The History, Science and Economics of Forest School

Forest School is both an education system and a developmental philosophy.
When we speak about Forest School as an Educational System we are talking about learning taking place in a natural environment. The system is generally coupled with traditional teaching styles so that students can learn to apply the immense benefits of forest school directly into their classroom environment. The research surrounding forest school education suggests that learning outcomes of forest school are measurable and obvious but difficult to describe without going into long and drawn-out scientific explanation, for the purposes of convenience we label them as creativity, independence and positive learning habits. We will discuss these learning outcomes and their supporting scientific research more thoroughly later in this explanation.

Aside from it’s scientific basis, Forest School is also a philosophy. This philosophy is rooted in the belief that it is far more advantageous to learn how to learn effectively than it is to simply be told what to learn. What is being said here is that it is easier and more enjoyable to acquire new knowledge when you have been given to opportunity to discover how it is that you learn best. In contrast to this, when one has knowledge dictated to them it is more difficult to remember and far more unlikely that one will understand the practical application of what they have learned? Forest School also works to give confidence and creativity to it’s students so that they may have the courage to apply what they have learned in a multitude of original and exceptional ways. Another part of the philosophy of forest school is that activities are largely student lead. That is to say that students are taught how to lead others and to accomplish tasks as a team. By basing our curriculum around this philosophy students can grow in to more social adults with many developed leadership qualities.

Although Forest School is a new system in China it actually has an extensive history. The first ever Forest School was established in Wisconsin in 1927 however it did not achieve an international reputation until the 1950’s when began to receive wide spread in Denmark. Eventually, in the 1970’s, Forest School’s popularity made its way into Sweden where it achieved overwhelming success as a fantastic alternative to the traditional Swedish teaching method. Many people believed that this traditional teaching method was far too exam orientated and did not focus enough on the development of the young child’s learning habits. Eventually Forest School achieved so much success that the Swedish Education Authority deemed it to have measurable outcomes and decided to make it a secondary system to the Swedish national system. In 1994 the first Forest School opened in the UK where it gained so much support that only 9 years later there were over 140 Forest Schools nation wide.

We at UK-China Education believe that China is the most important market for Forest School in the world at the moment. The reason for this is that many people in China are starting to identify problems with the Chinese educational system. People are also starting to identify problems more generally with the environments in which children live.

With regards to the Chinese Educational System many parents and teachers are beginning to become concerned with the style in which children are being taught. One such concern is that the Chinese educational system is too focused on passing exams. Students learn large amounts of information and attempt to remember them for a final exam but lack the ability to apply this information. To give an example, when learning English many students can remember a huge number of vocabulary words for a test but very few of them can actually speak English. We must agree that there is very little point in knowing English words if one cannot formulate them into a sentence. A second problem is that there is a direct flow of information from the teacher to the student but there is very little flow of information from student to student. The practical effect of this can be that students may not lean how to deal with a variety of opinions that can allow them to develop their own opinions about the information that they learn. This can often lead students to become adults who display a lack of individuality. A third major problem is that exercises and activities are often fully teacher lead. This can prevent students from developing the leadership qualities that will later allow them to advance their careers.

Due to China’s rapidly growing industrial and technological industries China has become an extremely prosperous country but growth at such a speed is not without its drawbacks. Many of the most polluted Cities in the world are in China and many Chinese Students spend all their time in the city and far away from vegetation that cleans the air. Another problem is that children and people in general spend a huge amount of time engaging with Computers and Cellphones. This can cause large problems with the development of a young brain by decreasing attention span and lowering social aptitude. We will now come to discuss how Forest School can remedy these problems by discussing some of the theories and research surrounding the Forest School System.

There are many educational and psychological theories that are observed in the running of Forest School sessions; here we will discuss three of them. Biophyllia is a theory that suggests that humans are instinctually attracted to natural environments. This study was supported by research that shows that city dwellers that rarely leave the city are far more prone to depression. It is also a theory used to explain why we choose to keep plants and pets in the house. Because Children learn best when they are in an environment that makes them happy, the natural setting of Forest School provides this opportunity to students. Nature Deficit Disorder is the term used by psychologists to discuss the effects that having a lack of a natural environment in ones life. The most common effect of this is a notably decreased maximum attention span. This theory links directly directly into Attention Restoration Theory. Experiments around this theory tell us that spending time in nature can drastically increase ones maximum attention span. In these experiments people were made to fill out paper work after a normal days routine and their attention and speed of completion were measured. Then people were brought out into the forest where they engaged in a nature walk. After this tis were brought back home to fill out paper work. Those people who spent time in the natural environment displayed a significantly higher attention span and a faster completion speed than those who did not. Many other experiments have been applied specifically to the forest school system to discover its successes and learning outcomes, we will discus these presently.

The successful expansion of Forest Schools in recent years has sparked many research studies from governments and academic institutions. One such study came from The New Economics Foundation (NEF). The NEF has been voted as the best think tank in the UK both in 2002 and in 2003, which should stand as a testament to their credibility and to the outstanding accuracy of their research. NEF launched such a study in 2002 into the learning outcomes of Forest School by monitoring 60 Forest School students over a period of 3 years. NEF isolated 6 distinct learning outcomes from Forest School in each of the 60 individuals. Firstly, NEF noticed a marked improvement in student’s confidence as a result of having freedom in their space and time to learn and develop their independence. Secondly, NEF recorded vast improvements in social skills brought about by increased awareness in the consequences of children’s actions through team activities and the sharing of space and tools. Thirdly, NEF noticed improvements in communication because of the need to solve problems or to make creations as a team. Fourthly, NEF saw an increase in concentration and motivation through the operation of Biophyllia and the Attention Restoration Theory, as previously mentioned. Fifthly, the NEF recorded students had increased knowledge and understanding because, as they said in their report, “Children developed an interest in their natural surroundings that led to independent learning outside of the classroom”. Lastly, the NEF also noticed that Teachers were gaining new perspectives on how best children should learn, a fast that was also mirrored in the parents of the 60 children. This study led the NEF to recommend to the department of Education in the UK that they should encourage, as much as possible, the use of the Forest School model of education.

Another research study was launched by Kings Collage London, who has been ranked 6th in the UK for its research value and skill and considered the 6th best university in the UK. In this research study Kings Collage critically examined over 160 research studies that have been conducted regarding the value of outdoor learning, their conclusion, briefly summarized is as follows:

“There is substantial research evidence to suggest that outdoor adventure programmes can impact positively on young people’s: attitudes, beliefs and self-perceptions – examples of outcomes include independence, confidence, self esteem, locus of control, self-efficacy, personal effectiveness and coping strategies interpersonal and social skills – such as social effectiveness, communication skills, group cohesion and teamwork”