Outdoor spaces teeming with curious kindergarteners. Welcome to nature schools - a relatively next concept.
Text: Monika Pedersen
"If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise." Henry Hall's 'Teddy Bears' Picnic' 1932 - words could not ring truer than they do today with a huge surge of parents seeking to have their young educated in forest schools, 'Naturbørnehave' or 'Skovbørnehave' as they are referred to in Danish.
The concept of the outside school originated in Sweden in the 1950s but quickly spread to Denmark. The first forest school in Denmark was said to have been started by Ella Flautau in 1952. She pioneered a daycare, where she met with neighbouring mothers who walked their small children in the local forest. In essence, she started up 'the Walking Kindergarten'. The idea of outdoor schooling flourished, and now there are more than 500 schools all over Denmark; many have long waiting lists!
What is a Forest School?
A forest school caters for children from the age of 3 up to 6, who spend a large proportion of time, if not all, outside in the elements each day throughout the year. It can be that the school is located next to a forest, and it is used as the learning hub. It may also be such that there is no actual solid building, but the school is a collection of tent-like structures, wooden shelters, and an outside toilet! In fact, one of the reasons forest schools emerged was the lack of buildings to house students. In the Copenhagen area, young people are bussed out of their city kindergarten to their forest learning environment; they are known as 'udflytterbørnehave'.
The cornerstone of an outdoor, nature teaching environment allows very young inquisitive and forming minds to connect with the living world around them. As a result, students can co-exist and enjoy the outdoors and freedom, investigate the environment first-hand using sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, and establish a relationship with it.
Proponents of forest schools dating back to the early pioneers such as German educationalist Friedrich Froebel, and more recently Jane Williams-Siegfredsen, a former teacher, now author, trainer and consultant of Inside-out learning, and Rikke Rosen, owner of Bonsai, a nature school outside of Copenhagen strongly advocate that the ability to play uninterrupted for long periods promotes higher levels of concentration and focus. The landscape provides a less stressful situation, for there are no constraints, only freedom of choice, time to explore, experiment, make mistakes and learn for oneself. The learning situation allows for child-centred, individualised learning whilst also encouraging group co-operation and social interaction.
"The ability to play uninterrupted for long periods promotes higher levels of concentration and focus."
A recent study by Erik Mygind, a Teaching Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen's Forest and Landscape College, substantiates these arguments. His four-year research project involved 18 schools and 1,013 children in 46 classes. He investigated whether an 'Udeskole', an outside learning environment with regular instruction throughout the year, impacted children's psychological well-being, motivation, and social relationships. The study unveiled that outdoor learning does have a positive impact. These findings are similar to those of a 13-month Swedish study that revealed that forest school students have higher concentration levels, 25% fewer days off school with sickness, and can sustain engagement for longer time periods. Roskilde University researchers also echoed that nature school students are more innovative.
Despite all the glowing reports, it is essential to respect that the forest school is not for all children or a hit with all parents. Some children are not suited or do not enjoy very long periods outside. The harshness of the elements do not compliment their temperament that is better orientated to a structured and secure inside environment. Moreover, some parents feel that a more traditional classroom poses fewer risks regarding health and hygiene or physical safety than a nature school. Moreover, regular schooling also provides better foundations for a child's educational pathway.
A nature school is a unique learning experience that provides parents with an alternative option that is not so widely available in all parts of the world. But, ultimately, the best fit for an individual child that matters most is to secure a positive entrance into education that leads to a lifelong love of learning.