Cuddled under the covers, I relished the luxury of a nap. Four months pregnant and a mother of two, it was a rare opportunity. As I tried to sleep, I heard the rain beating incessantly against the exterior blinds. Guilt diminished what could have been my perfect moment. I was warm under the covers, but my little boy was outside, somewhere in the woods.
I should clarify. I did not leave my four-year old son in the woods alone.
I’m not such a terrible mother. He was with his forest kindergarten group, the Waldkindergarten, with two responsible teachers and twelve peers. Out in the forest, four days a week, from 9 am to 1 pm, rain or shine (or snow, for that matter). Still, the rain was pouring, as it had been for the past ninety minutes. I was snuggled down; he was outside. Maybe I should have kept him home for the day. Maybe I was a terrible mother.
I still remember my Schnuppertag, or trial visit, in the Waldspielgruppe...
Only four months earlier, we had left out native Mexico to come live in Switzerland. I was expecting my second son in May and was looking for activities for my elder son, who would soon be three. My online research had brought me to the Wurzelzwergli Waldspielgruppe, which met in the edge of the Linde forest every Tuesday morning. Parents dropped off their kids, dressed in whatever gear the weather mandated, and then they would sing a song in Swiss German, wave goodbye, and wander into the forest.
There’s a saying in Switzerland, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
And they took it to heart. On a rainy day, dressed with rain boots, plastic overalls, and sleek waterproof jackets with a protruding hood, these kids were ready for a morning of fun in the mud. My son had never worn one of these rain overalls, and I’d be surprised if any of my friends back in Mexico had ever bought a pair for their children. Come to think of it, I don’t even know where anyone would buy them. Yet, in Switzerland, these waterproof overalls were a staple in any walking-age child’s wardrobe.
On our trial-visit morning, the forecast was dry. Still, most of the children were wearing their waterproof overalls, while others wore jeans stuffed bulkily into their socks to keep away deer ticks. All of them wore ankle-high waterproof hiking boots, and carried a backpack with their water bottle and snack. Since it was our trial visit, I was invited to come along for the full morning.
We started on the path, carpeted with moist brown leaves. The forest was alive with the chirping of unseen birds and the chatter of children. The sunlight glistened through the dense foliage as children gathered sticks to use as swords, or stopped to crouch over a mushroom or snail. Even the air felt alive, smelling of moist earth and wild flowers.
After ten or fifteen minutes, we arrived at a clearing. This, I was told, was where the children spent the morning.
I looked around for an indication of a defined play area. I don’t know what I was expecting. A little cabin? A slide, a see-saw or a swing-set? Toilets? But there were none of these. The kids sat on wooden stumps, taking out their snack boxes and water bottles, and placing them on other stumps that served as tables. Appeased by a slight semblance of structure, I noticed the stumps formed a circle around a burnt-out fire pit.
When the kids finished their snack, they wandered around the clearing, balancing on fallen tree trunks, moving dirt with rakes the teachers had brought along, and turning over stones to look for earthworms. The teachers began to stack the fire pit with broken branches, and I was surprised to see three-year-olds collecting sticks and helping to start the fire. My son approached the pit with curiosity. “Have you ever had any accidents?” I asked the teachers, keeping one hand firmly on my son’s chest as he enthusiastically thrust dry wood into the flames. “Not in the twenty years since we began,” I was reassured.
Still wary of the fire, I nudged my son in another direction. A few kids were gathered around a little makeshift work table, a board placed over two tree stumps. As we watched, I realized these little ones were hammering nails into a piece of wood, and using metal hammers! I couldn’t fight back my fear that one of the kids would turn to another and knock them over the head with solid metal. Most three-year-olds I knew still had the occasional tantrum and threw Legos at each other. Could they really know the difference? Throughout the morning, I watched kids using a saw to cut creases into branches, play too close to the fire, and take turns with this hammering activity. As I recalled every baby-proofing advice I had ever received back home, it became clear I was in a very different world now.
The funny thing was, even though it was completely out of my comfort zone, I knew I wanted this for my son.
