“Forest schools”, courses outside … School in the middle of nature, a “revolution” for children?

Teaching outside, in the middle of nature and in all kinds of weather? The “forest schools” in vogue in some European countries are beginning to seduce in France.

That morning, the children of L’École buissonnière melted beeswax over a campfire and dipped leaves in it to preserve their autumn color. In a few days, they will be chopping wood and preparing their meal on the coals. “We take no risks, everything is prepared and monitored,” explains Ruth Joiner, head of this association, which offers nature activities in the Drôme forest, to BFMTV.com.

Ruth Joiner, who is educated in the UK in pedagogy by nature, welcomes around 1,200 children all year round in her forests – from schools to crèches, through leisure centers and medico-educational institutions. For convenience only, it has a forest sofa, a tarpaulin and a parachute. As equipment, some tools. “We have everything you need on site,” adds Ruth Joiner. Chestnuts, pieces of wood and insects do the rest.

The goal: to recreate the connection between children and nature, but also to let them experiment on their own to develop their creativity. “What matters is consistency,” says Ruth Joiner. “That they regularly return for the same reason, that they are witnesses to the changes of nature, and that they help each other in their projects.” Like moving tree trunks to make a castle or identifying the species of insects found on the site.

40 “forest schools” in France

In Denmark, a forerunner country in the area, the “forest nursery” – or “forest nursery” – was born in the 1950s and is now almost institutionalized. About 20% of kindergarten classes go to school in the middle of nature, summer and winter. In Germany the “waldkindergartens” are already well established, they have landed in 2000. And in the UK there are well over 700 “forest schools”.

In France, these “forest schools” are much less developed and cover various realities, from outdoor school, which is quite rare, to leisure activities outside, which are more common. Thibaut Pinsard, founder of Décliques – which offers 100% outdoor activities in the Paris region for 6-11 year olds – has thus spoken about forty “forest schools” throughout France.

Children take part in a Decliques excursion, which organizes outdoor activities for 6-11 year olds.
Children take part in a Decliques excursion, which organizes outdoor activities for 6-11 year olds. © DEKLIKKERNE

In France, they still suffer from certain prejudices, according to their initiators. “There are preconceived ideas,” Thibaut Pinsard apologizes to BFMTV.com. “Children do not get sick if they go outside when it is 0 ° C outside, you just have to equip them well.”

“There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Thibaut Pinsard nevertheless notes a growing interest: At the start of the school year in September, his enrollments have quadrupled – Décliques welcomes a total of 200 children in 25 different groups. “Little things are happening everywhere,” she told BFMTV.com. “Mentalities change, things move, especially after confinement.”

A school between sea and forest

An outdoor school, consisting of a class of kindergarten children aged 2 to 5 years, even opened at the start of the school year in September on Île de Ré. The “dream” of Caroline Cartalas, a French-German educator for young children, which took five years to become a reality. With a teacher, they welcome eight children, “soon 9”, from 8.45 to 14.00 on land between sea and forest.

As a private school without a contract, it is not mandatory to respect public education schedules or programs, but it should allow children to gain knowledge about the common core of skills, reminiscent of the Public Service website. What Caroline Cartalas guarantees. She is allowed to take up to 14 children and her school will be inspected during the year.

children cared for in one
Children cared for in a “forest school” in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré (Charente-Maritime). © CAROLINE CARTALAS

The “forest schools” have a duty to have premises that can offer a fallback solution in case of bad weather. Caroline Cartalas’ school has an Algeco, which will soon be replaced by a wooden cart. It will allow them to warm up this winter. But also not to spend hours there. So far, the school is taking place outside, regardless of the weather.

Among its furniture, a forest sofa, a tarpaulin, hammocks, beams, a slackline and dry toilets. “We also have a small kitchen in the woods,” Caroline Cartalas continues for BFMTV.com. But the idea is to “wild” the land, lent by a campsite. “We need to install swings, develop a permaculture kitchen garden. What interests us is to open up for children’s creativity.” For her, who has previously “worked in a wake-up call”, the change is radical:

“I really see the difference with kids staying trapped inside between four walls. There’s less frustration, less conflict, everything’s a source of play.”

