That’s It! All homework must be done in the woods

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Picture by Mike Esterl, for the WSJ.

As I sit by the light of the computer, with my 12-year-old at my side, who is still laboring over his homework, long after his brothers are asleep, I stumble across the slide show of the fortunate little kindergartners featured on the front page of the April 14, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (German Tots Learn to Answer Call of Nature.) This kindergarten class (the US-equivalent of preschool) is held in the woods, following the original philosophies of the original kindergarten opened over 150 years ago by Friedrich Fröbel, the German educator. “Playing in nature, rather than focusing on letters or numbers, was best for young children,” he said. That’s a sure-fire antidote to our stressed-out preschoolers.

My favorite line in the WSJ article is this quote from one of the kindergartner’s teachers, Ms. Schnaar, when asked about the children outside, four hours each morning, in 40 degree weather. “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing decisions.” Interestingly, the fresh air seems to keep them from getting sick as often. (The German children wanted to know also, if the American reporter, Esterl, was a cowboy, or an Indian.)

Quite a dichotomy I feel as I watch these young children play in the woods in the slide show, exercising their imaginations, while I worry that the only tree my 12-year-old experiences lately is our wooden kitchen table. As his mother, watching him suffer to keep his eyes open, while the pending doom that he may miss a homework deadline looms. I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach.

But he’s a big kid now. Right? He no longer needs to play, explore and to have enough free time to decide he wants to make a lance out of a stick, and then to make one.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, did I stuff his time with enough moss, tree stumps, and dried leaves in the small allotted time I was given? Or has the onslaught of homework wiped out all the nature that was poured into his soul?

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Another time, I will write about the house I left behind, the fairy-tale house in the woods that my two older sons relished in. They’re running here in this photo below. Can you tell this was years before I got my new camera? Can’t help but notice our little lovely Max there, down in the right hand corner.

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True, we do have the lake, but I’m starting to wonder if even that’s a “sure thing.” Strange, how we have school vacation in the summer, yet the coaches are already mandating sports schedules that start in July. Don’t these people ever take vacations? Ever heard of them? A three-hour commute may be tough. Will there be a summer at the lake?

Inspired, and a bit “scared straight,” after reading this article about the importance of the outdoors to our children’s emotional well-being, I vow to take the kids to the woods everyday after school. Through sleet, snow, ice and rain. My oldest can do his homework there in the woods, sitting on a tree stump. As if it were real, I can almost hear the pain in my son’s voice as he proclaims how “embarrassing it will be to do that.”

Still, knowing that fresh air and green grass, is so beneficial to the mind, I’m sure that doing homework outside, while his brothers build tee-pees and castles around him, could probably help him get the work done so much faster. This will be a tough sell. Especially if it is sleeting, and his homework does get wet, and ripped, and I have to write nightly notes to his teacher, “I’m sorry, but the homework got beaten up in the hailstorm yesterday afternoon. Again.” I guess, I could just give him a stack of notes, pre-signed, that he could keep in his backpack and whip out whenever needed.

Now, I think about that house we looked at five years ago, just a few blocks away from this one, that sat directly in a woods. We turned that house down. Terrible floor layout. How I wish we had it now. Who cares about the floor plan, when the kids get to spend time outside building sofas out of tree stumps and twigs; what they would call a “wald sofa.” How much happier we’d be. Ahhh, but yes, the kids wouldn’t be able to walk to school from there, like they do here. And, sure, our houses may be piled on top of each other over here; but we have those chicks.

Seriously, about this homework problem. Here’s a story about starting a revolution. There’s a book, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It, that lays everything out.

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10 comments on “That’s It! All homework must be done in the woods
  1. I can vouch for German forest kindergartens. Daisy was at the local one before starting official kindergarten, and Ollie is at it now. They are wonderful; teaching children to enjoy nature whatever the weather and increasing their appreciation of the natural world. I think it also enhances their sense of wonder.

    When I have more time, I will read the article. Thanks for pointing me to it.

    Charlotte, how wonderful for Daisy and Ollie. I’m sure they are happy children, who sleep well at night!

