The true nature of things: Ecolint’s Forest School programme

In a small clearing close to Ecolint’s Campus des Nations Early Years Centre, two Reception students roll among the fallen leaves of the forest floor. Soon enough, they are covered from head to toe in brambles, earth, dew and a musky woodland smell. Unwittingly, they have just engaged in the experiential learning that Forest School provides. Using all their senses, they have touched, heard, smelled, and seen the autumn season that permeates their surroundings.

Taking place in all weather conditions and throughout the year, Forest School has its roots in Scandinavia’s filuftsliv, or open-air living, a concept encouraging outdoor activity. These sessions, which can last anywhere between a week to several months, are centred on creative aspects, including tool and rope work, cooking, and fire lighting. In addition to teaching core outdoor survival skills, Forest School also serves to extend learning beyond the traditional classroom setting. On each of Ecolint’s three campuses, students of all ages – particularly Primary children – engage in regular sessions of Forest School. This child-centred programme supports play, exploration and risk-taking through hands-on experiences in a natural setting.

Learning from nature

What is a forest? For some, it can be a place where nature roams free, untethered by the constraints of society. For others, it represents life and growth, health and well-being. At Ecolint, both of the above are true. But the forest also takes on a life of its own, for the forest is also a teacher, a guide for young and old to push themselves further. “When we take our students to the forest, we see their independence and confidence grow,” reports Jennifer Pasternak, Early Years Vice-Principal at Ecolint’s Vaud campus of La Châtaigneraie. “It is a place where they can explore, play, and be creative in a way that a classroom does not allow.”

At Ecolint, “the Forest School principles align beautifully with the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) and the Reggio-Emilia approach to learning,” explains Jennifer Pasternak. All three are driven by inquiry and value students’ ability to guide their learning with the support of their teachers. This is taken a step further in the forest, with the teacher taking on the role of facilitator or leader who develops and empowers the forest-goers. Acting as resource providers, the Forest School Leader provides simple equipment, such as strings and basic tools, that children can use to explore, investigate, examine and question their natural surroundings. They also act as intermediaries between what the children learn in class and what they experience in nature. They encourage students to connect the dots and use everything available in the forest to revisit their learning and amplify it. 

The SPICES of life

Central to Forest School sessions are the development of multiple skills and attributes. At Ecolint, these are encapsulated in an ethos called SPICES: spiritual, intellectual, communication, emotional and social skills. Linking up closely with the IB Learner Profile attributes that shape students to be knowledgeable, caring and principled risk-takers, SPICES reinforces the development of these traits through holistic, child-centred learning and teaching that considers children to be competent and capable learners. For Brooke Bandler, Primary teacher at La Châtaigneraie, nature – the forest – is a powerful ally and co-teacher: “It is the more discreet students in class who often thrive the most in the forest. By choosing their activity naturally based on their interests and skills, Forest School enables children to be risk-takers. By climbing trees and using new tools, it helps them develop their creativity, imagination, and collaboration, which boosts each child’s self-confidence.” Thus, by moving learning to an entirely new setting, one in which the possibilities are endless and ever-changing, students can become well-rounded individuals who believe in themselves and others, who are respectful, resilient and more able to assess risk. These traits are then carried back into the classroom, and children are better equipped and more self-confident in taking on the challenges of their school journey and later lives.

Fundamentally, children have an innate desire to connect with nature. Helping shape them as learners, the fresh air and open space also provide countless health benefits, whether cognitive, behavioural, mental or physical. From increasing fitness levels to protect against the many disorders brought about by sedentary lifestyles, from reducing stress, anxiety and depression to enhancing social interaction and improving sleep, contact with nature through such programmes as Forest School also encourages children – and their accompanying adults – to adopt healthy and sustainable habits. Most importantly, it is a time that students and teachers can thoroughly enjoy and look forward to, and upon returning to school, they can feel nourished and content after a healthy dose of nature.

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