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.
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.
The 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.
A tipi for quiet chatting
Around this table the children do their movement game
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.
Materials found in the surrounding nature
In the Steinerschool, seasons are an important aspect. Treasures from each season are brought to the fore and celebrated.
Kruidspiraal – herbal spiral
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?
Finland is one of those countries, where the forest school movement has been rising in popularity in the recent years. In the last 10 years, some 30 forest schools have been established. Most of these are pre-schools that cater for 5-6-year-olds, who spend most days of the week or the most hours of the day at a specific, dedicated natural area, usually a forest.
I contacted the Tammela forest pre-school school to see if I could visit them and was warmly welcomed by kindergarten teacher Mia Kaseva, who has just started her first year in the forest, though not her first year in the kindergarten.
A bit before 9 am I arrive at the school where the group is preparing to leave. The kids leave the daycare and kindergarten facilities around 9.00 Tuesday through Friday, and they stay to play, learn, eat and move around in the forest until 12.30 when they walk back to the school. In the afternoon the kids either stay at school or are picked up by parents, grandparents or the school taxi (for kids who live firther away in the country side).
The walk to the forest school is approximately 1 km, and it gives the kids a good practice about traffic safety, as they have to walk next to the road.. On Mondays the kids stay at the day care engaging in tasks that require a computer or writing and that would be more difficult to accomplish outside.
The kids arrive to the main school building and already have their outdoor gear (weather fitting clothes, shoes and head wear) on. They put on their yellow reflector vests to be more visible on their walk. Leena Vasama, the brain and heart behind the forest preschool, tells me that the kids know to dress for the school. The parents have been well informed at the start of the year, they have visited the site to see what their kids will be up against and have equipped their 5-6-year-olds well. That´s important, as cold and wet can cripple the play.
The kids grab some things they need at the forest school site, e.g. shovels, and start walking in a row with one teacher in the front as the rabbit, and another one at the end as the turtle.
As we arrive to the forest, the kids take out their reflector vests and backpacks and hang them in a small wooden shelter at the entrance of the forest school site. Rather than allowing the kids to run around free immediately, the teachers have a message to share with them. It turns out, the teachers have witnessed a few “border crossovers” the day before and now it´s time to go through the forest school borders once again. According to Leena, this happens only at the beginning of the year, when the kids are not yet used to the border markings. Later on, they can remove the markings as everyone knows and obeys the borders.
After the round, the kids are free to take off to their favorite activities – playtime! Most kids run to grab the shovels. Leena tells me that until last year, they didn’t have any “toys” at the site. The saws, knives, hammers, and other tools were their only equipment which were used to build and repair, also by the children. The kids were fine without the toys and used sticks and stones and other natural materials that were molded by their imagination.
There are altogether 11 kids playing around the area. As for the ideal number of children, Leena has a quick answer. Ten is perfect, 11, maybe 12, is doable but any more makes it difficult to keep an eye on the kids and to ensure their safety, as well as to fit them in the “Himmeli”, their little shelter house where they spend some time in the winter months when it is really cold (somewhere below minus 20 degrees Celcius).
The forest school has been popular from the beginning. There has been 17 kids some years ago, even 19 kids, but that was clearly too many. When interests were high, some kids had to be enrolled in the regular (indoor) pre-school. However, this year, there is only one pre-school class and that is the forest one, as there are only 11 kids of pre-school age. Though for the forest school this is a perfect amount of children, Leena is worried. There´s been a dramatic drop in birthrate in the recent years in Tammela and the municipality is seeing more people leave (move or die) than be born.
The school has been through some difficulties of their own. When the forest pre-school first started in 2009, the shelter they had for them was an old army tent fit for many people. However, when the Tammela preschool got a new building in a new location, the forest preschool was in jeopardy as there was no nearby forest next to the new school to accomodate the schools forest class. However, Leena didn’t let the idea die but went around scoping out possible locations near the school, and asking the landowners for their consent. And she managed to find a spot at the border of three different landowners. Luckily, all of the landowners were willing to give the parcel for free for the use of the school for a number of years. However, since the headmaster had other priorities than keeping the forest pre-school going, no funds were made available for establishing a new forest school. Leena mobilized the board of the parents, the local entrepreneurs and finally was able to raise enough money and materials to build a winter warm shelter which was erected with the help of the parents, a composting toilet and a laavu-shelter for year round daily use.
And finally, when everything was set up and everything was running well, the school is now threatened by too few students.
After some playtime, it´s time to gather the kids for a morning snack – some bread with butter and a drink of water. They eat this in the laavu and then start discussing the calendar. They talk about the seasons and the signs that tell it is the end of the summer. After this, they collect their seat cushions and grab some writing equipment and make their way to the rocky outcrop that is bathing in the sun. The kids sit down in a row and with the lead of Mia, they continue their work around the theme of drawing a birch tree. They also practice writing the word “summer (kesä)”. There is no bickering, everyone has their spot, everyone is heard. And everyone is concentrating in their own work.
In the meantime, Leena shows me around the compound. The tepee turns out to be a wood burning sauna which the children have built themselves. Here the kids take a sauna sometime, a detail exotic to some, but common in the Finnish culture from which the sauna originates. All materials of the sauna as well as everything on the compound is recycled or received as a donation. Or “begged for” as Leena puts it.
Leena has no problem begging for things. She loves her work. Both teachers especially love the effect being in nature has on the children. First of all, “it doesn’t rain in the forest”, say the kids. Secondly, there´s room to play and the days go fast. The teachers have seen impressive developments in some kids with learning difficulties who have already been made a plan to follow special education and who have miraculously been cured after some months in the forest pre-school. These children calm down and their concentration skills improve. In addition, the teachers see the kids find their place in a group immediately as they engage in their own games and plays in the forest. No one is left alone.
As one of the main comments from the parents, Leena mentions, is that the parents have a lot of their own time back in the evenings, as the children, who arrive home from the forest school want to engage in calm, solitary activities like drawing or flipping through books, or playing games. Gone are the difficult evenings where children refuse to go to bed, as their appetite is healthy they are ready to go to sleep after a a day in the fresh air and physical exercise outdoors.
But are the kids really outside all the time? Yes. Only in the winter, they gather inside the Himmeli to eat and to do some tasks. But even then, they stay outside. Only if the weather turns very bad, e.g. dangerously stormy, they stay inside or do not come to the forest site at all. In the winter, there is no “freezing limit”, the kids go out as they want, even when it´s -25 degrees Celsius or colder. There is a fire burning in front of the laavu warming up that shelter, as well as in Himmeli. And that, along side constant movement that being outdoors inspires, seems to be enough to keep the kids warm.
At around 11, the food arrives. The food comes from the central kitchen, heated, and is dropped off at the side of the road, where the kids have dropped off the dishes from yesterday just this morning.
Today we eat spaghetti casserole, watermelon salad and some crackers and water. Luxurious, if you ask me. And everything tastes delicious in the outdoors.
After food, the kids run out to play a bit more. Some are balancing on the tree trunk, some are playing on a raft while others have collected a lot of snails and made a kindergarten for them.
The kids gather around for one more game they have asked Mia if they could play. Then it´s time to start wrapping up and get back to the school where some kids stay until later in the afternoon before they are picked up. At the forest, the kids put their reflector vests on and form a line. “See you tomorrow””, they say, as they wave goodbye to the forest. Their forest.