Meridian Hills Co-op in Indianapolis brings the kindergarten classroom outdoors.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. This isn’t the official motto of Malkah Bird’s kindergarten class at Meridian Hills Cooperative Nursery School & Kindergarten in Indianapolis, but it very well could be.
Every day, the 14 kindergarteners spend a good chunk of their day outdoors. Rain, snow, wind, and heat don’t stop them — they just bundle up (or strip down) and keep playing.
One afternoon each week, the class enters the woods adjacent to their school to learn in their outdoor classroom. Here, surrounded by trees and bird song, the children write and draw in journals, read books and explore the woods that they call their own. Forest kindergarten is a sacred time to explore and be present in nature. It’s where the kindergarteners meditate while listening to the wind weave through the trees. It’s where they share cups of hot, herbal tea on especially cold days. It’s where they get muddy, climb trees, test their courage and, most of all, share this unique learning experience with each other.
We sat down with Bird to discuss the forest kindergarten program at Meridian Hills Co-op, the importance of play-based learning, and the benefits of letting nature be your teacher.
Tell us about forest kindergarten. Why did you want to introduce this to your kindergarten class?
Malkah Bird: Meridian Hills Co-op has always had a strong outdoor component to our school, between our wonderful, nature-rich playground and our many field trips out into our local natural environments. After years of watching our kids thrive in theses environments, I was really interested in the possibility of taking this aspect and making it a more formal part of our curriculum. In an indoor classroom, we are always looking for inspiring materials and challenges to introduce to our students in the hopes of sparking interest and exploration. When you are out with a group of children in the forest, you are surrounded by infinite opportunities for curiosity and exploration. From the sights, sounds and smells of the forest, to trying to understand the life cycle of insects, each week in the woods brings us new challenges and and new questions. Along with that, I know that living in a city, with all of our busy daily lives, families often struggle to find time to drop everything and head into the woods. It feels exciting and important to create an educational space where that is prioritized, and where kids and their parents have the opportunity to learn and enjoy it together.
How do you feel that your children benefit from learning outside in this forest setting?
Malkah: The benefits are really more than I can count. Over the course of the school year, I have watched the kids become confident and passionate stewards of the natural world. They have learned the ins and outs of our forest space and really came to an in-depth understanding of our environments, our annual weather cycles and patterns, and safety, communication and teamwork. They loved our space for both its familiarity and its unpredictability, and they became careful observers of the world around them as they began to take notice of and document changes both subtle and great.
I was really impressed by the depth and complexity of some of our conversations in the forest. We discussed the impacts of noise pollution, as they would comment on sounds from a nearby road during our quiet mediation time. We had a year long study on invasive species, as we watched Japanese Honeysuckle take over our space and crowd out other plants and trees. They used their nature journals to find ways to document their observations through words and pictures, and we were inspired to make art in the forest, share meals together and find ways to keep warm or cool depending on the season.
It seems like more and more parents and educators are embracing the benefits of play for young children, especially kindergarten-age children. In what ways do you try to make play a focus of the school day?
Malkah: Open-ended, child-led play is really the foundational component to our kindergarten program. There is no question for me that young children learn best through play. Kindergarten is a place to find some of the most curious, imaginative, innovative and passionate learners. For them, having the time, space, materials and support to ask their own questions, and then set out on the journey to answer them is by far the most effective way for them to gain new skills and retain new concepts.
As the teacher, a lot of the times, it means knowing when to get out of the way. We want kids to love learning and feel like confident and capable problem-solvers. The only way to do that, we’ve found, is to really let them solve their own problems. Every day our kindergarten class has a full hour of uninterrupted free play time in our classrooms. This time will look different every day, depending on their interests, their friends and the available materials. On any given day, we will find kids building with blocks, exploring a sensory table, writing letters to friends, designing and creating props for imaginary play, making art, or creating obstacle courses for each other. The whole time that they are doing this play, they are working on all of the foundational social skills, literacy skills, math skills, fine motor, gross motor and on in ways that feel authentic, exciting and relevant.
How do your students, and the parents of the students, feel about forest kindergarten?
Malkah: It is definitely one the highlights of the entire week for the kids. The parents have really loved seeing their kids connect with nature in these new ways. Because we are a co-op, all of the parents have the opportunity to experience this alongside their kids, which is such a unique aspect. While most of our families have been hiking or adventuring in the forest many times before, there really is something different about a large group of kids, working together to care for and learn about a wild space. At the end of the year, the word that we used most often to describe the whole experience is “magic.”