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Publish at October 21 2019 Updated January 19 2022

School in the forest or education through nature

Does nature hold the key to the challenges facing schools today?

The forest as a classroom is not a utopia from another time nor a new trend. In 1950, Denmark was the first country to promote this type of school, even to take pride in putting children outside the classroom. The trend was then followed by other countries such as Germany (1968), Scandinavia (1985) , the United Kingdom (1993), plus the United States (2007) followed by Canada (2008).

France was a late entrant into the forest as its very first class was born in 2018. What explains the interest in these classes and how is the teaching organized in these so particular classes with wooded walls, vegetal floor or made of mud or fine sand? Do they really break with the traditional classroom or are they just a reproduction transferred to a natural environment?

Can forest classrooms respond to the challenges of learning for learners with special needs? In what ways do they constitute alternatives to the current issues related to the ecological crisis?

A fuzzy definition of a forest school Before we expand on the principles that govern forest classes, let's agree on one point: what exactly is a forest school? Forest schools exist in several forms that depend on the amount of time spent in the forest whether it is full time or part time and according to the frequency (one or more days per week, once a month or per year).

One observation that can be made is that the forest class is defined with blurred contours that refer to a reality that is sometimes far from their name. Indeed, several natural environments characterize these so-called " forest " schools: there are of course forests as learning spaces but also farms, parks or even beaches. In the forest, much more, than in the classical classroom, the five senses are solicited. Everything in nature must serve as a pretext for learning. Here, we touch, we smell, we taste, we listen, we observe. The learning experience becomes sensory.

"Forest School is an inspirational process that offers all ages regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment" (Murray & O'Brien)

Forest School is "an inspirational process that offers all ages regular opportunities to achieve and develop self-confidence through hands-on learning in the natural environment. " (Murray & O'Brien)

What are the objectives and principles?

"The goal of forest schooling is to build individual intrinsic motivation and a positive attitude toward learning, to provide opportunities for the child to take risks, make choices, and initiate their own learning. " (Davis, Rea, Waite's 2006)

"The forest school must allow for the personal, social, and emotional development of children. It is the children's self-esteem, confidence and autonomy that must be targeted." (Maynard,2007)

To be considered a forest school, the learning must take place over a long period of time and not just a few outings organized from time to time. Likewise, the learning must be learner-centered and take the natural context as an integral part of the educational program.

In this type of classroom, the student learns in and through nature (MacEachren, 2013). Moreover, learners must be guided by their own curiosity rather than by the completion of tasks dictated by the teacher. Finally, this learning must be playful and inscribed in an exploratory approach in which collaboration, risk-taking are allowed for example climbing trees or even using knives.

A typical day in a forest class: concretely what does it look like?



Here is, for example, a brief summary of how a class in the forest unfolded for J. L. , a teacher in a rural school in Great Britain. 

The morning usually starts with a ritual in a circle of exchange made up of logs of wood. Here, no chair nor desk and even less blackboard, the room has the allure of a forest camp. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to remind the students of the safety instructions. Here, there is no question of entering the center if a fire has been lit.

Then, the children take possession of their learning environment. J.L, our teacher affirms  that the activities take place according to the principles of the forest class, that is to say that the child is free in his choice of activity, the teacher being a facilitator of learning.


In this case, it is not a matter of forcing a particular activity but of allowing the student to choose freely since, let us remember, this is one of the very principles of the forest class: the initiative must be left to the student. However, this teacher says that other activities are proposed following the principles of outdoor education with objectives to be achieved set by the teacher. At noon, the students meet again in the circle for lunch before returning to their activities.

In the evening, before leaving, the circle is again the place for exchanges on the day's activities. The teacher takes advantage of this moment to review the day with all the students. It is also an opportunity to share their creations with their peers.

Right: a student's creation with elements found in the natural environment
Below: a musical wall made by children for preschoolers


On the organizational side, boundaries are being redefined

In a research paper published in 2017, Frances Harris points out that the natural environment redefines the boundaries between the traditional classroom and the forest classroom as well as between the learner and the teacher, and thus constitutes a new learning space.

This new natural environment is a real privilege as J.L, a teacher in a rural elementary school in Great Britain, with whom I shared her experience of teaching in the forest classroom, testifies.

