by Misty Pratt
Children meander down a forest path, stopping every few feet to peer into the creek bed. Several little ones throw rocks and watch them tumble down to the water. The older children run ahead, gathering sticks for imaginative games. Making up the rear of this group are two adults who assist the younger ones and answer the children’s questions.
This is not your typical classroom setting, but it’s on this trail that young children are learning a whole range of skills and subjects. Later in the day, songs are sung around a campfire and the group reflects on the day’s lessons.
Meanwhile, in typical North American classrooms, children are kept at their desks for the majority of the day, and standardized testing dictates the success of their education. Research now shows children spend less than one hour each day playing outside.
Forest schools have popped up in response to this “nature deficit.” An educational approach originating in Scandinavian countries, forest school has children as young as three in outdoor classrooms for the entire day. Teachers act more like mentors, guiding (but not dictating) the learning process.
Research has linked nature deficit to obesity, mental health issues and attention deficit disorders. “Time in nature helps children to develop a sense of connection that will feed their soul in a nourishing way,” says Bryarly McEachern, executive director and co-founder of Earth Path.
Earth Path is an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that provides nature school programming as well as summer camps. Brylarly and her sister were inspired to launch Earth Path after the experiences they had as children; when stressed out or needing time to think, Brylarly would seek solace in nature. “Children don’t feel alone in nature, because they understand that the plants and trees are supporting them,” says Bryarly. A favourite tree can become a sanctuary for a child who needs time alone. Other children find meaning in a wooded area, where they are free to roam and develop their physical skills.
Discovering a sense of place and belonging can be a catalyst for change in a child’s life. Sara McConnell saw a happier and more confident child after sending her nine-year-old son to Earth Path. “School is challenging for a lot of reasons for [our son],” says Sara. “Even though he works hard and there are supports in place, the reality is that our educational system is limited in its ability to meet the needs of kids who have different exceptionalities.”
Earth Path is not the only organization in Ottawa meeting the needs of children who
don’t fit the traditional schooling mould. Alyssa Delle Palme runs Wild Roots Nature and Forest School, located in Cumberland at the MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre. Wild Roots offers half and full-day nature immersion programs for children aged two and a half to 10.
Alyssa sees first-hand the improvements children make while attending forest school. “Since participating in our program, these children have improved self- esteem, more confidence and increased physical stamina,” says Alyssa.
Danielle Powell has noticed these changes in her son, who had challenges integrating into a traditional classroom. “At his first school year [my son] would sit in a corner and cover his ears,” says Danielle. “He didn’t connect with the other kids or his teachers.” The time spent outdoors reignited his desire to learn.
For both her children, time in forest school has had benefits Danielle did not expect. “I notice that forest school has made my kids feel connected to nature and the environment around them in a really special way,” she explains. Her kids have become protective of their local environment, and have overcome any “ick factor” related to dirt and insects.
Many children who participate in forest school are homeschooled, or participate as part of summer camp. Ottawa resident Eve has been homeschooling for several years, and seeks out different programs to fit her child’s learning style and social needs. “At Earth Path I have seen my child take on a sense of ownership in the program,” she says, adding he has “a feeling of belonging with the group and a belief that his participation matters.”
Forest school educators have noticed an increase in the number of public school children who attend their programs. “We have some students joining us whose parents take them out of their regular school one afternoon every week to join our programs,” says Brittany Boychuk, co-founder of Nature Connections. Brittany hears from parents that children do better at school, and are more able to focus and enjoy the process of learning in a traditional classroom.
The educational approaches of the various forest schools in Ottawa are more similar than they are different. Parents looking into forest school may want to consider location, types and duration of programs offered, and their child’s connection to the teachers. A forest school summer camp is a fantastic way to try a program and see if it works for your child.
Parents who put their children in forest school can expect very dirty and happy kids at pickup, as well as lively dinner conversations as children recount the excitement of their day. Children bring nature home with them, removing the barriers we have developed between ourselves and the natural world.
Misty Pratt is a freelance writer and researcher who covers a range of health and parenting issues. She lives in Ottawa with her husband and two young daughters.