Our group of home learners here on the Gulf Islands has made plans to be outside during our time together one day a week. We are calling it Forest School, and while it is not a new or original concept, it is a new intention for us as a group to meet at a local farm (which has lots of forest) and play games, explore, honor values, and create team building opportunities. Our mild, west coast winters make it quite easy to be outside, providing we are moving and have a warm fire to sit by. The “original” format of Forest School came out of Wisconsin, but also Sweden, Denmark and the UK, all places with more difficult winters than ours! Wikipedia says this about forest schools:
Forest school is a type of outdoor education in which children (or adults) visit forests/woodlands, learning personal, social and technical skills. It has been defined as “an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment”. Forest school is both a pedagogy and a physical entity, with the use often being interchanged.
Forest school uses the woods and forests as a means to build independence and self-esteem in children and young adults. Topics are cross-curriculum (broad in subject) including the natural environment, for example the role of trees in society, the complex ecosystem supported by a wilderness, and recognition of specific plants and animals. However, the personal skills are considered highly valuable, such as teamwork and problem solving. The woodland environment may be used to learn about more abstract concepts such as mathematics and communication. Forest school provision is also called nature schools.
In Denmark it became an embedded part of the curriculum for pre-school children (under seven years) stemming from their småbørnspædagogik, or ‘Early childhood education’. Children attending Forest kindergartens were arriving at school with strong social skills, the ability to work in groups effectively, and generally children had high self-esteem and confidence in their own capabilities. In 1957, a Swedish man, Goesta Frohm, created the “Skogsmulle” concept to promote learning about nature, water, mountains and pollution. With an increasing focus on measurable outcomes, forest schools have gained acceptance as an educational method in their own right.
Beyond primary school age children, forest school is frequently used to further develop social skills and explore creative learning and focuses on developing firm foundations for continued personal and education development.
Forest School Canada says this on their website~
Our vision is for all Canadian children to play and learn in local forests, creeks, meadows, prairie grasses, mountains, and shorelines with a wise and skilled educator who understands the power of play and child-directed learning and how this can contribute to a more sustainable world.
Forest School Canada runs a practitioner’s course in conjunction with the the UK Forest School Association. The course is “a program steeped in the tradition of Forest School abroad, but grounded in the realities of the Canadian experience.” Julie Johnston, our Spring Leaves resource teacher and facilitator attended their July 2014 program held at UVic — a wonderful week of outdoor learning about how to engage children in outdoor learning. They focused on risk assessment and management, practical outdoor skills (fire building, tool making and safety, flora and fauna identification), woodland management, the theories of holistic learning and development, and the establishment and delivery of a Forest and Nature School program.
Our Spring Leaves Forest School is a blend of Forest School ethos with the themes in Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, which is a book about the principles, games and other activities in Coyote Mentoring, a program and “way of learning” based on Tom Brown Jr’s Tracking School and Jon Young’s Wilderness Awareness School. Julie’s background in outdoor and experiential education and the combination of these two programs has created a wonderful foundation in which our group can explore the needs of our large span of ages (preschool to 13, plus adults!).
We have had three weeks of our forest school so far. Each week we have left our cars and made the 5 minute walk through agricultural fields and up to a place with a fire pit surrounded by bench seats. We have a circle, where we each have the chance to say how we are doing, feeling, or what we are grateful for. Julie introduces the theme of the day, and offers an activity or game that gets us involved in the theme. We have spent time practicing our owl eyes, deer ears, and fox walking, and considered what around us we can catch, gather, eat, climb and tend. We have made ourselves aware of potential hazards of the area, and made sure everyone understands what to do in case of getting lost. We did some tracking and observing of landmark features, and we spend some time in our own quiet meditative sit spot. We also have a growing list of fun games to play.
Our kids have grown up in nature. Their everyday world provides them with opportunities to connect with nature, from looking out the windows, to walking or bicycling down the road to a friend’s house, or spending time kayaking, or looking up at night to see the brightness and clarity of a sky full of stars. I have seen them, as babies, toddlers, and little children, fall in love with rocks, sticks, clouds, trees, and fields of grass. It seems very clearly inherent, instinctual, and life supporting for us as an earthly species to understand and feel our place as interconnected, as a part of the natural system. I think it leads to a deep sense of well-being and confidence, a foundation for children to bring into the adult world strewn with so many detrimental substitutes. Here is my own list of benefits to being outside as a form of education:
In nature we find peace, reflection, micro systems, macro systems, observation, exploration, growth patterns, elemental effects, cascade of reaction, challenges, physical movement, high intake of fresh oxygen, moving up and down, scrambling, reaching, walking carefully, stillness, problem solving, understanding safety, being closer to the reality of survival, understanding comfort, help from others, learning skills and then doing them, leading others, helping others, asking questions, seeing our effectiveness or consequences, fun, playing games, imagination, diversity, seasonal cycles, life cycles, beauty, creativity, symbiotic relationships, healing, spiritual connections~ mind, body, spirit.
I am sure this list could be plenty longer. I am also sure that some things on this list are attained in other ways. This is what I experience, and what I see my children experience when they are outside. Over many years together as a changing group of home schoolers, other parents also agree that basically, being outside together seems to be the most satisfying and uplifting scenario, for the kids and for the adults. Finding that this type of “education” is recognized as being consistent with Attention Restoration Theory, where children taking part in forest school have been described as more relaxed, is not surprising. Relationships between the children and each other, with adults, and with the environment, are important. Forest schools have been found to help children with additional support needs, including Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autistic children. The Biophilia hypothesis argues that a love of nature is instinctive. The term ‘nature deficit disorder’, coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, recognizes the erosion of this by the urbanization of human society.
Forest Schools are being created all over the globe, with classes filling to capacities. It is no surprise that we recognize the need for such educational reform, especially in the early years, but also as we grow. There is a Hopi word, koyaanisqatsi, which means life out of balance, or a state of life that calls for another way of living. The way we bring our next generations into the world is a vital part of all systems that we as humans need to change to bring ourselves back into balance.
Deep thanks to the family of the Valley Home Farm for opening their beautiful land to us.