9 Unexpected Things Entrusted to Toddlers…

If you follow along on Instagram (@toddlerintrees), you’ll notice that I’m forever taking snaps of various things that the toddlers are doing or playing with at forest school.  I’m not with them all day so these are usually from the morning drop-off hours – i.e. this is just the tip of the iceberg.

But it’s funny how perceptions are relative… for the educators and other parents here at the Danish forest school, they don’t bat at an eye as to these things being special or out of the ordinary for children.  Most might require some supervision of course, but one of the great things that forest school teaches is a very high level of trust that toddlers can – and are expected – to do quite a lot.

Unexpected ways to play for toddlers in forest schools in Denmark.

As laid back as I am (correction, as laid back as I thought I was), I just don’t know if I ever would see a lot of these (if any?) back home in the US…  But then again, I haven’t actually had a child in school in the US either since we started here.  Here’s a sampling of things that caught my eye since we’ve been here:

1.  Saws: At the pace these toddlers were sawing, they weren’t getting extremely far.  But yet, they each took their turn at working on breaking down extra pallets that they could then pack up with them for the woods for campfires.

2.  Wet Saws: Full disclosure, this one did not take place at the actual school, but at the Nature Center in Bornholm.  However, the nature center there hosts a lot of school groups so I thought this would be fair game to throw in.  We were there for this one; it was an exhibit that allows kids  to cut their own pieces of local granite.  It was with supervision of course, but I think I must have had a million heart attacks in the five seconds it takes to do it.  Everything was (of course) fine, but I can’t say that I would rush to do it again.  This, though, is a great example of me really having to question whether I get nervous about something because she can’t do it (because she can), or because I can’t stomach it.  With wet saws, I think I might have to draw the line, but the exercise of asking myself that question has been a great learning for me in this whole forest school experience.  It’s often a good reminder that sometimes, I have to step back and not let my own fears get in the way of her experience.

3. Frogs: And snails…and worms…and just about any living thing they come across.  They don’t “play” with them per se.  But they often are encouraged to find various animals, most of which they pick up and handle and learn about in the moment, before putting them back where they found them.  My first thought when I first saw this was “aren’t they dirty?” but the ease at which the kids gingerly handle them, and tell you all about them, has made me wonder “does it matter?”.

4. Wheels: Bikes and balance bikes and scooters and just about anything on wheels rule the roost.  The school yard where they meet is full of them, plus many of the kids bring their own.  Morning drop-offs can be like the Los Angeles freeway with the amount of traffic whizzing by, at autobahn speeds no less.  Kids fall, and they run into each other as they learn, and they might even run over you, but cycling is such an important part of Danish culture that apparently no age is too young to get up on wheels.

5.  Grilling Rods: that’s a double whammy….grilling AND rods.  Ha! Bonfires and camp fires feature regularly in their day, especially on colder days, and it’s pretty common that the kids will make something using the fire.  This could be sausages or apples or bread loaves or potatoes baked in the embers.  Sometimes, I wish they would make extra to bring home for the parents.  Like always there is supervision here but no teacher can hold thirty grill rods so you can do the math there…

6. Their own toys: Friday’s in our forest school are “toy time”, in which the children can choose a toy to bring and play with and then talk about during their circle.  Most of the time my daughter chooses a favorite stuffed animal, but as far as I can tell, there doesn’t necessarily seem to be many rules about what you can or can’t bring (I certainly have never received any), which means that the kids have to choose wisely using their own thoughts on this.  I’ve seen everything from princess tiaras (aren’t those anti-feminist?) to play swords (doesn’t those teach violence?) to little kinder egg toys (can’t those be choking hazards?) at toy time and everything in between…Guess what? The kids turn out okay…And the interesting thing is that, over time, choosing something for toy time has become something my daughter really thinks about and considers.  She uses her judgment not to bring her stuffed white favorite dog on the day when it’s pouring rain and muddy…she’s learned how to make decisions that balance what she wants to bring and share with what the considerations might be as to whether that’s a good idea.

7.  Mud and Sand: This must be forest school ingredient number one.  Sand is ubiquitous in Danish schools and playgrounds (forest or not).  And given that it rains more often in the year than not, there is mud to be found pretty quickly.  Both are very much encouraged and mud pies run in high fashion amongst the toddler set here.  And you’ll find it everywhere – on their clothes, in their backpack…you name it.

