Forest Schools: Learning in the Forest

Learning in the Forest
Forest schools and preschools allow young children to enjoy and learn from Nature in an unpressured and healthy outdoor environment.

by Jennifer Gautreau

As I drive this winding bit of country road, a forested ridge rises on my right and fertile farmland drops gently away on my left. Somewhere on this scenic part of my drive, I begin to feel calmer. I’ve left the energy of the city behind and entered a simpler, quieter place.

I turn onto a gravel road lined by tall grass that leads to a school in the forest. There are two wood-clad buildings surrounded by gardens of wildflowers. These simple structures blend into the trees and they are the physical manifestations of the Carp Ridge Eco-Wellness Centre near Ottawa, Ontario. It provides all types of services, from naturopathic doctors at the Health Clinic to seminars on sustainable building practices in the Learning Centre. These are also the grounds for the Carp Ridge Forest Preschool (CRFP) and that is what brings my son and me here every Thursday morning.

The sounds of the forest greet me when I open the car door. I like to stand still for a second and listen to the birds and the crickets. I can feel the weight of the city leave for awhile as I sniff the air, heavy with the smell of growing things. Every week, I’m thankful that my son gets to spend part of his day here. It’s through this program that I’ve been introduced to the concept of forest schools, their history and what kind of impact they can have on our children.

The CFRP was the first of its kind of Canada but the roots of the forest preschool movement are in Denmark. There are also many schools in other parts of Scandinavia, Germany and the UK. Like its European counterparts, the CFRP maintains a small student-teacher ratio and has a child-led learning mandate.

The school’s coordinator, Marlene Power-Johnston, decided to start a forest school after working in traditional daycares. “The institutions didn’t feel right for my values. I was absolutely frustrated,” she says. She felt that policies based on measurable outcomes like reading and math were not appropriate for such young children. “There is too much pressure on our young children. Hands-on experiences are needed, not learning from a book,” she believes. Once she realized that an alternative was needed, her research led her to authors Richard Louv and Carl Honoré. Their books, Last Child in the Woods and Under Pressure respectively, helped her to realize that a forest preschool was the right way “to express everything I am passionate about.”

The term “kindergarten” – children’s garden – was coined in 1840 by the German Friedrich Foebel. He felt strongly that children needed to be outside as much as possible to develop properly. Over time, his ideas morphed into what we now think of as traditional school settings. But, in 1952, a Danish mother applied Foebel’s original ideas to teaching her own children. Since then, the idea has spread to include roughly three hundred forest preschools in Denmark alone, fueled by the realization that mainstream systems are failing our children.

In Germany, there are now over seven hundred forest preschools, many of them government subsidized. They are also popular in the UK and Hungary, where the government requires that all primary school children spend a mandated amount of time in a natural setting.

The forest preschool has many different forms. One model has the children outside for most of the day. There is usually a building available for use in times of dangerous weather (i.e. high winds, lightening or extreme temperatures) but the woods are the main play area. Other models have the kids outside for shorter, specific time slots, if, for instance, the preschool isn’t located within or next to a wild space.

That’s a bit like what I do with my son and the CRFP. We live in an urban community, so I have to drive him a half hour to the school. Initially, I questioned why I was driving so far just to get back to Nature once a week. But after spending one morning tromping through the forest with him, my doubts disappeared.

But perhaps the most important tenet found in most forest school philosophies is the child-centered approach. This is integral to fostering a child’s love of learning and empowerment. Small student-teacher ratios enable staff to honor the creative energies of the children. If a child wants to check out what’s on top of a rock outcropping, then the group sets off and a new adventure begins. Often, decisions about what to do next are made as a group.

Group tasks like bridge building are a good example. One day at the CFRP, one of the students wanted to cross a little stream without getting his feet wet. So he suggested building a bridge. And they did. Through this activity they learned, by trial and error, what it takes to build a bridge using only what is at hand. They also had to work as a team to get it done. And the tactile skills they used increased their confidence in their bodies while supporting gross motor abilities.

Many of the biggest changes occur with children that are often deemed difficult or underachieving by mainstream programs. These kids can succeed because the forest programs look beyond academic performance. The Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois has studied the effect of green outdoor play settings on children labeled with ADHD. These children are better able to focus and concentrate than those who played indoors or in areas without any greenery. If exposure to green spaces improves symptoms of ADHD then the converse could be true. As Richard Louv points out, lack of time to play outside in Nature aggravates symptoms and creates a disengaged and disordered child due to what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

Watching my son explore a forest with complete confidence, not afraid to turn over rocks and look in holes, listening to him tell me about a blue jay he saw in a birch tree, knowing his creative energies are honored – these are all important gifts to our family from the forest school.

Jennifer Gautreau lives in Ottawa, Ontario. She is a stay-at-home mom who is nourishing a budding freelance writing career. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.