Last month, Premier Doug Ford announced his plan to reopen schools in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. Options will include regular class with additional health protocols, continued at home learning, or a mix of both. While this may seem like good news, whatever happened to the pledges we made a few months ago promising that we will “build back better”? Doesn’t this mean schools too?
As we hurry to return to normal as quickly as we can, some European countries like Scotland have been looking into taking a different approach. Educational practitioners across the country have been calling for an overhaul of their education system, moving their classrooms outdoors and toward ‘forest school teaching.' This idea of outdoor education is becoming increasingly popular amid the Covid-19 physical distancing restrictions, since the risk between transmission outdoors is much lower.
While this idea of ‘nature schools’ as a replacement for early childhood education is gaining traction, it certainly isn’t new. In the 50’s, forest and nature schools began sprouting up across Denmark, and eventually spreading across the world. The recent rise in popularity is partially in rebellion to our collective transition to an overly sanitized, denatured lifestyle. No longer do we play in the dirt and explore the great outdoors; instead, we choose to stay in the comfort of our air-conditioned homes while Netflix numbs our brains. And, in some ways, education systems have reflected this transition.
Today, there are nearly 50 forest schools across Canada recognized by the Child and Nature Alliance. Unlike regular schools, forest school takes place predominantly outdoors, says Pat Andrews, Facilitator at the Child and Nature Alliance Canada and Director of Natural Pathways Learning Centre.
Andrews founded Natural Pathways Learning Centre, a forest school in Windsor-Essex, Ontario, back in 2015. While more popular among young children and families, Natural Pathways offers forest school sessions for all ages. Natural Pathways follows specific guiding principles in their teachings including honouring aboriginal and indigenous culture and supporting the development and ethic of care towards nature.
“We have less in the way of time constraints and it’s more about child initiated or child-led learning. It’s very inquiry based,” Andrews continued, “which often will take a little longer than delivering a lesson. Our curriculum is not the forefront, it is in the background and certainly is part of the planning, but it doesn’t drive the learning- the children drive the learning.”
Outdoor-based learning is extremely beneficial in the mental wellbeing and cognitive development of children. Andrews mentioned that with an increased ability in risk taking and exposure to natural spaces, she finds children in the program are much more confident, self sufficient and demonstrate higher levels of self esteem. “There’s all kinds of problem solving, teamwork and interpersonal relationship building,” she explained, “And within that, mental health and well being? You’re out in nature, you’re breathing in natural air, your fingers are in the soil, your body is moving through space, you're planning, you're balancing on things… connecting the dots between your relationship with the natural world and our impact as humans on the earth.”
SOURCE: Natural Pathways
Numerous studies1,2,3 have confirmed this positive correlation between a child’s willingness to conserve biodiversity and increased direct contact with natural spaces. In other words, forming a deep, emotional connection with nature at an early age increases the likeliness for that individual to advocate for the environment later in life. As Andrews said, “Like any relationship, if you’re developing a connection to the space and nature, you want to take care of it.”
As we move closer to a post coronavirus world, we now have the opportunity to decide how we choose to rebuild. Forest school not only presents a viable way to teach our children how to peacefully coexist with nature in the present but fosters a generation of adults who are more likely to take care of our planet in the future. Dr. Zach Bush, founder of the Seraphic Group, explores this idea in the Pandemic of Possibility. He says, “If we continue to walk by these warnings signs of climate change- fires in Australia, all the way down to our public health crisis with chronic diseases- if we continue to walk by these and bemoaned our problems and not start to fundamentally change who we are and how we act on this planet, this is just the slightest of warmups or curtain calls of what’s to come ….Let’s connect humans to be co-creative rather than consumptive.”
“It’s not about changing the systems that are in place, it’s about realizing the dysfunctionality.” -Pat Andrews
Andrews stated she is hopeful in the possibility of integrating forest school into the current school system following the Covid-19 virus. “It’s not about changing the systems that are in place, it’s about realizing the dysfunctionality,” she added, “the opportunity to be outdoors more within a forest school pedagogical approach is one of the many ways of redesigning.” Andrews confirmed that Natural Pathways will be offering fall programs beginning September.
It would be a shame to come out of this pandemic and as a society to have collectively learned nothing. The Covid-19 virus started because we lost our love and connection with nature, perhaps it’s time to get it back.
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