Intervju: Gaja Žnidaršič

Life in these modern times forces us to spend much time indoors, whether for work or free time. We do not take enough time for ourselves to spend outdoors, in the forest or in the sun, even though that is vital for our physical and mental well-being.

The following is the interview with Gaja Žnidaršič, a bachelor of preschool education, who is a mentor for children attending her free-play forest workshops. The children during her care spend most of the time outdoors, mostly in the forest.

1. Why do children and their parents need nature and to spend time in the natural environments?

Unlike us parents and their grandparents, our children live in a very urbanised world, which is not ideal for human physiology and the optimal development of children. Our parents spent most of their childhood on streets, grass fields, forests – outside. We are the last generation to know how it used to be and the ones that can convey this to our children.

This epidemic has shown the distress that spending too much time indoors can cause to children. Additionally, many studies on movement and overweight children have shown how harmful it is to spend excessive amounts of time between four walls and behind screens.
Nature, on the other hand, can be a great example of how to cooperate despite our differences and strive for unity in diversity. Only time will tell how much harm we have caused our children, by taking away their precious time in nature. I want to act now for my children because preschool time is crucial for the development of the brain, the deficit of which cannot be made up for later in life. My motivation is also that in this preschool time children build a firm foundation for their expansion as adults.

2. How does nature affect the child’s comprehensive development?

Play. Have you ever asked yourself what it means to play? How much do you still play as an adult? Do you not miss the feeling of getting to know yourself through play? Exploring your capabilities, your limitations? Feeling the pleasant warmth of self-exploration inside you? Yes, playing is not just for children. But for them it is work. Work, through which they learn and grow. In the preschool period of the child’s development, many new connections in the brain are built. These connections can be built through play. And through boredom. Many times when we see a child being bored, we feel sorry for them. But we are wrong there. When a child is bored and gets over it, they grow. Especially when that happens in nature. When they overcome the limit of boredom and set a goal that they want to reach.

When they climb up to a set point, when they build or move or saw through something. They develop their proprioception, which means that the child learns to be aware of their body in space. The child has to adapt to several different factors in nature. When they walk on a beam in the gym, surrounded by pillows, they do not have as many challenges as in the forest. With proprioception, they also build on very important coarse motor skills that must be built in the preschool period and are a fundamental basis for the child’s future. They are developed on uneven ground – slippery roots, logs, ice, climbing trees and other physical activities. Yes, that affects the development of the brain! And even their ability to focus. Children who don’t have well-developed stabilisers often have difficulties with keeping focus. They might even have trouble with good posture, which has been connected to experiencing greater levels of distress. On the other hand, children who will be very active in nature will have well-developed stabilisers – a sense of balance – which will affect their ability to focus and their mental health in their childhood as well as later on in life.

Emotional regulation is also built in nature, next to a gentle support of sensations like natural colours, textures, sounds and so on. On top of that children in nature build on sensory integration, connecting multiple sensations into one information.

Don’t you feel happy when you bake a great dessert and get complimented by others? Or maybe men who like to fix things on their own, and don’t have to buy a new thing because of their ingenuity. You succeed by investing effort into a self-set goal. In the same way, children want to reach a goal that they set for themselves. How many times do we take this opportunity from them because we live in a world where we are always in a hurry? When they have time and opportunity to overcome difficulties on their own, they grow self-confidence. And if they do not succeed they learn that failure is a part of life. Testing and moving their own boundaries. By doing this, they create a healthy relationship with fear and their capabilities. In the forest and nature they learn to creatively solve problems. Nature is a great example to us of how we can work together despite our differences and strive for unity in diversity.

3. Gaja, you have started the first organisation of the forest workshops in Slovenian Istria. Why have you decided to do that?

Since I was a child, my parents (mother agronomist and father forester) have spent a lot of time with me on hikes and different types of nature, and I have always felt good there. I still love hiking, riding and living in nature. More and more I see how much nature develops in all its beauty, different textures, colours, smells and how it thrives in all its diversity. Something people do not know how to do. The tree grows and thrives in its one and only spot that it is adapted to and connects with its environment. It makes as much as it can from itself, with what it can access and does not desire more.

It is interesting to me how everything is connected and in balance in nature. This tree offers shelter to different animals (birds, rabbits, insects), with the help of fungi it connects with other trees and forms new dirt from its leaves.

I have been working as a preschool teacher for 10 years and have not seen a kindergarten that implements forest pedagogy in practice. That is why I decided to do that on my own, as this way I think I can offer the most to the children, most importantly, a genuine connection with nature and themselves. Children in regular kindergartens are offered a limited spectrum of predetermined activities, limited space and, because of overcrowding, limited possibility for independence, which forces them into blind obedience. In this environment, it is hard for them to develop their imagination because the activities are the product of the educators’ imagination and not their own. Children are deprived of discovering themselves and their identities. Here, in the forest, the child can follow themselves and their imagination, with a whole collection of materials at their disposal. A child can gain self-confidence, imagination and a connection with themselves through experiences that help them grow. Nature itself provides them with its own limits and frameworks in which the child can act according to their abilities. As they develop, the limitations of nature broaden and with it children’s skills and awareness of their abilities. This knowledge remains lifelong, especially since it comes from their desire.

“He who listens – forgets, he who sees – remembers, he who does – learns.”

4. What kind of changes have you noticed in children attending the free-play forest workshops?

In this short time being active with these forest activities, I have noticed that the children are healthier, that they have gained in physical endurance, balance, patience, independence, good self-image, emotional expression and knowledge on trees and edible wild plants. Due to the non-homogeneous nature of the group, they are more empathetic and advanced in cognitive abilities. However, childhood is the time of our existence in which we create guidelines and views for our inner world, so it will be clear only after some time what we have invested now.

5. Would you like to add anything we have not covered?

I would like to advise parents and youth that sometimes you have to throw your heart over the hurdle, so to speak, and listen to yourself. Children desperately need frameworks in which they can develop and where can they find this better than in the nature from which we originate. Nature teaches us to respect each other’s boundaries. It encourages us to develop our own potential. It teaches us that we do not need to be perfect, as nature is lovely in all its imperfections. Not one leaf is equal to the other, one colour is not as another. It inspires our imagination. Even offers us sensory work, because one third of all sensory organs are on the fingers. It prepares us for adulthood, which we can enter into in connection with ourselves. So that we know what we want, what we do not want, and that with joint efforts, a lot can be achieved. If we want a compassionate environment, we must put the heart first.

The interview was prepared by NOMED.