What’s a good age for a first away-from-home sleepover, a first camping trip, or a first overnight school field trip?
How about 5?
Or maybe 3?
Those are the ages at which many German kindergartens take their charges on an annual camp-out. The trip, known as kitafahrten (fahrten means “wandering”), typically lasts several nights. The purpose: an exercise in learning independence and responsibility—and having loads of fun.
Sound a little, um, extreme? A recent Wall Street Journal report on kitafahrten had readers calling the practice “evil,” “nerve-wracking,” and “the beginning of loosening ties to parents.” Another mom asked, “Why don’t they teach these skills during school hours?” Said another, flat-out: “You don’t teach independence at age 3.”
Or do you? Sure, some parenting-culture differences seem wider than others. But even very young children have an instinctive drive for independence, say child-development experts.
Kari Ann Martindale found that out when she and her husband moved their family, including their 5-year-old daughter, Sequoia, to Germany, almost three years ago.
“It’s a world of hands-off parenting, hands-on learning,” Martindale, a writer for Germany Ja, told me. She was startled, in those first days, by just about everything she saw: kindergartners handling fire and using big sewing shears, first graders walking to school alone, second graders spending weekends at a youth hostel, kids of all ages playing outside without a teacher present—and yes, her own daughter going on a kindergarten overnight. (One teacher was bemused that, at 5, Martindale’s daughter could already read but knew nothing about weaving or riding a bike without training wheels.)
Consider some of the potential upsides of the kindergarten campout tradition:
Opportunities to explore—outside and unplugged
The kids camp in forests and on islands, and often sleep outdoors. Hard to argue with more fresh-air time and less screen time for kids of all ages, pretty much every expert on the planet would agree. (You can find “forest kindergartens,” where the whole day is outside year-round, throughout Europe, and more and more are sprouting up in the U.S.)
Hands-on learning adventures—without hovering
Imagine the mother of all field trips: whittling sticks to roast sausages, cleaning stables, riding horses, feeding pigs and chickens, swinging on a rope over water, singing around a campfire. Okay, even some German parents balk at the knives used for whittling. But the idea is to foster kids’ natural curiosity and desire to explore—and to help them develop a sense of competence by giving them chances to just try stuff.
“They can accomplish so much more than their parents think,” says Christiane Dittrich, head of a kindergarten in Berlin (who made such a trip herself as a kindergartner).
Learning to help one another
Whether by comforting a homesick buddy or sorting out a disagreement themselves, German kids are encouraged to be responsible for others, as well as themselves. It’s considered both skill-building and confidence-building for kids to take a crack at resolving social problems themselves first.
“My daughter started out as a pushover,” Martindale, the American ex-pat, told me. “She was a product of American preschools, so she wasn’t accustomed to schoolyard behavior that includes physical contact, unsupervised play, and solving problems without intervention.” Flash forward three years: “Now she exhibits a self-reliance that she certainly wasn’t developing when we were in America, where I was unaware of just how much I was helicoptering. With no one telling her how to behave in kindergarten, she had to just plain figure out how her social environment operated.”
Early practice with healthy separating
There’s no chance for the parents to fight over who gets to tag along as chaperones on these field trips—going away without Mom and Dad is the whole point. Compare that to the average age for a first-time overnight camper in the U.S.—7 to 9, according to the American Camp Association.
But unlike at American summer camps, these German kindergartners are traveling with all their buddies and familiar teachers. They’re not sent off solo to a total unknown (and packing stuffies is encouraged). Surviving brief, supportive separations—even from infancy—makes kids more confident, development experts say. As for homesickness, it’s an emotion that comes and goes in all of us, rather than a constant debilitating state. A report in the journal Pediatrics noted that practice being away from home actually helps prevent homesickness down the road. So does having parents who act upbeat about the idea, rather than “ambivalent or anxious,” said the researchers.
The German kindergartners are distracted from separation anxiety by being kept busy with really cool stuff to do. (See above: feeding pigs and chickens!) Parents aren’t called to come and fetch the sad. They’re not called at all.
The Germans, after all, invented kindergarten.
The word itself translates to “children’s garden,” which is meant to conjure up visions of greenery and stick play, not letters and numbers. Unlike here, kindergarten isn’t a state-mandated grade for 5-year-olds (or redshirted 6-year-olds); it’s an optional pre-primary school experience for ages 2 to 6. Picture classic, old-time preschool: Ages in a classroom are usually mixed. There’s no formal curriculum. No homework. The whole day is play-based. (Kids in Germany don’t learn to read until age 6.) And their play is often minimally supervised, compared with the typical playground scene in the U.S.
Martindale says she began to see the upside to the German approach once she got more used to the idea that she might not find out that the teacher had walked the kindergartners across town to the library until after it happened. She realized it’s not about whittling or camping or even Germany. It’s about something far simpler that anyone can do anywhere: Just. Step. Back. (Even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first.)
As she wrote in her Karilogue blog: “I saw that…
- Children were playing
- Children were having fun
- Children were learning independence
- Children were learning socialization skills
- Children were learning socialization skills outside of being with just children born the same year as them
- Children were learning to dress appropriately and go outside
- Children were learning negotiation skills
- Children were figuring shit out
- Teachers were trusted
- Children were not dying.”
“But for some reason, I’d been conditioned to believe that this is the scenario in which my child should live:
- We should always be within two feet of each other.
- If she is on a swing, the swing is positioned over rubberized mulch.
- I should be pushing her until we realize she’s 12 and doesn’t know how to swing herself.
- I should be standing at the swings next to another mother whom I’ve arranged to meet for a play date through a club of suburban mothers.
- If my child even looks like she might fall, I rush to catch her.
- I look around to see if any of the other mothers saw my child nearly look like she could fall.
- I discuss, with the mother next to me, the clear safety violations of the swing set, the park, and the township as a whole.
- The other mother advises that I should sue the township.
- I instruct my child on how to sit on the swing, how not to sit on the swing, the ramifications of sitting improperly on the swing, and the horrors of falling off of the swing.
- I tell my child that the swing is too dangerous and she should go play in the sandbox.
- I follow my child to the sandbox.
- In 15 years, I wonder why my child is not ready for the real world.”
Martindale says her new, more hands-off approach has made her a happier mom. She makes a conscious effort, for example, to wait until her daughter comes to her for advice instead of interjecting at the first sign of difficulty. “If I tell my child what to do every step of the way, she’s learning only how to listen to me, not how to make decisions for herself,” she told me.
Best, she says: “I don’t have to do much of anything these days to encourage independence in my now-8-year-old. Her behavior encourages me to do less helicopter-parenting, and her independence, which certainly has come along much earlier than we expected, just happens. That’s not our doing; it’s hers.”
Some might see the German kindergartners as growing up too fast. Or are our kids more ready than we think?