A few red-cheeked children help dig out the snow in the so-called “forest sofa”—a fenced-in sitting area made of logs where they dine alfresco. They eagerly line up to carry small loads of kindling, and the group leader patiently lights the fire and starts cooking today’s kid-friendly menu of pasta with cheese and pumpkin.
The 11 three- to five-year-old children clearly love the space to run around and explore. They’re eager to learn about nature as they sing songs about ice and hedgehogs. But there are also bouts of frustration and tears when they get cold or a glove slips off.
The Danish were the first to create forest playgroups in the 1950s. Since then, the concept—reintroducing children to the wonders of the woods—has been successfully transplanted throughout Switzerland, other European countries, and has even spread to Asia. Now, preschool educators are bringing these programs to North American soil. Known over here as “forest schools,” there are already a few in Canada, with more to come. These programs are helping to bring kids closer to nature at a time when the gap between the two has never been greater. While Canada is renowned for the beauty and scale of our wilderness, many kids have little regular contact with such landscapes.
“I think we’re recognizing we live in a really fast-paced society that’s hugely dependent on technology,” says Marlene Power-Johnston, who started her own forest school—Carp Ridge Forest Preschool & Kindergarten—in Ottawa in 2008. “No one is trying to change that. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Let’s also recognize we have some primitive need to be connected with the environment.”
Power-Johnston decided to open Carp Ridge because she wasn’t satisfied with the daycare options available for her then-22-month-old daughter, Hazel. She felt preschool children spent too much time indoors and wanted Hazel to connect with nature from a young age. She embarked on a quest to uncover a new model for early childhood education, and soon found it when she read about forest schools.
“Immediately, the bells went off; that’s exactly what I would love to do,” says Power-Johnston, who holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and had worked in environmental education. “I knew there was something really special about this.”
The debut of the forest preschool at the Carp Ridge Learning Centre, a half-hour drive from downtown Ottawa, wasn’t exactly an instant success. The commute was one challenge. Parents also worried about bad weather, risks lurking in the woods, and whether the program provided suitable learning opportunities. Power-Johnston made the rounds to sell moms and dads on her novel school, giving chats in coffee shops.
“They needed to know the children were going to be safe,” Power-Johnston says. “Once we addressed those issues, people started getting really excited about it.”
Slowly but steadily, it’s taken off. There are now separate groups for preschoolers and kindergarten-aged children, and an outdoor program held twice a week for older kids who are home-schooled. Parents pay $50 a day for the preschool and kindergarten. Most of the day is spent outdoors, even when the sun isn’t shining, though the children do tend to retreat indoors for lunch and a nap. Thunderstorms and frigid temperatures are the only times when the kids stay inside for any long period. Power-Johnston is now planning to move to a new site to offer an expanded range of programs to more children, including infants.
Cheryl Hunt has sent her five-year-old daughter, Charlee-Mae, to Carp Ridge since she was three. A passionate proponent of the program, Hunt loves the knowledge and experience her daughter gleans from spending her days in the great outdoors.
“She’ll be in the confines of four walls for the next 12 years,” she says of Charlee-Mae, who will enter grade one this fall but currently attends senior kindergarten three days a week and spends the remaining two days at Carp Ridge. “In forest school, the world seems to unfold in front of her eyes, not just in a textbook.”
Others have since been inspired to start their own forest schools. They include teacher Jennifer Mason, who describes the “central theme” throughout her career as an educator as forging a connection between kids and nature. She received her bachelor’s degree in education from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., drawn to its outdoor and experiential education program, and has worked in environmental education in Canada, the US and Australia.
After having her kids—Kya, 8, and Noah, 6—she was looking to restart her career when she read about Carp Ridge. She founded Maplewood Forest School in Guelph, Ont., in 2010, offering outdoor education programs for schools in her area. One afternoon a week at two private schools, she leads school-aged children in an outdoor program. She also offers a one-hour forest experience four mornings a week for children ages three to six in a Montessori program “We’re really not connected to the world outside our doors,” says Mason. “Forest school is one of the antidotes to that. Parents tell me their children notice natural phenomena. They identify plants and trees around their homes, they notice the clouds, they talk about the wind, they can hear and identify birds by their songs.”
Forest programs are even creeping into the public school system. Last fall, in BC, the Sooke School District introduced a nature kindergarten at Sangster Elementary School in Victoria. There was obviously pent-up demand: Parents lined up nearly a day early for registration. Children spend the mornings outside and then return to the school for lunch and the rest of the day.
