Research Summary

Cultural transmission at nature kindergartens: Foraging as a key ingredient

Educational benefits of foraging include the transmission of culture and strengthening children’s connection with nature

Canadian Journal of Environmental Education

This study focused on foraging practices in two nature kindergartens: one in Finland and one in Scotland. The aim was to consider how cultural practices are shared and subtly transmitted with children in two different countries.

Data was collected through observations, teacher interviews, and conversations with children at the two forest school sites. Systematic field notes -- recorded during 41 days of observation -- focused primarily on participant activities but included other relevant factors, such as weather conditions. Interviews were conducted with four teachers who were from the country in which the school was located. Thirty-two conversations with children – ranging from one to nine minutes in length – were recorded and transcribed. These conversations were initiated by the children and generally focused on what the children were doing or experiencing, such as fishing or cooking over a fire.

Three principal themes, relating to the transmission of cultural norms through foraging, were identified: (1) foraging as a choice versus a necessity, (2) adults and their agendas as conduits, and (3) situated and seasonal influences upon practice. In both settings, foraging was a choice (or “frivolity”) and not a human need. This factor determined the level of foraging which was both spontaneous and planned. At times, Finnish participants picked berries while en route to somewhere else, and only took what they chose to eat. At other times, their expeditions focused on collecting larger quantities of berries to preserve for later. Scottish participants sometimes brought other ingredients to their setting to combine with their foraged ingredients.

Other differences were also noted between the foraging practices of the two schools. While both schools had access to a lake, fishing was observed only at the Finnish school. A teacher in Scotland indicated that a regulatory agency had a fence built around the shore to protect the children. In Scotland, food from foraging was usually eaten only after a discussion of potential risks, such as pesticides. The Finnish children, on the other hand, seldom sought approval to pick and eat.

Seasonal factors also impacted the foraging activities at the two schools. The Finns took advantage of seasonal produce by seeking foods (including sap) when available in abundance. The Scottish participants started searching the forest floor in Spring when they knew the wild garlic would soon be appearing. Mealtime conversations included tales about their search for food and indicated that participants knew their wooded playscapes well.

While practices differed from one program to another, the foraging of firewood and food appeared to be a deliberate but subtle form of cultural transmission from one generation to the next facilitated by “conduit” adults. This research highlights the “lifelong educational value in repeating foraging rituals that mark the changing seasons. . .” This research also suggests that foraging can help strengthen bonds between children and the natural world.