" It is a great privilege to work in this type of classroom without walls. It always moves me to see the joy and wonder of the children in their discovery of nature as well as the changing seasons, which would not be possible for them to experience in a traditional classroom. " J.L

This is consistent with Liz O'Brien's research findings. According to the researcher, two spaces emerge in this new environment  a larger physical space and a behavioral space in which, once the walls of the classroom come down, it is another barrier that also comes down generating in children and teachers a feeling of freedom. 

The configuration of the forest classroom allows for more learner-centered learning by allowing the learner to learn at his or her own pace, to do the activity he or she wants to do, and to work in groups or alone when he or she feels the need.



 How do you go about teaching math, history, or even alphabet in the forest ?

Depending on the schools and approaches favored, the "forest school" appellation finds its limits there if we stick to certain principles such as letting the child choose his learning activities. As soon as one sets objectives to be reached, it is no longer really a question of leaving the learner free in his or her learning since here the learning is guided hence a certain form of confusion with this name of forest school.

It would then be preferable to speak of outdoor education, which is carried out in a natural environment but which remains anchored and linked to the program past a certain school level. This is valid for certain grade levels for which the natural context no longer represents a significant part of the benefits identified, such as in children's motor development.

In many structures, the two approaches are mixed. Teaching in the forest should take into account the natural and immediate environment of the learner and break with the classical approach. It is therefore not a question of reproducing the classroom outside the walls. Here, we "learn in and through nature". The natural environment is used as a didactic support. For example, some teachers do not hesitate to take teenagers outside when it rains. Learning in immersion also means being able to calculate the amount of rain that has fallen not in an artificial reproduction but on a real scale.

The advantages of learning in nature

In this particular classroom, nature is omnipresent and not only on multimedia support as it is in the classroom. In light of the numerous studies conducted on time spent in nature and the causal link to stress levels or even feelings of well-being, it becomes almost obvious to argue that this natural environment benefits children in their academic journey.

Direct effects of nature related to learning were presented in a literature review compiled by Ming Kuo, Michael Barnes, and Catherine Jordan. The authors highlight that exposure to nature in various forms (forest school, outdoor education, forest walks, adventures, nature-based nurseries, etc.) brings together five conditions that are conducive to learning: attention , self-discipline, a reduced state of stress, engagement, and motivation.

The effects of nature on learner attention have been demonstrated by numerous studies. For example, researchers showed in 2016 that students with a view of a green landscape performed better on attention tests than those with a window with a much more conventional view (Li and Sullivan). Similarly, a study by Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E. Kuo in subjects aged 7 to 12 with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) led to the conclusion that 20 minutes spent in a park was sufficient to show an increase in attention not only in a general population but also in these types of subjects with ADHD.

Beneficial effects of a view of nature were also observed in a group of high school students regarding heart rate as well as lower stress levels. Other researchers have shown that weekly forest instruction helped lower cortisol levels and improved daytime rhythm or about an improvement in daytime rhythm and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol in a group of students taught in the forest once a week. The report also points out that being in contact with nature promotes self-discipline in neurotypical children or those with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) or learning difficulties. Effects on learner motivation and engagement have also been observed in numerous studies (Skinner & Chi, 2014- Alon and Tal, 2015) or on an increase in intrinsic motivation in learners (Fagerstam and Blam).

Other indirect but no less significant effects are highlighted in the literature review by Ming Kuo, Michael Barnes, and Catherine Jordan  increased physical activity during these nature classes, which compensates with the decrease in activity observed in children and adolescents outside of school.Other benefits of such a learning environment have also been demonstrated in terms of physical activity (Mayard, 2007).  The development of social skills has also been identified in children. Finally, this environment represents a positive contextual framework that supports learning : calmness and relaxation are observed in students as well as more collaboration.

As these five conditions are met in a learning environment linked to an exposure to nature, their effects on school results are echoed, the report concludes.


Challenges?

In this type of structure outside the classroom walls, several challenges arise. 

First, there's the weather. Learning outside in any weather ?

 Whether it's raining, windy or snowing, there's no question of not doing class unless the red weather signals are activated (strong wind, storm,etc.). Here, everything depends of course on the type of structure and the natural space in which the learning takes place. For J. H, our teacher in a rural area, in case of rain, students are invited to take shelter under a shelter until the next  more suitable shelter is built. That being said, it is all a matter of perspective.

