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Analysis of Introducing Forest Schools and Outdoor Learning and Possible Outcomes

By Mary MacKenzie, Senior Fellow – Institute for Child Success

As I leave South Carolina (and return to the UK) following a very productive three-month stay in which I presented in Columbia, Charleston, and Spartanburg to early childhood educators, students and other professionals and agencies involved in Early Childhood, I want to analyze the outcomes of these various sessions and try to find common denominators and highlight issues and challenges which have a recurring theme.

Common Denominators

  • Something in common is what we all want, positive outcomes and what is best for children.

    Visiting a number of provisions where outdoor learning and Forest Schools inspired teaching was part of the curriculum, I observed some wonderful practices:
  • College students were fascinated by the children’s interest playing and learning in the forests.
  • Children want to learn, play and enjoy life. Most providers appeared to want that for them as well but were frustrated by their lack of opportunity.
  • The students (mostly the freshmen) could not get enough of child-centered approaches, such as Forest Schools and the Reggio Approach. They found that to be one of the greatest ways of teaching. One student said, “Why are we not teaching like this in our schools today?” And another said, “I want to go to that school” following a video of a Forest School.

Issues

  • Litigation is a huge issue in the United States. Health and safety, and the regulations which surround these feel sometimes insurmountable.
  • Parent buy-in would be a problem because in the United States some parents want to give their children every chance to get ahead academically, and sometimes tend to overlook the vital importance of personal, social and emotional development in these early years.
  • How can we hit all of the state standards while teaching a child-centered approach? A lot of stakeholders may admire the “romance” of the idea of Forest Schools, but they might not believe in all that this approach can do for children’s growth. Yes, they are concerned about social and emotional well-being and development, but bottom line, how does this advance ELA and Math scores?
  • The benefits of Forest Schools are not instantly visible, so nay-sayers cannot see the deep connection to learning down the road.
  • Scepticism of Europe and what works there and how this can be realistically re-enacted in the United States.

Challenges

  • How can we provide a learning experience that gets children out of doors, but still satisfies the parents’ need for highly academic curriculum.
  • How can we inform the public, including parents and administration that play (and outdoor play) is how children learn best? The guide from the Academy of American Pediatricians in 2018 “prescribing” play to children goes towards backing this.
  • Children behave as artists and scientists, experimenting and playing. How do we stand in their way?
  • Allowing children to play without a parent/teacher initiating the activity. Most adults when looking back on their favorite childhood memories always say that as children, they liked outdoor play where they were unsupervised.
  • Teaching children to be autonomous. It appears in the US children find it difficult to be autonomous. They ask “What do you want me to do?” They do not seem to have any interest in going beyond the rubric or what is expected of them to do. Children need to be taught how to be critical thinkers and that their ideas matter. Most children are curious learners and this needs to be nurtured.
  • People are afraid of “down time” or for children to get bored. As adults we need to allow time for children to be bored, that is where great, original and innovative ideas are sometimes created.
  • Getting past the perceived idea that Forest Schools are just children running wild in the woods with little or no educational benefit. Getting parents involved and letting them experience the magic of being in the forest with children goes a long way to overcoming this barrier.
  • Getting accredited in the US is very difficult. Too many things are not the norm so it is difficult to be funded, insured and accredited. There is no brick and mortar building, so there is no physical address.

Although these challenges appear to be great, I am a strong believer in achieving an outcome using baby steps – my favorite expression is “How do you eat an elephant?  A bite at a time!” That and the nurturing of outdoor learning are vitally important.  Whether a setting has a wonderful outdoor area or just a small concrete outdoor playground, these can be used creatively. After the Spartanburg event, at which around a hundred early childhood educators attended, I gave them my email address and said I would send them a document I had written on Mud Kitchens. I had over twenty requests and if only two providers establish a Mud Kitchen in their setting, this will be a good result!

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