Freedom to thrive at a Berlin preschool

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.

Fostering autonomy

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.

Promoting competence

Children were trusted to be capable and responsible, and to self direct their own learning. The role of the adults was to step back to give the children the freedom to follow their interests, while at the same time, conveying to them that they are always available when needed, be it to model carving, co-construct factual learning about the natural world or simply listen. I noticed that the adults’ language was positive and I rarely heard a ‘no’ – not because the teachers were laissez-faire, but because the children did not require much behaviour guidance or adult intervention.

Rather than walking (or riding their bikes) as a tight group all the way to their chosen place in the forest, the voyage was separated into numerous sections. Once everyone had assembled at a spot, the adults would tell the children where the next spot to stop was, which was generally around 100m away and always in clear view. This allowed children to make their way at their own pace – which included a lot of running.

Children were trusted to be capable and responsible, and to self direct their own learning.

Facilitating connection

I observed several rituals during the day that promoted children’s belonging, eg a morning meeting with a set structure and rituals before eating breakfast, and then also a meeting at the end of the day.

The unhurried pace and long periods of unstructured play allowed children to connect deeply with their peers and educators on their own terms. The spacious, natural environment evidently had a calming effect on adults and children alike, and the ever-changing flora and fauna opened up many opportunities for observation, sensory exploration, investigation, appreciation and connection.

The adults all demonstrated deliberate listening skills. By dedicating sufficient time, and offering their undivided attention to the children, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups, they were able to truly hear and connect with them and give them a voice — thereby empowering the children to express themselves. Their contributions were clearly valued, in alignment with the statement made by Carla Rinaldi, Pedagogical Adviser and President of Reggio Emilia: “Listening is attributing value to others”.

It could be argued that some of the stress and mental health problems children experience today are in fact at least partly caused by a society that is overprotective, overcontrolling and often overscheduled.

Rather than promoting children’s healthy development of autonomy it underestimates their potential and does not provide opportunities to challenge themselves and develop their capabilities. Society seems to have lost sight of the importance of offering children opportunities to build deep connections with their peers, parents, communities and the natural world.

While not all early childhood teachers have the opportunity to educate children in the wonderful environment of a forest, beach or bush school, I strongly believe it is worth reflecting on how we can contribute to children’s wellbeing by fostering their autonomy, competence and connection within the opportunities and constraints of our own settings.

Almut Weiler Anderson completed a Master of Teaching in Germany before emigrating to Australia. She then undertook postgraduate studies in Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University and has been working as a preschool teacher for the past decade. She has a particular interest in children’s risk taking, anti bias education and nature pedagogy. In 2017 she was awarded the Australian Family National Early Childhood Educator of the Year award.

Anderson’s first picture book Auf der Suche nach Rosa (Looking for Rosa), a story of self-empowerment featuring a girl who overcomes her fear of doing things for herself, was published in Germany in 2018.


Rinaldi, C 2006 In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching and learning. London: Routledge.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L 2002 Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.