Forest Kindergarten is STEAM by Nature

Special Focus : Roads Less Traveled: Alternative Approaches to Education
Early Childhood July 19, 2018

“We’re going to pour the water now!” yelled an excited voice from the forest. Suddenly, with that announcement, all the forest kindergarten children, no matter what they had been engaged in, rushed over to the hillside that had been repeatedly cut with channels and constructed with deliberate diversions. Within these channels, several children had carefully designed waterfalls, stick houses – some directly in the flow and others on stilts – and a dam. The children’s idea was to recreate a tsunami and see the effects of extreme and rapid water flow. As Quinn and Lucas worked together to pour the 3-gallon jug, all the other children described what they thought was going to happen. Each had different hypotheses about which way the water was going to go, how fast it was going to go, whether or not it was going to break down the stick houses, blow out the bridge or breach the dam they had constructed. As the water rushed down, the children squealed in delight. They began to immediately notice whether their hypotheses had been correct. They chatted non-stop as they made observation after observation. It was gratifying to the Cedarsong teachers to watch the children’s rich science learning unfold in front of their eyes with no direction or pre-set lesson plan.

Many in the education field are aware of the buzz in early education called STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) or STEAM (STEM plus Art). Most STEM programs operate indoors with a heavy emphasis on teacher-directed science curriculum involving hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion. Unfortunately, even children who are fascinated by science begin to lose their interest at an early age because the typical STEM curriculum is not spontaneous or fluid and does not following the children’s interests.

The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten is naturally a STEAM program. Most, if not all, of the child-directed activities during their free flow forest kindergarten day involves some Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. During their flow learning at Cedarsong, children are highly engaged in natural discoveries, experimentation and conclusions. Since their learning is self-directed and intrinsically motivated and takes place while they are having fun and in a real-world experiential context, the lessons in STEM skills are learned deeper and retained longer.

Nature provides endless opportunities for children to explore STEM concepts without the need for overlying curriculum or teacher-directed projects. When children are unselfconsciously interacting with nature, they are fascinated by its physicality and do not yet know about concepts like gravity and volume. An activity as seemingly simple as pouring a bucket of water over and over contains rich lessons for the child who is intently studying the flow and noticing differences having to do with volume and speed.

From our many years of experience working with and observing children authentically engaging with nature, we notice that children are highly interested in “the science of it all”. they try to make sense of the physical world and its laws by observing, questioning, problem-solving and experimenting, using all of their senses.

Outdoor experiential learning by intrinsically motivated learners is the ideal environment for eliciting emergent STEAM curriculum. Teachers can guide and support learning by using the inquiry-based teaching style, asking open-ended questions designed to increase a child’s problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. Interestingly, these are reported to be the three most important job qualifications expected to be needed in 2020.

Playing with mud and/or sand leads to lessons in physical properties of substances, texture, porousness, strength, durability and usually involves the use of tools. The children experiment with how much water to mix with dirt depending on their goal for the final product: is it to build a mud statue, or a dam or to use as face paint? All these applications require a different ratio of water and dirt. We may ask leading questions such as “Do each of the different types of mud stick or not stick to tree bark when thrown?” “Why do you think this mud has a different smell than the other mud?”

Young children are naturally drawn to collecting and sorting objects and, true to form, the Cedarsong children often notice and collect the newest forest floor found objects. Through our leaf, bark, dirt and myriad other collections, the children are studying patterns, sorting, classification, counting, color, shape and symmetry. At Cedarsong we may ask leading questions such as “How are these leaves in our collection the same and how are they different?”

When children of any age are allowed to free play in nature, great learning takes place. This learning can be enhanced when adult mentors and guides draw out the conclusions through open-ended questions. The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten model is one of the best methods for introducing STEAM concepts in a manner that is relaxed, organic, emergent and fun. There is no better way to keep children’s natural fascination with science learning intact.