In the time since I became a parent eight years ago, my personal experiences and observations have augmented my academic interest in the question of how we, as parents, teachers and as a society, promote or hinder children’s development of autonomy, competence and connectedness, Almut Weiler Anderson writes.
With the support of KU Children’s Services, in 2017 I was awarded the National Early Childhood Educator of the Year as part of the Australian Family Early Education and Care Awards.
The award was generously sponsored by MyLife MySuper and their financial support enabled me to undertake a study tour to Germany in July 2018. There I was able to visit exemplary early childhood settings to observe their practice and engage in indepth discussions with teachers and parents about their priorities, attitudes and practices in educating or raising children.
Waldwichtel is a Forest Preschool in Berlin, and it was the first preschool I visited. What I found most striking during my time there was how little conflict, aggressive behaviour and negative emotions the children exhibited.
Instead, they were engaged and immersed in their play and actively and independently sought opportunities for exploration and learning. I left deeply impressed by the children’s independence, capabilities and confidence.
According to Deci and Ryan’s (2002) Self-Determination Theory, autonomy, competence and connectedness are the three universal, innate human needs that, if satisfied, allow optimal function, wellbeing and development.
I believe that the forest environment and the pedagogy that underpins it emphasises these three aspects, insofar as it enables children to experience themselves as competent and autonomous, and also provides them with ample opportunities to connect with their peers, their teachers and the natural world around them.
During the morning meeting, the children and their teachers discussed which part of the forest would be most desirable to spend the day in, taking into account weather conditions. Then each child voted for their preferred location and the majority vote won.
Children were given the liberty to freely choose the materials they would use, and the activities they would undertake, during their time in the forest. Except for a box with books, all provisions were open-ended eg, woodworking equipment. Children used what they found in the forest for their play, there were no toys as such – a wonderful way to foster imagination and creativity.
The children displayed confidence in choosing appropriate risks and challenges for themselves; be it in regard to how high they climbed up a tree, which height they could safely jump from, or which tools they used. In the 16 years that this preschool has been operating, there has only been one serious incident requiring medical treatment, and that was when a child stepped into a wasp nest and was stung multiple times.