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Why I love the Forest School philosophy

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

"Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul" - John Muir

The Forest School philosophy is based around the uniqueness of each child. As opposed to mainstream education, children are seen as individuals who are following their own unique path. It would be ludicrous to assume that all human beings want the same things out of life, that they learn in the same way, at the same time, that they even have the same set of skills to offer, and yet, traditional schooling disregards all of that. Children are expected to follow the same path, learn the same things, get tested(!) on exactly the same skills and is based around all children fitting the mould or, essentially, 'failing'. It goes against how humans are biologically programmed to learn, it is no wonder that the school system is fraught with challenges and difficulties. It's just not natural and is not set up to cater for how children learn.

If I had a magic wand and could revolutionise the school system with one wave of this wand, this is how the school system would look. Schools would be much smaller. There would be much higher ratios of teachers to students. We would have mixed aged classes. Students would spend the majority of their time outside, more so in the early years. Students would have choice in what they learn. There would be no fixed curriculum, teachers would support the topics the children wanted to learn. There would be absolutely no standardised tests. Schools would focus on not creating a love of learning for its children but on maintaining a love of learning for its children.

The reason I say maintaining a love of learning is because we don’t need to create a love of learning for young children, it is there at birth. Babies come out of the womb and begin their learning journey, and they absolutely love it! Think of the last time you saw a baby delight in discovering something, their eyes lighting up, even giggling at whatever new found skill they'd just discovered. Watching my son discover this world is the most fascinating experience of my life. Young children just love to learn, there's no question about it. Babies are constantly using their senses to make sense of everything that comes their way. I remember my son once spent half an hour taking the top on and off my drink bottle when he was 12 months old, fascinated and delighted with this task he had discovered for himself. Four year olds ask on average 200-300 questions a day. Warren Berger, a journalist and author who has written books on this subject, estimates that between the years 2-5, a child will ask around 40,000 questions! When we take the time to watch this learning in action it is beautiful and needs very little, if any at all, encouraging by the supervising adult. Children are the masters of their own learning. They will naturally become drawn to things that interest them, explore them, investigate them and spend time concentrating on whatever this might be. It takes no effort, it is a biological drive. Our job as parents, carers or educators is to guide this, facilitate where needed and give children the space they need to pursue their own learning. I think children actually have much longer attention spans than what most of us believe, under the conditions appropriate to them, like my 1 year old with the bottle top.

What happens though when these curious little beings turn 5 and we put them into traditional ‘big school’? Where does that curiosity go? Do the questions just suddenly stop? Once in school, children are expected to follow the same path, at the same pace as their peers, regardless of what sparks their unique interest. They are asked to sit still, be quiet. Break time is for playing, classroom is for learning. The fact that schools seperate these two critical activities, is doing our children such a disservice. Learning depends on play, children learn so much when free to play. Playing and learning are not exclusive, playing is learning and learning should be playing. In fact, we now know so much about play and it's role in child development, that there is so much to be learnt through play. I will talk more about the role of play in a future post.

Gradually, and sometimes quickly, for some children, the love of learning they are born with fades as the segregation of play and learning becomes greater. It is now the teacher that supposedly knows what is best for the child. The child who had freedom to investigate and explore what interested him, can do no longer. Each child is essentially placed in a box, based on nothing other than their age, categorised and told what to read, what to do, what it has to learn, or in other words, conform. Is this really conducive to learning? Is someone taking away your freedom to learn and telling you what to learn and when, going to help you learn? And also, is conformity really a life skill we want for our children?

So how can Forest School address this issue with the current school system? Well first of all it is outside! It is well documented that children actually learn better outside. When we are out in nature, our mind is given space and freedom. We are not contained and confined by the 4 walls of a room. Our brains are more likely to switch into the ‘flow’ state which is when creativity happens. One of the Forest School principles states that it "aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.” Now are they or are they not qualities and skills all children should have the opportunity to develop? Children can also be in mixed age groups, not categorised based on age. This allows younger children to learn from the older ones, which is a beautiful thing , and the older ones have an opportunity to teach and care for the younger ones. This leads to more diverse communication and interpersonal skills and is representative of real life. Finally, it is child-led. Children have the opportunity to explore, discover and find the spark that interests them. From this they can make decisions, risk assess and build confidence in themselves. This may be especially important for those that feel very challenged by the classroom environment, it may even be the first opportunity for such children to feel capable, maybe even worthy.

Giving children windows of opportunity where they can feel their confidence build, where they feel trusted, where they can feel part of a community that values what they say, is invaluable. It can give them hope that the world is a place where they can feel safe and accepted. This is what I love most about the Forest School philosophy and until I have my magic wand, will follow this path with as many people who feel the same way.

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