The best lesson planner is nature

Forest schools allow children to explore and learn through inquiry and play

Every day at forest school is different,” says Alyssa Delle Palme, co-founder of Wild Roots Nature and Forest School, located at Macskimming Outdoor Education Centre in Cumberland. Students at forest school spend their time outdoors in all seasons. Learning activities might include looking for birds, telling animal stories, collecting sap, building a fort, or anything else that sparks the curiosity of the students. Students learn in small groups, with educators supporting them by providing lessons relevant to what they experience on any given day.

“The best lesson planner is nature. Kids are longing for the opportunity to follow their noses, and to follow the interesting things that appear,” says Bryarly McEachern, the executive director of Earth Path, an Ottawa non-profit whose programs follow the forest school model and traditional Indigenous perspectives in an integrative approach to the natural world.

Developed in Scandinavia in the 1950s, forest schools are relatively new in North America. They’re designed to allow students to explore a natural space through inquiry-driven, play-based, and emergent learning. In this country, Forest School Canada works to establish standards, teach educators, and support the community of schools across the country. The organization established the Ottawa Forest and Nature School in 2014 to provide programs and demonstrate practices for schools across Canada.

The benefits of outdoor play for children are well known, and include improved motor skills, reduced stress, increased attention span, and greater awareness of the natural world. Because there are so many benefits, some teachers are bringing their classes on forest school field trips or are learning to be practitioners themselves. Two teachers from Meadowlands Public School, Jacqueline Whelan and Joanne Burbidge, are drawing on experiences from forest school to pilot a loose parts learning module for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. In the module, students create and collaborate in the schoolyard with items such as planks, piping, burlap, and stumps.

“There’s no right way to use loose parts, just like there’s no right way to use the forest,” says Burbidge. “We’ve seen a lot of resilience being developed, and cooperation.” Outdoors, students learn to assess and mitigate risks, and even take a leadership role in safe play. 

The Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group’s 2015 Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play, supported by organizations like CHEO and ParticipACTION, states that “outdoor play that occurs in minimally structured, free and accessible environments facilitates socialization with peers, reduces feelings of isolation, builds interpersonal skills and facilitates healthy development.” Students at forest school build relationships with one another through cooperative play and problem solving. “At forest school it just seems like a family…nobody is left out,” says Delle Palme. One parent, Vickie Gralewicz, says forest school helped her daughter gain confidence and improve her communication and leadership skills. “She never shies away from a challenge, but still helps people along the way.” Students who struggle in the traditional classroom can thrive at forest school. “Some of the most gifted naturalists are kids with incredible awareness outside…indoors, it can be overwhelming, but outdoors, they can detect subtle things,” says McEachern. 

“Outdoor education helps children to develop in a conscious way with the land, and to learn skills fundamental to their sense of place,” says McEachern. Through frequent contact with a natural space, students are encouraged to become stewards of the land and develop an ongoing relationship with nature. Delle Palme echoes this sentiment. “It’s more important than ever to get kids out there connecting with nature, so they will want to take care of the land now and for future generations.”