  2. I worry about my kids not getting enough time outside. Well, I know they don’t. I just don’t have energy like I need when I’m pregnant. I hope that this new baby travels well and I can take her places with minimal fussing. I hope. We’ll see.

    I also have read that having to do a bunch of homework isn’t any more beneficial than just doing a few math problems of each type, or whatever they’re working on.


    Heather
    , I think the book at the end of the post is full of data that backs this up.

  3. I have strong feelings on this subject. The pressure for kids to learn more and more, seems to be only setting up situations where they actually achieve less and less.

    I think that have time outside to investigate clears out the cobwebs so their brains actually are able to learn much better. Children cooped up inside chained to their homework are being taught to be slaves to work. That just isn’t healthy…certainly not emotionally.

    It’s about time we teach our children how to deal with the challenges and pressures of life and still have time to take care of themselves emotionally. If they don’t learn to do things to feed their souls, no one is going to do it for them.


    Risingrainbow
    , your comment has challenged me to add “stress-reduction” to my list of Mommy duties. Now is the time, I guess, to begin to teach them about how not to become a workaholic, to read your inner warning signals… etc. Great points you’ve made here.

  4. This article and the quote about clothing remind me of a Waldorf kindergarten/daycare in Denmark called Nökken. The kids there, including children who have just learned to walk, essentially spend all day outside. The little ones even nap outdoors in prams! The director, Helle Heckmann, says the same thing about clothes–you just need to be prepared. Warm layers and outerwear to keep you dry, and there’s no reason to go inside.

    Of course, that’s something Americans are horrible at. I marvel at how little people wear to keep warm…and then they wonder why they’re always tired and getting colds!

    I hope you can find a way to get your boys outside every day. I can see the benefits for my kids–not just learning about nature, but learning about themselves. Balance (climbing rocks), strength (picking up logs and rocks), patience (building “houses” out of branches and stumps), observation (what’s blooming now?), dexterity (can I make a bow and arrow with this stick and this string?), etc. All crucial for their development.

    Henitsirk, a friend gave me a pair of nylon snowpants, which I wore all the time this year at the lake. I was amazed at how warm I was. I started wearing them inside our drafty house too!

  5. Hear, Hear! I am with you.

    Lexi begs to be outside as long as possible when the bus rolls in every afternoon. Then it’s homework, homework, homework.

    The funny thing? When we were on spring break and we were playing outside a bunch, she CHOSE to read at night. No pressure or struggle.

    I spent my summers outside, playing in the woods, hardly a toy in sight. I realize more and more just how lucky I was.

    Lisa, you’re right. As long as they think they “have to” they think it’s bad.

  6. I agree with henitsirk about learning about themselves – and don’t forget imagination. That is something I think kids are losing because they are either in school or after school activities and don’t have any time to play. We had a broken down stable across the street from us (basically a stone wall) that we turned into forts or castles or whatever we needed for the game we were in on that particular day. But it was a different time when we could disappear for hours and my mother didn’t worry about us. We also had an entire playgroup within our family (there are 6 of us) so we didn’t have to worry about friends being free to play with us:) Paradise lost indeed.

    Mary Beth, this reminds me of the book Roxaboxen. I love that this is part of your past.

  7. I generally agree, though I’d like to see parallel studies, with results tested according to a believable standard.

  8. It’s romantic. this notion of the outdoors as good, better, best. And of course it’s an ideal. But by weaving even a little bit of it into our children’s busy, scheduled, indoor lives we help them. And that should be enough. As parents, we can only do our best within our personal contexts.

    cce, Thank you. Comforting words here, that I am taking to heart. Beautifully said.

  9. Homework in the woods. . . you are the coolest mom.

    I remember going to Jr. High in 6th grade and being shocked that we didn’t have a “playground” at the school.

    Jenny, and no recess?!! I was crestfallen.

  10. If the WSJ article made you feel guilty and as if your kids don’t spend enough time outside, read The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.

    You’ll be ushering them outside for breakfast and not bringing them in until after dinner and picketing the school system to make them do the same!

    Kidding aside, it is very enlightening.

    Wesleyjeanne, thank you.. Just ordered the book… I’m ready for some kind of transformation!

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