An educational “revolution”

Education of nature offers a different relationship to teaching and learning, declares Sylvain Wagnon, professor of educational science at the University of Montpellier. “It goes much further than just teaching outside,” he analyzes for BFMTV.com.

“It’s not about getting the kids to run in the woods for three hours, but about going out to feel, experimenting rather than discovering things in a book.”

He even believes that nothing requires learning solely sitting in a classroom. Everything could be learned outside. Laura Nicolas, associate professor of educational science at Paris-Est Créteil University, thus evokes an educational “revolution”.

“We no longer start from the program towards learning objects, but from external elements and what is in place, it is a reverse movement,” she develops for BFMTV.com.

Another specificity of this teaching: outside, it is not a matter of class for subjects, but in a cross-cutting way. Mathematics applied to the construction of a hut or the letters of the alphabet drawn in the sand. “It’s a real transformation of our practice,” notes Laura Nicolas.

Sylvain Wagnon, also author of I awaken my child to nature, creates cultural barriers to practice in France. “In Northern Europe, however, the weather could paradoxically seem less favorable,” he says. But in Denmark, Germany or Great Britain, this alternative pedagogy developed in the early 20th century with the desire to connect nature with education.

Contrary to the tradition of the French school, according to this academic. “In France, the school is based on the idea of ​​academic and intellectual knowledge being taught with a textbook. Learning takes place in the classroom. There have been attempts at outdoor schools or walking classes, but they remained on the sidelines.”

Cécile Thueux, from the 400-member Pédagogie par la nature network, is convinced of the benefits of “forest schools”. For this wealth of trees and teepees, which occasionally welcome children into the woods of Yvelines for outdoor activities, children find “freedom of movement.”

“They are not forced to remain immobile, locked inside,” she explains. “They go outside in all kinds of weather.”

“They frequent the same places during the four seasons, under different weather conditions. They make connections to the place, become aware of their influences and learn by sedimenting all these experiences.”

Students go on a nature excursion in Clavé (Deux-Sèvres), February 4, 2021.
Students go on an excursion in nature, in Clavé (Deux-Sèvres), February 4, 2021. © Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Well-being, motivation and self-confidence?

Outdoor education was investigated and evaluated by Erik Mygind, a Danish academic, in a year group of 1000 students at 18 public forest schools. According to this researcher, questioned by Release, outdoor teaching improves student well-being, increases motivation to attend classes and increases their attention span. The children would also be more sociable, help each other and develop more empathy. “With even more significant effects for hyperactive children or children with attention problems, and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds”, assures Erik Mygind.

Finally last argument: their academic performance would be better. The Danish researcher Erik Mygind has noted better results in reading and sports in the outdoor lessons.

“All the interviewed teachers say they are able to transfer more skills to their students,” he adds.

For researcher Laura Nicolas, supporter of “forest schools”, which also provides training and offers free resources, Improved academic performance is just one of the many benefits of learning outdoors.

“In addition to the benefits of physical and mental health, this practice reduces stress and anxiety and helps children better manage their emotions. They are also more independent and have more self-confidence, which is fundamental to the adult they want to become.”

Children will attend a course in the forest of Upie (Drôme) to protest the lack of reopening of a school on 12 May 2020.
Children will attend a lesson in the forest of Upie (Drôme) to protest against the non-reopening of a school on 12 May 2020. © JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

The ministry also boasts “outdoor classes”

As for traditional schools, we are not yet in class all day in the middle of nature, but a movement has begun. Development of kitchen gardens on playgrounds, “school-park” (as in Bagneux, in Hauts-de-Seine) or even “outdoor school”, especially in Strasbourg … In April last year, the Ministry of National Education even invited teachers to teach outside:

“Outdoor classrooms are beneficial to health, and they are also pedagogically beneficial.”

A recommendation given due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Canopé – the official website for teachers – now offers resources for teaching outside. Educscol, another ministry for education professionals, also has a section for outdoor teaching. Perhaps the beginning of a French “forest school”.

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