The US has camp, England has the Brownies, and Switzerland has Waldspielgruppe. The idea behind a forest playgroup - or forest kindergarten - is to immerse children in nature from an early age.
Growing up in Switzerland in the 1980s, I remember being outdoors a lot. Rain or shine, we would bundle up in the appropriate gear to stay dry and warm. I guess that back then, children truly experienced the Swiss mentality of "there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing."
These days, youngsters seem to be spending more time indoors. I recently read a quote comparing the outdoor time of children with that of inmates in a high-security prison in Florida. (The latter spend more time in the fresh air than the former...) The concepts of Waldspielgruppe and Waldkindergarten in Switzerland try to counter this trend, allowing children aged two to five to spend time in the forest every week.
Forest playgroups have become more popular as of late. They provide a hands-on way of educating children about the value of nature. Sure, looking from the outside, it seems quite harsh to expose toddlers to the forces of nature. But the Swiss are a hardy bunch, after all. They did not dig tunnels into the Alps using a Swiss Army knife. And they have not conquered 4000-meter peaks wearing tennis rackets on their feet, either.
What the Waldspielgruppe Swiss forest playgroup is about
In a nutshell and from an educational perspective, forest playgroups are outdoor equivalents of indoor playgroups. While some programs take place outdoors exclusively, others are hybrids. Children might attend an indoor program most of the time, with a fixed morning or afternoon for outdoor play. That day, they would show up in gear, then walk to a nearby forest.
Now, most children in Switzerland already call a wardrobe of weather-proof clothing their own. Think plastic pants and rain boots that are otherwise only worn by fishermen. Or waterproof jackets with large hoods, jeans with extra layers of padding, or hiking boots and backpacks.
This type of equipment is ideal for forest playgroups in Switzerland. Rain or shine, parents will dress their children in all the gear. And in the event a water accident happens, most kids bring along extra pairs of socks and gloves and even a fresh pair of pants. Of course, all of the replacements are sealed in a water-tight plastic bag!
That way, the little ones can have fun in the mud, play on wooden stumps in the forest, or build a dam in a creek. Along the way, they would sing songs, learn about mushrooms and animal tracks, look for worms, balance on fallen tree trunks, or simply spend time picking up pine cones.
The smells and sounds of the forest spark children's natural curiosity. It needs no explanation that learning while seeing, smelling, and doing is more effective than its alternative indoors. And the many health benefits of spending time outdoors need no mention, either.
Znüni snacktime in the forest
With all that play and exploration, no wonder snack time is an important ritual of a forest playgroup. Usually, the groups spend time in one and the same clearing. Some would arrange wooden stumps around a fire pit while others build a forest sofa of twigs and branches. In any case, these circular seating arrangements are where the groups would meet for a Znüni snack.
Each child is dispatched with a lunchbox and a non-breakable, re-sealable water bottle. Tetra packs and food wrapped in plastic are not allowed. This alone seems like a valuable lesson for the future generation about nature preservation.