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Waldspielgruppe – Where Swiss Kids Learn Survival Skills

Wald- und Naturspielgruppe SarmenstorfToday, the Curly Girlie went off for the first time to Waldspielgruppe. Rather like England has the Brownies, America has Camp and (I'm struggling now) the Antipodes has some kind of light-hearted instruction on dealing with venomous creatures, Switzerland has "Waldspielgruppe", or the forest playgroup.

It's a classic rite of passage for Swiss kids and one that I've been anticipating with relish even though, to my softie British sensibilities, it's quite hardcore. After all, the Swiss are a hardy bunch – you don't hack a mountain pass out of the rock using a Swiss Army Knife and wearing tennis rackets on your feet without being pretty tough – and it starts in Waldspielgruppe.

At age three, the kids are wrapped up in All The Gear (more on that later) and dispatched with a lunchbox and a spare pair of socks into the forest to sing songs, pick up pine cones and learn which of the mushrooms are the really interesting ones. But here's the thing – they go once a week, from now until the Spring, whatever the weather.

And this morning, we had weather.

WaldspielgruppeBut first, let's go back a week. This time last week, thinking I still had plenty of time, I printed out my list of instructions. The Curly Girlie should be wearing long-sleeved trousers and top, waterproof boots and rain/snow/sunbathing* gear (*delete where applicable). She should be pre-coated in anti-tick spray, with special attention to certain vulnerable areas, which were highlighted. She should carry spare knickers, socks and another set of long-sleeved trouser and top, all of which must be in a water-tight plastic bag.

She must have a lunchbox containing Znüni (rather like elevensies, only the Swiss start everything earlier in the day, so they have ninesies), which must not contain biscuits, chocolate or sweets. She must have a drink in a non-breakable, re-sealable bottle. She must have at least two pairs of gloves, one of which should be thin ones that she can wear while eating Znüni, the other pair should withstand the weather. She should also have an appropriate hat, a picture of her entire family (I kid you not) and a jolly good time.


Right. Mild panic. All The Gear was purchased, labelled, found to be inadequate, either returned or sewed and otherwise altered, and eventually packed. Panic subsided.

Then, bright and early, the Curly Girlie was fed, hosed-down, de-flea-ed, tick-sprayed and dressed in the first layer of weather-resistant clothing. Again thinking I had plenty of time (this could be my personal motto), I embarked on applying the outer rain clothes. It was like trying to get a salmon into a pair of stockings. What seemed like hours later, I was still sweating and swearing, she was moaning and thrashing and so, of course, Alpha Blondie baby brother chose that moment to tip an entire box of beads onto the floor. So Mummy had a tantrum.

Presently, we were all in the car and on our way. That's when the weather started. Not the sort of rain that makes you think, "Oh, I'll get my umbrella". Not the sort of rain that The Husband's farming family refer to, admiringly, as "wetting rain". But the sort of rain that makes you say, "Bugger this for a game of soldiers, I'm going in the warm for a cup of tea and bit of Homes Under the Hammer".

But no, Hi-Ho Hi-Ho off into the forest we did go, with the Curly Girlie blundering out of one puddle and into the next because the rain was streaming off her rain hood right into her eyes, with Alpha Blondie screaming for reasons unknown (I think he also wanted to get soaking wet and filthy, but he may just have sensed that the attention had shifted away from his majestic self for a fraction of a while and was making his feelings known on the matter), and with me trying to ignore the rivulet of water going down my bum-crack because I'd forgotten (of course) to bring any kind of coat for myself.


We met the gruppe. Introductions were made, last-minute adjustments to backpacks were completed and shoes were admired (it is a Universal Truth that all children are inordinately proud of their shoes). Then, the Curly Girlie wandered off, bewildered but willing, after the rest of them.

We set off back to the car, head down against the rain, pram wheels cloying with mud and leaves, Alpha Blondie crying "Diddy? Diddy?", his name for his big sister. "Yes", I reassured him, "we have just left her in the middle of the forest, in the driving rain, with a total stranger". Pause. "Diddy?!"

Everyone I speak to, every book I read and every ounce of common sense that I own, tell me that you have to leave them sometime. I mean, I don't want the Curly Girlie to reach 18 and I still have to carry her into a room and walk around with her on my hip for the first five minutes because she's feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the Big People.


But it was hard: Her wet face peeping out of the rain hood; her soggy little backpack with its spare knickers and Znüni; her trusting eyes turning from me to the waldspielgruppe leader; her skinny legs splashing off into the deep, dark wood, even though she's absolutely certain it's full of Gruffalo.

Good job it was raining.

I went home and consumed at least four (and possibly as many as six) espressos in quick succession. Then, with a buzz that could rival any of Curly Girlie’s wald mushrooms, I hurried back to collect her. Would she be wet through and freezing? Would she be resentful at the abandonment? Would she be shacked up with the big, bad wolf?

Curly Girlie and her new best friend, whose name I later learnt was "boy", were barreling down a wet slide at the sort of speed NASA scientists dream of reaching. "Isch guet gsi!" cried the leader (It went well!). Curly Girlie echoed "Isch guet gsi!". Darn her if she hasn't been alive for less time than I've been learning German and she's already better than me.

"Yeah?" I prodded for reassurance, "what did you think of Waldspielgruppe?"

Then, Alpha Blondie fell arse-first into a water trough, so we all came home.
(Pictures courtesy Waldspielgruppe Wichteli and Waldspielgruppe Sarmenstorf)


Journalist and Glückspilz who blogs about her semi-feral children, barely-tamed animals and mostly-domesticated husband. Serial-expat and reluctant linguist who finds Switzerland weird and stimulating enough to stay put.


  • I have been searching the Internet for someone like you! And by that mean a expat mother In Switzerland We are making the jump in about 8 weeks to Zurich with a three year old and 18 month old in tow, and I would love any advice. Especially regarding adjusting my children to their new home, child friendly areas and activities in Zurich area, what to pack for them and what to leave behind. A world traveling enthusiast in my former years, somehow the addition of two youngster has me nervous about it all and you sound like you have it figured out. Best regards and hope to hear from you soon.

  • Hi Amy, may I say what a very good idea it is to move to Zurich! It’s a great place and has loads of fun activities for kids, so I think you’re going to have a blast. But arriving here, as anywhere new, can be tricky. I’ll send you an email to answer your specific questions, but you could also consider joining the PowerHouse Collective, which has just started up. It has a PowerBuddy system, whereby new arrivals get assigned a mentor who has been around the Swiss block a few times… Hope this helps!

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