Forest school in Belgium

Quite unexpectedly, I heard about a forest school in Belgium. Someone who had the same trajectory as the kids in their reflecting vests heading toward a big park in Gent mentioned it to me. Apparently there had even been a piece in the newspaper about them. How could it  be that I did not know this?

My guess is because the “Buitenklas” (Engl. outside classroom) takes place as part of the Steiner school and for most people, the forest school sounds like something the Steiner school could have invented by themselves. After all, the Steiner school is all about the natural material, the softer approach and closeness to nature (says me, who has little to no exposure to the Steiner school — until recently).

I had a date with Claudia, a Swiss born teacher at the school in the early afternoon, when the class had already returned from their site. Claudia asked me to come at an occasion when the kids are not there, so as not to disrupt the class. For me this was perfectly understandable, and also something I didn’t deem necessary. After all, I do know what the kids are bound to do in the natural surroundings.

We first went to check out the first site they had had. This was a hilly little forest corner at the outer banks of Bourgoyen park. However, because the site was not closed off , there was no way to protect the tree houses or other structures the children had built from being broken down by others. On top of it, there was too much dangerous trash being left behind at the park, so Claudie went to look for a new site. They finally found one, from the large garden of a nice couple very close to the initial site.

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Claudia and the parents build a shelter for the children and acquired other materials that would be needed at the Buitenklas, such as a fireplace, storage facility. Because this edge of a garden was for the children´s use, they were able to start their own little vegetable patch and a herb spiral and claim the site for themselves. They were also able to leave their treasures as they were knew that they would be able to find it all back the same way they left it.

img_20161024_150728The Buitenklas is outside every morning  until about  12.20. Claudia is at the site  from 8 onward and the children are brought there directly by their parents or they walk to the site  together with the child carer who waits for the chidlren at the school. By 8.45 they are ready to start the day. By the time everyone has arrived, the children who have arrived as first ones, have already had the time to play.

The day starts with a moment sitting down in a ring in the shelter and greeting everything around them, the plants, trees and the bird. The day is filled with singing,  moving, doing handicrafts and having a chance to participate in the chores, such as making soup, cracking nuts etc. On Tuesday´s the children get to enjoy an open fire, an important natural element to us all. The nature around invites the children to use their imagination so toys are not necessary though there are some dolls and hand puppets that can be used. There is also a “mud kitchen” where getting hands dirty is a requirement. The chidlren get used to using tools such as  saws, hammers, sandpaper, wool  etc. to build structures to play house in, to play the supermarket, etc. On top of that, their site invites them to run through the bamboo thickets, play hide and seek and observe the nature around.

The Buitenklas has been running since September 2012. Claudia says she is doing the same things she would be doing inside, only, she is using less paper and pencils. The children enjoy playing outside and the parents have been supportive. Those wanting to enroll their children in the Buitenklas need to still go through a waiting list.. The parents who sign up their children for the Buitenklas, are aware of what they are putting their kids into and therefore there have been no difficulties in having the children be correctly equipped  in terms of clothing etc.

Claudia feels lucky to be able to run her Buitenklas outside as she realizes that this  is not self-evident. However, as the ideology of learning outside is close to the ideology of the Steinerschool, it is less of a hassle and work to motivate the leadership to find the money for the extra child carer to accompany Claudia outside everyday.

The waiting list for this class goes to show there is need for such education. As I am about to send my 2.5 year old in the school, Claudia´s Buitenklas seems like the obvious choice. However, I take my children to nature and I make sure they play outside every day.Therefore,  I feel that there are more deserving kids out there who would need this place more than my little one.
I find it sad that the value of free form nature play has yet to be widely recognized in Belgium. It is still the privilege of a few children, whose parents are aware of the importance and let´s face it, probably anyway bring their kids to nature on a regular basis. Those children, who would need it even more urgently, i.e. children of parents who do not spend time outside in nature or see little or no value in environmental and nature education, are being left out as the schools are not pushing free form nature play. Though every bit is better than nothing, I doubt that a week at the sea, or a week in the forest class, is enough to help build a nature relationship where there has been none.
The Buitenklas allows the children to come in contact with the familiar nature, learn about it through observing it and interacting with it, and build a bond with it. What you know and love, you want to take care of as well.  Applies to many things, doesn’t it?

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