[Note: I have added updates at the end of this post] Last month, as part of my Churchill Fellowship travels, I met Viola Zürcher, the leader of a German forest kindergarten (strictly speaking a waldkindergrippe or forest crèche, which takes children aged under three). Her setting runs five days a week in a wooded area on the edge of the city of Freiburg. Like other similar settings, it has a small, temporary hut building as an indoor base.
The visit was meant to be a brief social call, arranged by Freiburg residents and play advocates Peter Höfflin and Ellen Weaver (my tour-guides-cum-translators for the day). But the conversation took an unexpected turn.
Fr Zürcher said they were going to have to move, because of a major building project nearby. However, that was not the main problem.
What really made Fr Zürcher unhappy was that they were going to have to find a meadow or field location. She said that under the city’s new policy, outdoor kindergartens are banned from being based in wooded areas.
She has been told that all new Forest kindergarten huts must be located in areas that are free of trees. She told me about two settings where the trees around their huts had had to be cut down in order to comply. She joked that maybe they would need to change their name to ‘meadow kindergartens’.
She was unsure who was behind the new rules. But she suspected it was because of accident and insurance concerns. She said, “nobody wants to be responsible if there’s an injury.”
Fr Zürcher shared other accounts that reinforced a picture of growing risk aversion. She told me about an article on fires that she had written for a specialist magazine.
As with many outdoor learning settings, fire has an important place in her programme. She starts with a morning circle every day, with the children taking turns lighting a candle.
As a trained forest kindergarten leader she knows the best ways to include fires in her programme, and to manage the risks. “My article set out all the important things about our practice,” she said. But when it was published, all this material had gone.
In place of her descriptions, the magazine had substituted the suggestion that settings should use wooden stakes with red and yellow cloth strips tied on them – or perhaps a photograph of a fire – to simulate the experience. “What are the children going to learn from that?” she asked me rhetorically, “that fire is shiny and flat?”
She was absolutely clear that these safety concerns were not just an irritant, but fundamental barriers to her philosophy of teaching and learning. “We get sidelined into talking about what is necessary for safety,” she said, “when we should be talking about what is necessary for pedagogy.”
Fr Zürcher’s setting already follows tree safety procedures that would sound burdensome in some countries. For example, tree experts come twice a year to inspect her site (a flat area with few if any large old-growth trees).
Needless to say, I was taken aback by what I was hearing. German parents have an international reputation for their robust approach to children’s everyday freedoms.
Forest kindergartens and similar settings are popular throughout Germany, and the country also has some celebrated adventure playgrounds (including one based in Vauban, Freiburg’s world-renowned sustainable urban neighbourhood).
Studies of children’s independent mobility reinforce this picture, as does the popularity of adventurous, naturalistic play spaces (in Freiburg and elsewhere in the country).
Expelling forest kindergartens from the forest flies in the face of all my beliefs about German thinking and practice on risk in childhood.
Prof Höfflin was taken aback too. A long-time Freiburg resident, parent and veteran play advocate who is well-connected with regional and national networks, he had not heard anything about the new rules.
Prof Höfflin has offered to take up the issue. I am sharing it here in the hope that it will open up debate in the city, across Germany and beyond.
“We get sidelined into talking about what is necessary for safety, when we should be talking about what is necessary for pedagogy.” Viola Zürcher
Of course, risks do arise in woodland settings – especially from high winds, and in some contexts from fire, and plant and wildlife hazards. The question is how to manage these risks in a sensible and proportionate way. (For a nice example of how to manage the risk from wind, see this article from leading UK forest school practitioner Lily Horseman.)
We in the UK have faced similar questions over the years. And as followers of my work will know, we have developed an effective answer, in the form of risk benefit assessment (RBA).
RBA is an approach that is well established in UK outdoor learning and play settings. What is more, it has begun to get serious international attention.
When I explained the idea of risk benefit assessment to Fr Zürcher, her immediate reaction was “is it available in German?”
I would welcome comments here. I am particularly keen to hear from German educators and play advocates. Does what is apparently happening in Freiburg sound familiar? Can anyone give me any more details?
I would also love to hear from officials from Freiburg City Council itself. Of course it is important to get the facts straight. It is possible that Fr Zürcher has misunderstood the situation (though I strongly doubt this, having listened to my recording of our conversation).
If I have painted an inaccurate picture of the City’s position, I am very happy to be corrected. If the picture is accurate, I would urge the city to reconsider its position.
And I invite play and outdoor learning advocates to take up the issue, and to challenge any rules, regulations and guidance that are based on spurious safety grounds.
As Fr Zürcher said to me, “if children are never allowed to encounter risk, how can they learn to deal with it?”
Update 9 April 10 pm: Lily Horseman (whose post on wind I linked to above) has pointed out that my longtime collaborator David Ball has gathered statistics on tree safety in the UK that put the risks into context. He says, “in terms of fatalities, the statistics point to around 5.4 cases per annum. Given the UK population during the study period (1998-2008) averaged 60 million, this indicates an annual individual risk of below 1 in 10 million. To put this in perspective, the lead regulator (HSE) has said that risks even as low as one in a million per year are extremely small when compared with the background risks of everyday life, and that most people are prepared to accept risks of this magnitude from all manner of hazards in exchange for the associated benefits.”
Update 16 April: Over the weekend I spoke with Petra Jäger, who set up Germany’s very first Waldkindergarten and is active in the movement. It appears there is a problem with the location of forest kindergartens in Germany – but that there are also some signs of progress. In her Land (German region), Schleswig-Holstein, new laws passed last year have clarified that forest kindergartens can operate in woodland settings, as long as they have an alternative location available for use during poor weather. The new laws explicitly aim to “secure by law the operation of forest kindergartens”. It appears that the problems were to do with planning laws restricting buildings and construction in forests.
As Fr Jäger pointed out to me, Germany’s federal structure means that different regions have different rules and regulations. In one region at least, the legislative framework appears to moving in the right direction. Perhaps there are also lessons for Baden-Württemberg (Freiburg’s region).
As to the wider question of growing risk aversion in outdoor learning in Germany, Fr Jäger was also more positive. She told me how things have changed for the better since she first started her own setting 25 years ago. “It was a disaster,” she said. “Everyone thought it was too risky.” Now the concept is accepted and supported by Government. “We have over 2000 Walkindergartens across Germany,” Fr Jäger told me, “and the numbers are growing every week.”
Fr Jäger still faces challenges around risk and safety. For example, she described how she has had to come up with some creative approaches to fire-based activities. But she also worries that people are taking up the model who do not have such a strong feeling for the basic concept, which may lead to poor practice.
Finally, on a networking note, Fr Jäger also told me about an exciting global development. 2018 marks the launch of the Global Forest Kindergarten Day on 3 May. With my Forest School Association patron hat on, I will be adding my support to this, and invite you to do the same.