What is Nature Education?

Forest and Nature School Background

In rural areas, and historical times, access to nature has not been a problem; Indigenous Peoples have been raising and teaching their children outside and in connection to their land for thousands of years, and living on more rural land and in less population density in historical times has meant an abundance of opportunities for people to be in nature. Over the last century, with increasing urbanization and with the rise of “nature deficit disorder”, there have been many changes in stance on formal outdoor education. The practice of taking learning outside for child-led, experiential and outdoor learning experiences has been around and evolving since the late 1880’s. In 1914, the socialist political activists Rachel and Margaret McMillan set up an “open-air nursery” and witnessed an improvement in child health. In the 1950s there were many Nature and Forest Schools and Daycares established in Scandinavia, Europe and the UK. As of 2005 there were approximately 450 nature kindergartens in Germany. Over the last two decades Forest School programs have been increasing in popularity in many Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, many parts of the UK, as well as throughout North America. In Canada, the Forest and Nature School Movement officially began when Forest School Canada was developed in 2012 under the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. Although forest and nature schools had existed from coast to coast here and there across Canada before, Forest School Canada made unifying Nature School Programs possible, and introduced a way to ensure Forest and Nature Schools operate with the same core principles. On Vancouver Island, the first Nature Kindergarten was created in 2012 at Sangster Elementary in Victoria and Hand-In-Hand Education was founded in 2014.

What does Forest and Nature School look like?

Despite great regional variance in length of day, environment, age of learners and climates, all Forest and Nature Schools provide “regular and repeated access to the same natural space, as well as emergent, experiential, inquiry-based, play-based, and place-based learning” (MacEachren, 2013). In this way, children are able to build relationships to the land around them, to the educators, to classmates, and ultimately, to themselves. At Hand-In-Hand, our programs are held almost exclusively outdoors. Whatever the weather, children are encouraged to play, explore and learn in a forest or natural environment. The adult supervision is meant to assist rather than lead. Educator to child ratios are generally low, with a group of 12 to 20 children accompanied by at least two staff.

Nature and Forest Schools can be described as a classroom “without a ceiling or walls”. The educators and children spend their time outdoors, typically in a forest, but sometimes on a beach, in a meadow – any natural environment can be home to a Nature and Forest School! A distinctive feature of early years programs is the lack of commercial toys or manipulatives found in indoor centres, rather the emphasis is on play with objects that can be found in nature. The purpose of Nature and Forest programs are the same as more traditional counterparts: namely, to care for, stimulate, and educate children.

Children dress for the weather, with waterproof clothes and warm layers, according to the climate. Programs are held in a variety of conditions around the world, including long winters and temperatures down to -20 as well as warm, arid conditions. The program is held outdoors in all seasons and under most weather conditions, although it is often moved under a covered space in extreme weather, for example during storms. Safety is always top of mind for Educators, and during storms and high winds the program moves under cover, to a field or indoors to avoid being hurt by falling tree limbs or trees. Following such a storm, all forested areas would then need to be risk-assessed prior to re-entry. 

The location chosen to be our “classroom” varies from day to day, depending on safety considerations, weather and indeed the children’s desires! 

The Benefits

Healthier Bodies: Studies show increased frequency of physical exercise and a challenging environment helps to develop motor skills, e.g. navigating uneven terrain. Some research demonstrates less sick days due to open fresh air classrooms.

Healthier Minds: Forest and Nature Schools offer an opportunity to be sociable and also to have time alone. Space and resources are naturally available allowing individuals or groups to investigate and problem solve. Forest and Nature Schools provide time to just be, where individuals can relax and explore interests. Personal motivation, a willingness to try new tasks and the ability to persist at tasks increases.

Healthier Environment: A nature-based learning experience provides an understanding and appreciation of the natural environment, knowledge of how systems interlink and how we affect our surroundings. By spending time in the environment using it to play and learn effects us at a deep level. It is this connection with nature that opens us up to care more for the environment as adults.

Healthier Future: Many of the skills that develop as a result of spending time at a Forest and Nature School are essential life skills that in time will benefit the economy including developing determination to complete tasks, learning to work together as a team and communicating effectively. 

A Forest and Nature School provides the ultimate in open-ended materials and opportunities for the child, allowing the child to choose activities that suit his/her interests and developmental stage. The educator can meet the child where they are at, and use strategies like storytelling, drama, role-playing, songs and creative problem solving to make many connections to learning and thus creates authentic, meaningful learning experiences for the child – this is whole teaching. Outdoor classrooms are generally less noisy than closed indoor rooms, which has been shown to lower stress levels of children and educators alike.

Forest and Nature School challenges children on a physical level just by taking place in nature! Navigating uneven terrain, and providing logs, stumps, rock, hills and trees to climb, slide down, jump over, etc. supports development of gross motor skills, while the use of tools like ropes and carabiners promote development of fine motor skills. Playing and learning outside for prolonged periods has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s development, particularly in the areas of balance and agility, but also manual dexterity, physical coordination, tactile sensitivity and depth perception. Being outdoors strengthens the immune system of both children and educators.

Cognitively, children learn so much about the world through visiting the same natural sites through the course of a year. They see how the change in seasons is presented in nature, witness the changing colours and falling of leaves, as well as the electric green of new leaves come spring. They learn that when temperatures fall to a certain level of cold, water freezes. They learn through direct experience how snow changes from fluffy, to squeaky, to slushy, to icy with changes in the weather. Experiencing the forces of nature throughout the year teaches children firsthand that they are a part of a larger world. Noticing tiny flora and fauna increase a child’s sense of wonder, and helps build compassion for the world around them. 

Additionally, a child’s social-emotional skills are developed in outdoor settings. Confidence and perseverance grow through pushing physical limits, social skills grow through participating in imaginative play with peers, and creative and critical thinking are increased through problem-solving and putting ideas into motion.

Hand-In-Hand Nature Education, as well as Forest and Nature Schools worldwide, hold the interests of the whole child at the center of our practice, allowing nature to provide children with what they need to develop into healthy adults.

Motivation

In the last couple of years, we have seen the Forest and Nature School Movement explode on the island, as it has throughout BC, Canada, and around the world. This explosion is occurring as parents, educators, school boards and government realize the benefits of learning outdoors, as well as the power of unstructured time outside. Helicopter parenting is becoming more clearly recognized as something to avoid as it stems from a culture of fear, and contributes to a risk adverse society. When children have the opportunity to test their ideas out and work through problems independently at a young age, they become adults who are creative and confident. Studies have shown that children who attend nature and forest schools experience fewer injuries due to accidents, are less likely to injure themselves in a fall, and have an improved ability to assess risks. We see outdoor play and nature and forest school as a way to develop a mature and healthy outlook on life, as well as strengthening practical skills and health. These benefits stay with the child their whole life. Most Provincial, urban and community parks note that having a nature and forest school at their site expands their mission and furthers their goals of providing nature education to children, and promoting their conservation efforts.