It sounds like a Jewish mother’s nightmare: a preschool class held outdoors in the desert. But parents in this remote Israeli town drop off their children at Gan Keshet every weekday during the school year, setting them free to cook on a campfire, whittle sticks with switchblades and search for scorpions. Class goes on rain (rare) or shine (intense). Gan Keshet, which means “rainbow kindergarten” in Hebrew, is the country’s first “forest kindergarten” – and it’s public. Thanks to local media coverage and word of mouth, parents have lined up to enroll their children and educators across Israel have sought to emulate the model.
Hundreds of educators, students and parents have come to observe Gan Keshet this year alone. The school has become somewhat famous in Israel since the Channel 1 TV station ran a news story about it in April. The video has been viewed 1 million times on Facebook.
Yoav Donyets, Mitzpe Ramon’s education director and a committed advocate for Gan Keshet, said a half-dozen families had moved to the city to enroll their children in the school. For the first time this term, Donyets said, he could not accommodate all the requests for new students. And he expects the demand to be higher next year.
By the end of the 2012-13 school year, Ron Meltzer, the kindergarten principal, and his allies convinced Israel’s Education Ministry to designate Gan Keshet an “experimental school” and let him move class entirely outdoors. In 2015, the ministry upgraded Gan Keshet to a “model school,” meaning it would support other schools in adopting its approach.
A ministry spokeswoman said “a lot of local municipalities” were expressing interest in forest kindergartens and that a new experimental school was approved this term in northern Israel. Donyets and Meltzer said several private forest kindergartens opened this school year, and more public pilots were planned for next year.
Meltzer has twice visited forest kindergartens in Germany to get inspiration and guidance. Germany has more than 1,500 such schools, one of which was profiled recently in The New York Times. Forest kindergartens were first developed in Scandinavia and now exist in the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
As the Times noted, a study by a German doctoral student found that graduates of that country’s forest kindergartens had a “clear advantage” over their peers who complete regular kindergartens, outperforming them in cognitive and physical ability and in creativity and social development.
Read the entire story at JTA.