8.  Brooms and brushes: I can’t really figure this one out.  At first, I thought these were part of some sort of “teach kids to clean” initiative (though my daughter’s own state of cleanliness at the end of a long school day led me to have my first doubts), but half the time the kids are just using them to spread the afore-mentioned sand and mud further around. So who knows?  But the kids love them.

9. Herbs and foraged goods: This goes a bit with the cooking theme above… The kids are taught about things that are edible in the forest (and also, things that are not).  Here the kids had collected ramps and wild garlic… On  the first day she went, a naturalist joined them to teach the kids about mushrooms in the woods…And it helps kids understand that there are places other than just the grocery store aisle that produce food.

(PS: In re-reading this post, I realized I forgot the most common one of all – STICKS! Seeing my child with the stick in hand has become so common place, I haven’t even bothered to take a picture – I guess it brings them closer to the trees ;)) 

So, parents, what do you think? And what have been some unexpected play things that your own schools have brought in?


  1. Meredith June 9, 2015

    I really enjoy reading this blog, which I found through your other blog. My husband and I along with our 2 daughters (ages 8 and 4) moved to Hamburg, Germany from the U.S. last fall. I have also noticed a lot of these things in the German schools here. While my youngest daughter isn’t going to a Forest School (although there are plenty of those around), she is outside ALOT playing with mud, sticks, and every thing else you mentioned. They also have Forest Day every Thursday and the class heads out in to the woods for the day (when they go to one of the forests that is a little further away from the school, the class rides the city bus to the forest, which is always so funny to me to watch all those kids navigating public transportation). My older daughter (she is in 2nd grade at a local school) is having Forest Week this week. The class is spending the whole week out in the woods (they ride the city bus each morning and return each afternoon). They have found and examined tadpoles, frogs, leeches, dragonflies and even a snake so far this week. She is having a blast. Both kids are just in normal local schools, but I love how both school incorporate so much outside time (and forest time) in to their school days and weeks. This is definitely something missing from the public schools in the U.S. in my experience. Thanks for this blog!

    • A Toddler in the Trees June 11, 2015

      Thanks so much for reading along! Yes, I had read that there were a lot in Germany too (I think that’s where they started actually…) and I love that kids get outside even if they aren’t in a “forest school” per se – it’s similar here. Even if its’ not a forest school, kids still spend a ton of time outside and I actually think that’s the most important thing – to be outside and to be moving. Which hopefully is reassuring to parents who might be reading and discouraged that a forest school is not around them. The forest school is great but almost any school can make some effort to expose kids to just a little more of what’s outside. It’s amazing how quickly kids will take to it.

  2. Kelly June 11, 2015

    I went to a Waldorf-style school in the 1970s that was a lot like this. We came home filthy every day, and it was great. When I look back, there were probably one or two things we did that were not the best plan, but I don’t remember any serious injuries, so I guess it was all good. I might draw the line at a wet saw too, though :)

    • A Toddler in the Trees June 12, 2015

      They funny thing about forest school is that for some reason we first think it’s all so crazy but in retrospect, we all remember doing a lot of these things when we were kids – and we all turned out okay (right?) :)

  3. Cristin June 12, 2015

    Love your blog and FB page! We don’t have forest schools where I live in the U.S., but I apply your principles in my everyday life. Your posts are inspiring.

    • A Toddler in the Trees June 12, 2015

      Thanks so much and so glad to hear that you enjoy it!
      And I love that you’re applying the principles – after all, the forest school has been a great experience for us but the biggest lesson has been that it really can be done in any way that works for kids, it doesn’t always have to be through a formal school.

  4. HJ July 14, 2015

    It’s interesting to see how American perspectives on childhood differ so greatly from UK ones.Particularly, i am glad that this school has been a learning experience for you, as well as your child. I fondly remember being allowed to climb trees, play in the mud, pick up frogs and play with any toys; I think if we let our children learn their own dislikes then they will be more balanced, it really isn’t for us to tell a child she is wrong to play with the tiara because it is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression… my toddler would look at me so blankly.

  5. […] before, the expectations for supervision and facilities and the like can be really different here (unexpected play things for toddlers anyone?), and you might have to see a few schools in order to let that sink in.  But that being […]

  6. […] they require full on whittling to sharpen them once they run down but if you read anything about the wet saw and the knives, you know a little recreational whittling won’t scare this former forest […]


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