In Scandinavia, for example, according to the popular saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad clothing. This questions our perception of the weather. Indeed, why would we want to talk about bad weather when it is raining? Isn't this a great opportunity to learn?

On the organizational side, the expanded framework of this particular class implies a greater mobilization of the teaching team per class. Indeed, for safety measures, each speaker must take care of a minimum of 6 students, which consequently explains the presence of 2 to 3 supervisors per class or even reduce the group of students in the context of small private structures without enough financial funds.

Another risk related to the learning space is that of wandering. Although supervised, the zero risk for children does not exist in a natural environment such as a forest. Generally, two to three supervisors are needed for a group of six students. But everything obviously depends on the type of structure (public or private) or the financial means available to the school.

In addition, we also observe certain fears and distrust related to the activities performed by children and which integrate the measured risk such as climbing trees or handling a knife.Finally, the most skeptical of parents wonder about the academic success of these young forest "elves" in their future studies. However, the research findings have had the effect of better reassuring them.



Forest schooling, an alternative to today's ecological challenges ?

The alarming fact that children are spending less and less time in nature and the resulting health effects (decreased physical activity, decreased attention,etc.) suggest that the school in the forest is a good alternative to compensate the syndrome of "nature deficit", expression used by the journalist and writer Richard Louv in 2005 in his book " Last Child in the wood" to precisely evoke this lack of contact.

On the other hand, the eco-psychological perspective claims the need to reconnect the individual with nature. For the sociologist Michel Maxime Egger, this distancing of man from nature would explain in part why Man is not touched by the evils that affect the planet despite having access to information. Man has placed himself as superior to nature and external to it. A reconnection would allow, according to him, to generate a change of behavior to be able, as he evokes it,  "to heal" the evils of Mother Earth.

On the other hand, to develop since childhood this connection to nature allows a better knowledge as well as  an attachment to this one, which consequently will support the development of the ecological conscience in the child become adult (C. In view of all these data, we can say that forest classes are a good alternative providing children with a setting in which they can express themselves and their full potential. It is therefore not surprising to observe a craze for this type of structure.

Furthermore, by promoting their knowledge of nature in children and this, from an early age, it leads them to take better care of it and consequently to want to protect it. It goes without saying that not all schools in this world will move to the forest, but this is an interesting alternative to really consider in order to help the younger generations to better carry the values of nature loud and clear in order to face the environmental challenges affecting this planet.

Photo credits:

 By kind permission of:

 header, 1,3,5: N. Prosser, Forest school leader at Cwtsho Coe ded Forest School , UK

 2: D. Leo

 4: L. Vee

 5: J.H, UK forest school teacher 

6: J. Benson
9: L. Cooke

References

Outdoor learning spaces: The case of forest school (Frances Harris)

What is forest school? https://www.forestschoolassociation.org/what-is-forest-school/

Learning outdoors: The Forest School approach(Liz O'Brien)
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233024636_Learning_outdoors_The_Forest_School_approach

Explain the role of the Forest School programme leader in promoting learning and development
https://www.forestschoolportfolio.com/unit-3-learning-and-development-at-a-forest-school-programme/4-1-explain-role-forest-school-programme-leader-promoting-learning-development/

Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship (Ming Kuo1, Michael Barnes, Catherine Jordan)
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305/full

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jun/25/forest-schools-more-marketing-than-outdoor-education?fbclid=IwAR06HhnO2HO3s8h6IPo9A7MH2pYdPr-T4NDPK1H7mxBRNN3J_w7TNt6J4t0

Remembering why forest schools are important: Nurturing environmental consciousness in the early years (Christopher Nixon)
http://digitool.library.mcgill.ca/webclient/StreamGate?folder_id=0&dvs=1571552170278~738

The relationship between inattentiveness in the classroom and reading achievement: part B: an explanatory study (Rowe, K. J., and Rowe, K. S. (1992)

Remembering why forest schools are important: Nurturing environmental consciousness in the early years (Christopher Nixon)

Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walking in the park. A.  Faber Taylor and F.E.KuoImpact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue ( Li, D., W.Sullivan)

Ecopsychology: healing the earth through human well-being
https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-racines-du-ciel/l-ecopsychologie


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