Engaging children in learning: Forest Kindergarten vs Traditional Classroom Teaching

Over the past years I have volunteered at the Linden school to help teach fourth graders the importance of science in their everyday life. In a school setting the focus of the day takes a hard line approach towards learning with little time for exploration of ideas. This was the approach I have grown to expect when it comes to education.

With this background you can imagine my surprise when I learned about how the Friends of the Fells Kindergarten class would be taught. On my first day of work I saw kids with no experience in the woods running around and learning through their natural curiosity without the teachers having to push lessons onto the kids. 2014-07-29 10.09.24 (1)

This education style worked perfectly for the three to six year old student who is naturally curious and longs to explore the world around them. The Fells Kindergarten program understood this concept and thus created a lesson plan that is student lead.

Working with the Fells was the first time I had ever heard of a student led teaching style, and to be honest I was unsure how well it would work. I had thought that without the teacher leading the day the students would run around playing in the woods and have no wish to learn, boy was I wrong.

With its student led classes, the Fells kindergarten program allowed the kids to explore at their own pace, taking as much time as needed to understand a new idea before moving on. By asking questions such as “How do you think these trees got here?” we were able to challenge the kids with questions they genuinely wanted the answers to, allowing a moment of adventure to also become a learning experience. 2014-07-22 10.11.25 HDR

While teaching at the Linden school I often found it difficult to keep the students staying focused and on point. Especially if it was a topic that didn’t interest the student. Often I would look up from teaching and see one or two students daydreaming. This problem virtually disappeared with a student led program.

By taking the students into the woods and letting them explore at their own pace the Fells kindergarten class kept the students immersed in new experiences and ideas that could be explored for anywhere from five minutes to a whole hour. With the student having the choice to listen and learn or to continue exploring the students never got bored throughout the day, and while the student led approach might not teach as much as a program where students sit at a desk for hours at a time it allows for the students curiosity and creativity to take hold, traits that I feel are essential for kindergarten students.


Shawn watching as the kids build rivers and dams next to Spot Pond.

~ Shawn Smith is an undergraduate student at Salem State University.  He co-led the Forest Kindergarten for Friends of the Fells this summer, and came to us through the Malden Mayor’s Youth Employment Program.