“The interest in a nature kindergarten stemmed from concerns that an increasing number of children are seemingly unconnected with the more ‘natural’ world, and are often sedentary, technology-focused and sometimes overweight,” says principal Frances Krusekopf, who spearheaded the development of the program aftter discovering forest schools during a sabbatical in Germany in 2010. Other examples include the Toronto District School Board’s Equinox Holistic Alternative School—which opened in 2009—where nearly 60 children enrolled in kindergarten spend about 80 percent of their time (it’s a half-day program) outdoors.
Reading, writing and counting worms
The unwritten rule of forest school is to embrace the unexpected. Take the weather: Parents pack an extra change of clothes and receive detailed lists of suitable attire for each season. Lesson plans take their inspiration from the world around them. Typical activities include birdwatching, climbing trees, collecting “treasures” like sticks or stones, examining animal tracks and do-it-yourself projects such as pulley systems and forts.
There’s also time for kids to explore on their own. Logs quickly transform into boats, and sticks into brooms. The day’s planned activity can change quickly if a child stumbles on an interesting discovery like rabbit tracks or an iced-over puddle, according to Mason. She says all areas of the curriculum can be covered from science and math to the arts and physical education.
“On your way to the site, there’s this huge, frozen puddle, and the entire session becomes an exploration of ice,” Mason says. “ That’s the unstructured aspect of forest school — it can go in any direction based on the interest of the students.”
Of course, the forest isn’t risk free. But neither are playgrounds. Leaders help the kids learn to assess risks. If the children want to climb a tree, they learn to check to make sure the branches are dry and that there are no big rocks below that they could fall on. “You see children in their element, being able to express themselves, have adventures and let their imaginations run wild,” says Power-Johnston. “ There’s no one telling them ‘no’ all the time.”
Guelph, Ont., mom Amy Duffy, whose son, Cian, 5, and daughter, Eilidh, 7, both attended the Maplewood Forest School program, says they’ve become more confident and independent when playing outside. “It wasn’t until last summer at the cottage that I realized how beneficial forest school has been for them,” Duff says. “They were climbing trees, collecting twigs to build tiny houses and playing with stuff outside that didn’t require toys or prompting from adults.”
While Eilidh is now in grade one at a public school, Cian enjoyed the forest program so much that Duffy opted to keep him in Montessori, through which he attends Maplewood Forest School, rather than sending him to junior kindergarten.
Computer mouse vs. field mouse
Some people think that society ’s growing dependence on technology and shrinking time spent outdoors is having a negative impact on kids. (Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods.)
There are experts who believe that fields and forests are beneficial for a child’s attention skills. The theory, according to Alan Logan, co-author of the 2012 book Your Brain on Nature, is it’s easier to focus when we’re out in nature, as our brain isn’t struggling to block out other distractions.
“You’re engaged, you’re focused, your brain isn’t applying the brakes anymore,” he says. “Whereas a child walking through a crowded mall — their brains are being taxed out.”
The Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the Universi ty of Illinois researches the impact of nature on kids, including those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They’ve found that children with ADHD who spend time outside in green areas have less severe symptoms than those who play indoors all the time. “That’s one of the difficulties with kids with ADHD — regulating impulses, emotional ups and downs and activity levels,” says Alice Charach, a child psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. She believes more studies need to be done, but calls the findings “really interesting.”
“When you’re outside—the aesthetics, the sounds, the smells, the activity level—there’s a sense of being in the moment,” she says. “That’s actually a very calming experience.”
Spending time in nature also has physical benefits. The statistics are sobering when it comes to how Canadian kids spend their time: Some 46 percent of children ages six to 11 engage in active play for three hours or less every week, according to a 2012 report card from Active Healthy Kids Canada. And children in grades six to 12 spend almost eight hours each day parked in front of the TV or computer.
All that time in front of a screen instead of playing tag outside is among the culprits contributing to what the Canadian government calls the “childhood obesity epidemic”—roughly one-third of Canadian kids ages five to 17 are overweight or obese.
The great outdoors could be a solution. Along with providing kids with ample room to run around, time spent in green spaces helps improve their agility, balance and strength as they stay poised on logs and walk on stones and twigs rather than the sidewalk.
“With little kids, you can see the confidence that comes from simply walking on undulated terrain in their boots and snowsuits,” says Mason. “You can tell they develop physical skills from that.”
Mom Ann Duffy certainly believes forest school has honed her daughter’s physical skills. She recounts how she couldn’t find Eilidh one day in their yard. Then, she noticed a glare high up in the tree. “I really panicked until I sat back and watched her,” Duffy says. “It was unbelievable to see her ability to know which branch to step on.”
But Eilidh was merely doing what’s natural. Perched high in a tree’s branches, watching the world below: These are the types of childhood connections with nature that last.
A version of this article was published in our May 2013 issue with the headline “When every day is a field trip day,” pp. 98-102.