Different But Similar: The Scandinavian School and The Children’s Garden at The San Francisco Botanical Garden


I usually write about the spaces WHERE play and community activities intersect. Today’s blog – intended for January but a bit late – is about HOW two institutions are already engaging children in healthy and exciting ways.

The Scandinavian School in San Francisco and the Children’s Garden at the San Francisco Botanical Garden (the Botanical Garden is a collaboration with the Recreation and Parks Department) contrast a distinct new program within a small non-profit preschool with a long-established program that is part of an eight decades old public institution. Each highlight how exploring nature can become a part of every child’s life. They are linked philosophically by the belief that nature can provide the most stimulating and invigorating challenges for young children.

I have written before about the way nature play spaces are often compromised. In this blog and in The Science of Play I have pointed to “nature areas” where there are signs telling visitors to keep off the rocks; where a piece of equipment is surrounded by a few plants and dubbed a “natural environment,” or where a manufacturer has attempted to “replicate” a forest by creating equipment that mimics logs and trees. It has often been very disheartening.

The Scandinavian School (Scan) and the Children’s Garden (CG) have avoided these pitfalls (have a look at the photos each has provided). They are among the very few American examples I know where children are immersed in the unpredictability of nature. The best other instances I have seen in this country are the Painted Oak Nature School in Hopewell, NJ and The Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. If you know of others, please bring them to my attention.

The Scan is a Scandinavian language immersion school. Mimmi Skoglund is the director who with other parents founded it just a few years ago. It has two parallel programs. The regular, five days per week preschool is impressive for its use of recycled and repurposed materials. Children have a great latitude in choosing activities and they use these everyday materials for creative art projects and for informal science observation. The messy “backyard” is where kids spend time outside – rain or shine-and where they can have the joy of scampering in mud whenever it rains.

The other program (also language immersion) – which is three days per week for 3-5 year olds with a maximum of 12 participants – is what really encourages me that we could have change in America attitudes toward what we allow children to do. This program combines the best practices of Scandinavian countries, where children spend hours outside each day in cold, snowy weather with the British concept of a Forest School, where children are taken on a regular basis to spend an entire day in a wooded setting. In this San Francisco version, children arrive at 8:45 am and leave at 3:15. They board a specially equipped bus, head out to sites through the city without ever spending anytime inside a building. Head teachers Åsa West and Jesper Klinghed guide them on how to think about their place in nature; how to be careful near dangerous areas. They are free to touch, manipulate whatever they find that looks interesting. The bus provides a place for a hot lunch and for napping. If you are not familiar with San Francisco’s climates, you need to know that this is a city where it is often cold, sometimes rainy, and frequently windy.

The CG offers similar opportunities with the further advantage that its space and programs are open to the public, with free admission for San Francisco residents. While the name “children’s garden” in an exquisite botanical garden would seem to imply a pristine site with little chance for touching, that is absolutely untrue here. The CG, which has been expanding its programming since 2006. exists to make children aware of their place in the grand scheme of nature and to prepare them for responsible “stewardship when they become adults”. Director of Education Annette Huddle explains that such simple things as brush piles or decaying logs offer unlimited ways to discuss what lives in them and why, the purpose of decay and how it contributes to ecological balance. Simulating the variability of nature, she has always let the garden evolve by interests of young volunteers and kids who come; there is great flexibility and ability to respond to how the garden is used. There are classes that inspire the children but it is also a relatively small site, nestled at the back of the Botanical Garden, that kids can come investigate on their own.

Like the SCAN, the leadership of the CG understands that children are intelligent individuals who can act carefully and thoughtfully if they are given the option. At the same time, they will mature best when they get to make their own decisions and see how cause and effect works.  The SCAN website, explaining the school’s philosophy, seems to reflect the views of both SCAN and CG:

We see children as competent and believe that they depend on the way we relate to them.  In other words, if we trust children and permit them to be thinking responsible individuals, they will thrive. I can’t think of a better recipe for parenting! Or a better definition of how we should conceive of spaces for children.

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