, a very significant portion of what is a true Montessori education is being eroded by over zealous regulation of early child care and educational settings. The name of the game is "safety". In the original Montessori schools, children washed themselves, prepared their meals, cleaned up fully. They were free to move both in and out of the classroom. They could bring their tables outside to work, they had gardens and brick work and other valuable, real work. For the most part, this is legislated out of the environments now as childhood experts who set the acceptable curriculum continue to labour under the notion that children learn best by playing (in fake kitchens, with pretend tools, doing nothing valuable for the group or community) most of the day. It's unfortunate, and as a result, some Montessori schools fall prey to pushing their children academically. It's not true Montessori to do that.
So...if you ask me whether I "believe" in play based pre-school or in the Forest School philosophy, my most direct answer would be "no". It's all about balance. Children love to play with toys and in playgrounds, certainly. Children also love to learn. They love to learn specifics. They love to do work that is valuable to the community that surrounds them. Their work IS their play: not the other way around as it is presented in a very popular online meme. I don't need to believe it; I see it in action every day.