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Ever heard of 'forest kindergarten'? It's a fresh approach to early education.

Ah, recess. It really was the best, wasn't it?

A chance to get some fresh air, burn off extra energy, and fine-tune your kickball or hopscotch skills.

But thanks to the Common Core and No Child Left Behind, recess time isn't what it used to be. Schools are focusing more on early reading and math skills, even if it means sacrificing playtime or the arts.


But what if we're doing it all wrong?

You can take our recess, but you can't take our freedom. Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Research suggests that learning to read by the end of kindergarten doesn't have long-term benefits and that play-based, child-centered preschool programs result in greater academic achievement by the sixth year of school. Studies have also shown that kids who are active perform better in schools.

Logically, one might think that schools would incorporate more playtime into their daily schedule, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, some schools in the United States are cutting back recess to make time for more academics.

You'll find a much different approach in Denmark.

Danes have something called forest kindergartens, which are more similar to an American preschool, despite the translation.

No need to pass notes here. Image via Søren Markeprand, used with permission

I saw this firsthand during my time at a forest kindergarten in Gløstrup, Denmark. The schools metaphorically knock down the walls of the classroom to take learning, development, and childhood back outside.

Each day I watched preschoolers play outside in adorable one-piece snowsuits (because even a Scandinavian winter can't keep these kids indoors!). Seeing these tiny humans climb trees well above their heads and cut tree branches with child-sized saws nearly gave me a heart attack at first. But by the end of my short experience, I was ready to go back in time and attend a forest kindergarten myself.

Not even a little worried about splinters. Image via Søren Markeprand, used with permission

Their fresh air philosophy is reflected in the daily schedule at a forest kindergarten.

Kids spend most of the day running around, climbing trees, growing and preparing food, having bonfires, picking apples, and other outdoor activities.

People in Denmark "have a fundamental belief that nature and outdoor life is healthy and good for the children," according to Søren Markeprand, leader of the Stockholmsgave Centrum forest kindergarten in Kongens Lyngby, a city just north of Copenhagen.

You can tell by the attendance. While schools like this exist around the world, over 10% of Danish preschoolers attend some sort of nature preschool, according to the Danish Forest and Nature Agency.

Just a straight-up good time. Image via Søren Markeprand, used with permission

In terms of safety, Markeprand says that he's worked at forest daycare centers for 15 years and has never experienced a serious accident. A child may cut their finger, but it gets bandaged, and they have the chance to learn from the experience.

The joy of discovery. Image via Søren Markeprand, used with permission

School leaders believe that a child needs as much space and freedom as possible.

The break from adult disruption gives them time to develop imagination, self-esteem, and the confidence to handle situations independently.

This isn't just a fair-weather affair. Image via Michelle Doak, used with permission

Markeprand believes that kids at a forest kindergarten are more socially competent, have better interpersonal skills, are more curious, and have healthier bodies and minds than students in traditional classrooms.

For all you skeptics, there's data that this works.

According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Danish students outperform American students in math and science, despite their less "rigorous" early schooling. Plus, Danes have long been considered some of the happiest in the world, so that doesn't hurt their case either.

So maybe it's time to learn a thing or two from the Scandinavians and, at a bare minimum, put recess back into our schools. Not only do kids need time to play outside and just be kids, but this could also improve their performance in the classroom.

I like how Markeprand put it:

“I think that children should have the freedom to be children have fun, joy, and a great environment to explore and experience the world."
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