A forest schools or nature school has been a popular and upcoming form of early childhood education in parts of Europe since the 1950s. As the name denotes it is outdoor education for young children in which students visit natural spaces to learn personal, social and technical skills. Forest schools mostly cater to preschool or kindergarten aged children and some of the outdoor skills learned include how to light fires, garden, whittle, prepare chickens, and climb.
To some this can be a frightening sight with children high up in trees or using sharp knives but now what originated in Denmark has spread to other parts of Europe and the world. Denmark itself has 1 in 10 preschools, which are held outdoors. The UK now has around 150 forest schools and Germany has around 2,000. Canada started their first school in 2007 and the concept is also popular in Australia and New Zealand.
Many involved in the development of forest school education claim playing and learning outside has been found to boost children’s development in various ways. These schools are said to improve concentration, creativity, happiness, and social skills. Such improvements in childhood development were found in a study on Forest Schools in England and Wales, which listed increased language skills, higher motivation to participate, and greater knowledge of natural surroundings. There is also evidence that it stimulates motor development. Some elementary teacher in Denmark say they can tell the difference between kids who have been to a forest schools because they are quick to learn.
This type of schooling, which has now spread to beyond Scandinavia, is based on the Nordic philosophy of ‘friluftsliv’ (literally ‘outdoors’ in Danish) which embodies the idea that returning to nature is returning to home. For the Danish in the 1950s, Ella Flatau formed a “walking kindergarten” where daily hiking was part of the curriculum. Mothers began sending their children from Copenhagen’s busy neighborhoods to the countryside for these forest schools. In the 1970s, there was another boom in nature-based preschools. The forest school approach has also existed since the 1950s in Sweden. Goesta Frohm who created the idea of ‘Skogsmulle’ (in Swedish ‘skog; means forest and ‘Mulle’ is character who lives in the forest) to bridge the gap he felt younger children had to nature. His methods include hand sensory experiences, regular visits to the forest, and reconnecting to nature. He executed this process though an imaginary character called Skogsmulle. In 1986 the first ‘I UR och Skur’ (In Rain or Shine) nursery opened and led to a movement of more than 190 nurseries and 20 primary schools based upon the Skogsmulle teaching method.
There are many types of ‘forest schools’ in Denmark and Sweden. They are usually set of in woodland to provide starting points for activities inside and outside for the whole or significant part of the day. The people that take care of these children of the forest have to complete a special 3.5-year bachelor program and train to care for children. They have the know how on when to step in and help and when not to, in order to teach a lesson. Some schools in the UK use this method to help kids with special education needs or who suffer from extreme stress and anxiety.
Using sharp tools and playing in more unconventional conditions does increase the likelihood of injuries but serious injuries are rare and parents seemingly trust the forest schools’ teachers. The main injuries are insect stings and scrapes and some view this as a positive opportunity to build more resilience at a young age. So, will these schools be a fad or continue to spread across the world helping us connect to nature as we live in an increasingly technologically bound world?