‘Wildly’ popular forest schools offer child-led, hands-on learning

Writer Kerry MacGregor recently brought her three-year-old son from France to attend the Ottawa Forest and Nature School for a week, and was delighted by what she found. Photo by Kerry MacGregor

Arriving at the forest school was easy. We left our car in the campsite parking lot and walked down a small dirt path in the forest: Me, hand-in-hand with my three-year-old son, listening to the wind in the leaves, glancing happily at the fallen trees and mud puddles along the road, and feeling very proud of myself.

Although it was summer, my son was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and light pants, to guard against poison ivy.

I walked clutching a page of instructions for his “teacher” because even when we think we’re laid back about our children experiencing life for themselves, sometimes we’re still a bit nuts.

To be fair, my page of instructions was a list of French-English translations —translations for phrases like “fire!” “help!” and “I’ve got a stick in my eye!!” (My son is a francophone and I’d only started teaching him English three weeks earlier.)

We’d come all the way from France to go to a week of summer camp at the Ottawa Forest and Nature School at Wesley Clover Parks in Nepean. And I was probably the more excited of the two of us.

I grew up on the outskirts of Ottawa and around a lake near Algonquin Park. Throughout the 1980s, I was surrounded by nature: I canoed, fished, built forts and rafts, battled black-flies, and waded into marshes to catch frogs.

At times, I was nearly wild. I’d definitely experienced wildness — often without any parents around.

That was also a decade where parents were more flexible with things like seat belts and helmets, and the only danger I was ever warned about was a big white van that could be roaming the neighbourhood, scooping up little girls.

Running loose in the forest at six years old was no big deal.

Forest schools – where kids are outside in nature all day long or at least for long stretches – have been around in Europe for many years, since the 1950s in Sweden and Denmark. The first forest school in Canada opened in 2008. And now, Canada has over 100 of them.

I’d only found one school in France, however, in a sectioned-off bit of green space near Paris.

When people talk about French parenting, they mention how French kids don’t throw food and moms get to remain “women,” but often skip the part about how many of our cities’ parks are grassless, rubber-surfaced, plastic lands.

But the Forest International School near Paris, which takes kids from two to 10 years old, offers a natural setting and holistic approach. “The entire body is involved in learning,” says director Mariane Wyler.

At her school, students incubate eggs, build shelters and climb apple trees as part of their regular curriculum. Learning how to deal with frustration and how to be careful, she says, can be just as important as learning science and vocabulary.

“Most of the boys, when they arrive in the forest, they grab a stick,” she says.

“Of course they need to be supervised, but I think it’s not a good idea to always suggest to them what they need to do.”

With today’s smaller families, she says, even parents who don’t mean to embrace helicopter parenting can find themselves hovering.

“Nowadays everything is done for (children),” she says. “It’s good to have them sweat —it gives them confidence.”

Photo by Kerry MacGregor

Photo by Kerry MacGregor

Under the forest school philosophy, children are encouraged to explore their imaginations and personalities as much as the natural world around them. Their learning is based on their own ideas; it’s child-led, not directed by a teacher standing at the front of a classroom.

“Most of the projects that you have need a lot of hands and a lot of heads to do it,” says Marga Keller, founder of the WaKiTa Forest School in Zurich, Switzerland, where students make tea over campfires and are outside for at least half the day, year-round.

Many of the adventures the students come up with, says Keller, naturally involve math, biology or language skills.

She uses the example of an apple: “On TV, seeing an apple, that’s all it is. When the kid has the apple in his hand, feels the weight and the coolness of the skin of the apple, the texture and the smell, maybe takes a bite or lets it roll on the table … there are thousands of (pieces) of information he gets.”

According to many forest schools, open-ended play – or “free learning” – can also hone planning, leadership, and risk assessment skills.

“I think small children have to experiment,” says Keller, whose two-year-olds are allowed to use knives in the woods.

The knives are not very sharp, she says, but they still cut.

“The children are very slow and careful. They don’t want to hurt themselves,” she says. “But actually, I feel that you have to cut yourself sometimes and feel it to know the danger.”

I was a little scared on that walk through the woods, clutching my translation list, I’ll admit.

As a reporter, I’d smiled at the risk taking, log jumping and rock climbing in forest schools. But just because I’d been raised free-range (known as “not in the house!” back then), that didn’t make me any less of a parent.

Marlene Power, the executive director of Child and Nature Alliance of Canada and the founder of Ottawa’s first forest school, describes the guided risks taken at forest school as “safe” ones. “There has to be a willingness to let go,” she says.

So I did. For a week, my son climbed trees, built his own toys, and covered himself in mud. And he loved it.

“We can pick up everything! The trees that are broken, the rocks … and build a house,” is how my son now describes his experience (the camp also helped with his English).

Letting go of a three-year-old is hard, but I’m so glad he’s found his home in the Ontario wild, like I once did.