What Happens When Kids Go to School in a Forest

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: For this Israeli family, life is all about nature - starting with a natural home birth

From left, Luria Kandel-Vardi, Uri Kandel and Danielle Vardi, with Elisha Kandel-Vardi.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Luria Kandel-Vardi, 3, Uri Kandel, 38, and Danielle Vardi, 38, with Elisha Kandel-Vardi, 15 months, from Moshav Amirim; arriving from Heraklion, Crete

Hello. What were you doing in Crete?

Daniel: We wanted to go to Sinai to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday, but it was hot, so at the last minute we bought tickets to Crete for $90 – except for Elisha, whose ticket cost $150.

What do you do?

Uri: I’m a social entrepreneur, Danielle is a creative artist.

Cool! In what field?

Danielle: I renew ceramics, and create collages by pasting decals on items from flea markets or second-hand places, with my friend Chen Kitsis. We’re called OneOff, and lately we’ve started to conduct workshops.

Where do you live?

Uri: A year ago, we moved from Jaffa to the north, because we wanted to change priorities: to put family and community first. We thought we’d find alternative education for our children there, but there isn’t any. In another year and a half we’ll move to Tzivon, a new, cool community [near Safed]. There’s an initiative by parents to set up the first school in Israel for forest education, in the Galilee.

Excuse my ignorance, but what is forest education?

Uri: Most of the time, children learn indoors, and the first thing forest education does is change that concept. One of its main goals is to cultivate a person’s ability to be mindful of himself and his surroundings – and nature is the ideal setting for that. The assumption is that a child who is closed up in a classroom or building is from the outset less prone to learning and cognitive development.

Does such a thing already exist?

Forest education has existed for decades in Scandinavia. We will establish a school in which nature itself is a type of teacher. Being outside enables learning based on curiosity, creativity and inspiration; learning that stems from the child’s inner desire to know, to explore, to experience.

Is there a precedent in Israel?

The Shomrei Hagan [“Keepers of the Garden”] organization has been doing it for 20 years with enrichment groups, and we are drawing on their pedagogy. Forest preschools are recognized by the Education Ministry; the first one was founded in Mitzpeh Ramon. I recommend that anyone involved in education – everyone, actually – visit it.

Why forest? Why not democratic education or anthroposophy?

Uri: Those are excellent methods, but only suitable for certain parents and children. Nature is an optimal learning space for every child. It’s rich in pedagogical resources, which a good forest teacher can exploit to cultivate skills and knowledge.

Danielle: There’s something in nature that makes it possible for every person to find his way and his pace.

What actually goes on? Are there regular classes?

Uri: It’s not radical and it’s not un-schooling. There is a curriculum, there’s a structured daily schedule, orderly pedagogy. The core subjects – English, arithmetic, Hebrew, reading and writing – are taught, but through forest means. You can learn science by lighting a fire, learn engineering and arithmetic by making a shelter. Going into nature is not anti-technology, it’s also something that can be integrated. What’s important is the amount of exposure, the way children are exposed to technology.

Sounds good. Where else does nature enter your lives?

Uri: Danielle gave birth at home and I delivered the baby, because we didn’t have time to get to the hospital. The doula gave me instructions over the phone. The truth is that you have to keep your cool.

Wow. And how do you feel about each other now, after such an intense experience together?

Uri: I’ve been even more in love since then.

What did you do before moving to the north?

Uri: Until a year ago, I was an adviser to the director general of the National Insurance Institute. I loved the job. I discovered an organization with good people who do their job with soul.

People really hate the NII.

Uri: It’s a place that gets a lot of criticism, some of it legitimate and some of it not. For Israel’s expenditures in the social and health realms to be equal to the average rate they lay out in the OECD, we would have to be spending another 60 billion shekels [$16.8 billion] a year. That says it all. With a gap like that, it’s obvious that the system will not succeed in offering a proper response to every citizen.

Marie Klawitter and Gadi Avidan.
Tomer Appelbaum

Marie Klawitter, 25, and Gadi Avidan, 35, from Moshav Shdema; flying to Stockholm

Hello. Is that an accordion in your case?

Gadi: Yes. A year ago I got excited about the concept of being a one-man band. I started to build the whole set, and I’m almost done. I thought it would be great to combine that with an accordion.

And where are you going?

Marie: We’ll visit my family and we will look for a place to grow vegetables, because of our way of life: sustainability. There’s a community outside Stockholm, in a place called Jarna. We’re also dancers, and there’s a studio there that we can use. And in July, we’ll go to Finland to take part in a dance festival.

Gadi: And we’ll come back to Israel in another three months.

What kind of dance do you do?

Gadi: Contact improvisation. It’s a form, usually with at least one partner, where dancing is improvised and includes a point of contact, a prolonged physical connection with the partner. You lean on him, lift him, roll with him.

What does a dance like this look like?

Marie: It’s open, there’s no structure, no rules. The dance can look like whatever you want. There can be three to five people.

Gadi: Maybe we’ll also host a workshop on the subject in Stockholm.

Did you meet through dance?

Marie: I came to Israel to take part in a contact festival at Kibbutz Kfar Blum…

Gadi: I had just returned home to Shdema [an ecological community in central Israel] from the festival.

Marie: Yes, and I’d heard about the community in Shdema and went there. It was my dream to live in a sustainable way, and of course I was happy to find dancers there.

Gadi: We say we’re dancers, but that doesn’t mean do it all the time, or we do it for money.

Marie (to Gadi): But we’ve devoted a large part of our lives to it.

How did you get into dance?

Gadi: I was into sustainable life. I was living in a yurt, and my girlfriend had left me. I felt heavy, so I went to learn dance in Jerusalem.

It’s cool that you resolved the feeling of heaviness with the help of the least heavy thing there is.

Gadi: Right. Afterward I understood that the best choreography is to plant trees.

Why the choice of contact improvisation? How did you discover it?

Gadi: I studied education when I was 23, and we had to choose a class in shiatsu or in improvisation, which contact improvisation enters into. That was my favorite class, I was euphoric.

And you, Marie?

Marie: I’ve danced my whole life. As a kid I went to ballet class and all that. I stopped when I was 12, and at 17 I found contact improvisation and studied dance in Berlin.

What happened with the ballet?

Marie: I stopped. It was difficult. Hard-core discipline. Four hours a day, six days a week – that’s what made me lose the joy of dance.

Interesting that ballet looks as though it’s all lightness, but actually it’s heavy.

Marie: Yes, so when I discovered contact improvisation, it was like rediscovering the happiness that’s inherent in dance, and I could dance for myself and not for how the dance looks from the outside. It’s also a community-based dance, not elitist and professional-ist like ballet.

Sounds like it goes beyond the dance genre.

Marie: That’s right. To be part of contact is also to be part of a global community. It doesn’t matter where I go, I’ll always find people like myself. It’s a family environment in which people from all over the world meet. In professional dance, there’s no family feeling.

Gadi: It’s more competitive.

Marie: Yes, because it’s the dancers’ job.

What is there in this dance that unites people into communities?

Marie: Contact improvisation is dance that reflects you and your personality. Through dance you can see how a person connects to things – whether he likes to lift or be lifted, how a person experiences contact. It’s also always a mirror of the place you’re at in life at that moment.

Gadi: And it’s calming, because it’s less ambitious. In a certain sense, this dance is surrender: You make use of the laws of physics, you pay attention to your weight and where it takes you. It sounds grandiose, but it’s very simple.