Learning and growing in an outdoor classroom
Forest schools take learning outside of the four walls of a traditional classroom, opening up a world of possibility for young students.
One glance at your neighbourhood playground reveals how much children thrive outside. What if traditional class time could also be used for learning, growing, and exploring the outdoors? Using nature as their classroom, forest schools are leading a global movement to connect children with the world around them.
Forest schools first burst onto the scene in the woodlands of Scandinavia during the 1950s. The benefits of an outdoor curriculum soon became apparent, and their popularity skyrocketed throughout the UK. In 2008, Canada’s first forest school opened near Ottawa; similar programs have launched around the country since.
There’s no prototype for what constitutes a forest school. Schools can vary by name—from “nature school” in Richmond, BC, to “bush kinder” in Melbourne, Australia—and are open to students from a variety of age groups.
However, curricula revolve around children having regular, frequent, long-term access to an outdoor space, with emphasis on play-based learning. Students use natural materials to facilitate creative, open- ended experiences, and their learning is shaped by the landscape.
Forests, rivers, ponds, tundras, meadows, fields—these can all serve as a classroom. Place-based education allows students to create deep, lasting relationships with their educators, their peers, and the environment, without the confines of four walls.
According to Kate Dawson and Emily Vera, early childhood educators at Terra Nova Nature School in Richmond, BC, place-based education means the curriculum is informed by the natural setting. Students learn the intricacies and nuances of the landscape, as it is both constant and always changing.
“Think of place-based education as the 100-mile diet of curricula,” Dawson says. “Children come to know a particular place intimately—it shapes all of their experiences.”
Students grow familiar with a place as it undergoes seasonal changes; connecting with its variations keeps them inspired and engaged.
Play is a crucial aspect of a child’s emotional development, allowing students to socialize and explore their creativity. Play helps children to articulate their needs, build relationships, and develop their own ideas.
Playing tag, sliding down hills, creating elaborate stories, whirling in circles through green space—through days that are structured and purposeful, forest school curricula put kids back in touch with their surroundings and their physical selves.
“Kids need to be out exploring, imagining, skinning their knees, and climbing trees,” says Mathilde Wennefolde. Now studying at the University of Melbourne, she has fond memories of playing as a child at forest school in Norway.
“The corn had just been cut in our field, and we were running along the rows of stalks, scraping them with our hands,” she says. “I just remember feeling really free.”
“The children begin each day in an outdoor gathering circle,” says Vera. “Sitting on our cedar stumps, we sing songs, share ideas, and plan our day together. We then head out onto our vast parkland, exploring the landscape and enjoying its subtle changes and offerings, such as newly formed buds, birds, and veggies in the garden.”
After that, they may eat lunch in their cottage, write in their journals, or observe flora with a magnifying glass, before gathering in a closing circle to discuss what they learned that day.
Across the pond at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) bush kindergarten in Cranbourne, Australia, the day starts in a similar fashion. Teachers bring their class to the bush once a week; they gather on gum tree stumps for morning tea, with the occasional wallaby wandering past to take a sniff of their lunches.
Mick Robinson, education coordinator at the RBG, notes that the freedom to explore allows kids to interact with their environment more creatively. Once in the bush, students build forts with sticks, observe plants and animals, and always return to projects they were working on the previous week.
With some forest school students spending 80 to 90 percent of their time outside, students learn to embrace all types of weather.
“Rain brings delightful activities such as puddle jumping, catching drops on tongues, and sliding down slippery, muddy hills,” says Dawson.
As long as kids have the right gear, a rain-or-shine mentality pushes kids to become more resilient and self-disciplined. Rain boots and a jacket—or sunscreen and a sun cap, in the case of bush kindergarten in Australia—are all they need.
Forest school curricula became the standard for preschoolers in Denmark when educators found that attendees developed stronger social and teamwork skills, with higher levels of self-esteem.
Compared to their experience teaching at an indoor preschool, Vera and Dawson say that children seem inspired to start more meaningful conversations.
“Outside, they enjoy showing each other their findings and exchanging ideas,” Vera says. “They have conversations about animals on the land. We have heard deep discussions about where a scat came from—was it from a coyote or an eagle?”
Parents have noted to Dawson and Vera that their kids are becoming increasingly independent and insightful. Indeed, research links outdoor education to sharper critical thinking skills, lower stress levels, and a higher capacity to pay attention. Children learn to observe and listen to their environment, and assess risks as they come.
With kids spending more time indoors than ever, forest school is a wonderful way to reconnect our youngest generation with our greatest resource. Research shows that by spending time outside, children become more physically capable and boost their levels of vitamin D.
“The children have become more observant of the world around them, and more confident in their physical skills,” says Dawson. “Their stamina has increased and we see them shine in a way not possible in an indoor setting.”
Teachers at the RBG bush kindergarten have noted similar physical changes. Kids are consistently active; they embark on 3.5 km bushwalks, jumping over puddles and climbing on fallen logs.
Forest school programs maintain that being knowledgeable about the environment pushes students to preserve it. Kids are inspired to seek out nature-based activities with their families and share what they have learned.
“Playing outside encourages inquisitiveness and a sense of wonder,” says Robertson. “Kids develop a sophisticated knowledge of the environment, and they want to share it.”
Through classroom activities such as recycling, composting, and gardening, Vera and Dawson have seen their students become increasingly eco-aware. Children learn about symbiotic relationships and that each entity is to be respected and cherished.
“We want our children to be mindful about taking what they need from the land, whether it is a dandelion or carrot from our garden,” says Vera. “As one student pointed out, ‘Every day at nature school is Earth Day.’”
Forest schools can be found around the world, and each program has its own quirks.
Most of Germany’s 700 outdoor kindergartens have no access to heated indoor facilities, even in the winter. Shelter comes in the form of an outdoor toilet, open-sided tent with a fire pit, or tool shed.
Swedish schools often visit meadows, where children are taught to ski. Sledding and canoeing are also cherished activities.
However, no toilets are provided—students are taught to walk seven bushes away, and dispose of waste safely and sanitarily.
At Forest School Wales, students of all ages are given access to a woodcraft workshop. They make mallets, spatulas, and bird feeders using a variety of tools and different carving techniques.
Isabela Vera is a former alive editorial intern whose love of the natural world has taken her everywhere from the top of the Himalayas to the depths of the Gobi Desert.
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Theodore D. Cosco, PhD (Cantab) CPsychol