I couldn’t finish wrapping my mind around it, but on some deep level, it felt right...
The baby-proofed, structured and didactic environment my son would have had in a kindergarten in Mexico seemed lackluster in comparison. He would have definitely learned more in Mexico, in terms of ABCs and colors, whereas there was no academic curriculum in the Waldspielgruppe, yet there was something refreshing about these toddlers being given the freedom to make their own playground, literally out of sticks and stones. There was an air of maturity in these little kids who were allowed to approach dangerous items, such as hammers, knives and fire, but taught how to do so with caution. Disregarding my prior (and very culturally influenced) perceptions, I found myself questioning which lessons really mattered most at this young age
And so, later in August, clad in rain overalls and with socks stuffed into his new hiking boots, my son started attending the Waldspielgruppe. It was such a success that, one year later, he increased his mornings in the forest from one to four, as he began his first official year of Kindergarten, in the Waldkindergarten.
Which brings me back to the morning of my ruined nap.
After three hours of constant downpour, the rain stopped. I drove to the edge of the forest to wait for my son. As I waited, I tried to convince myself that they must have sought shelter inside. There was a little room in the school next to the forest, which they used in case of a storm. I wondered if they considered three hours of rain a storm. I knew I did. None of the other parents seemed concerned, but then again, my son was only one of two non-Swiss kids in the class. No wrong weather. Right. I winced, as I quietly prayed they had been inside.
Down the path came my son, gear and face muddied, hair soaked, eyes glistening and smile wide. “Tell me you were inside this morning,” I pleaded against all evidence. With a big grin, he shook his head. He wasn’t Swiss, but he was a kid with no preconceptions to aggravate him.
My second son is now in the Waldspielgruppe, and even though I’ve been twice through the four seasons in the forest with my eldest son, and thought I had adapted to the “rain or shine” premise, I learned that I hadn’t. It was only last week that my son was going to celebrate his fourth birthday with his peers in the forest. The cake was ready, but it was raining and I heard thunder in the distance. I checked my e-mail to see if they had canceled the playgroup. Nothing. Hesitantly, I prepared to get him dressed.
My husband assured me there was no way they were meeting and suggested I keep him home for the day.
I didn’t know what to do. When I finally got in touch with one of the teachers, she assured me that the day would go on as normal. By now, it was the start time of the playgroup and my son was not dressed. The thunder had stopped and so had the rain. I did not want the chocolate and M&M cake to go to waste, so I dressed my son and drove him over. As we reached the clearing, one hour late, cake in hand, I smiled apologetically at the head teacher.
I was sure she was annoyed at my undue stress and lack of confidence, but I couldn’t help it. I was Mexican. My husband was Mexican. My friends from Mexico kept their children home if it was under 10 Celsius. And more than four years in Switzerland had not been enough to make me fully embrace the going-out-in-all-weather philosophy.
Back home, looking out the window at the cool, clear day, I smiled, quietly proud of myself for getting over my insecurities and letting my son enjoy his day in the forest. I texted my husband about my decision. Twenty minutes later, it began to pour. Damn it, I thought, as my husband’s teasing text arrived: I told you so!
Once again, just like that morning two years before, I felt conflicted. But there was nothing I could do now.
“Did you have fun?” I asked my son when I picked him up. “You got caught in quite a bit of rain,” I prodded, wary of his answer. He smiled and told me how he huddled under a tree for a couple of minutes, but then got bored and went out to play. “We made soup with the rain and stirred it with a stick!”
I smiled, too, once again surprised that my fears had been unfounded.
I don’t know if I’ll ever fully adapt to the “no wrong weather” philosophy. What I do know is that a year from now, I’ll be trying again, as my third son wanders off for the first time with his Waldspielgruppe into the forest.
About the Author:
Lourdes Treviño grew up in Mexico, went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States, and lived in Switzerland for six years. She is an independent educational consultant, now based in Mexico, and a mother of three wonderful and demanding boys. She loves to read, write, cook, travel and spend time outdoors with her husband and kids.
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