Bringing ‘book-learning’ to life: Pandemic drives surge to forest schools

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced parents into doing something experts have been urging for more than a decade – getting their children outdoors.

In pre-pandemic times, most Canadian children spent more than 90 per cent of their time indoors, putting them at higher risk for “nature deficit disorder.” Over the past decade, the number of children participating in outdoor activities has significantly declined. The average Canadian child spends less than 30 minutes a day outdoors and more than seven hours a day in front of electronics, leading to increasing rates of obesity and mental health disorders. In Canada, less than 20 per cent of public schools have any form of outdoor learning.

The pandemic, however, has led to a dramatic increase in the demand for what are known as forest schools. With schools closed and the outdoors deemed “the safest place to be” by public health officials, many have turned to creative ways to get their children learning outdoors – and have seemingly rediscovered forest schools.

Forest school is a child-led, inquiry-based approach that started in Denmark and Sweden in the 1950s and eventually made it to the United States and Canada. Even Ontario Premier Doug Ford expressed support for outdoor learning earlier this year. In forest schools, nature is the classroom.

Significant evidence is accumulating that nature helps children grow and thrive, from helping to restore cognitive functioning and attention to reducing stress levels. Interacting with nature improves a child’s self-confidence, empathy, test scores and social relationships. Children who attend nature-based programs demonstrate better self-regulation skills, improved mental and physical health, increased confidence, increased imaginative play, advanced gross motor skills and greater resilience.

Tadhg Rudolph, who lives just outside of Ottawa, was in grade four when his mother decided to enroll him in a forest school. “It just didn’t seem like his needs were being met in the mainstream school he was in,” says Jane Rudolph, Tadhg’s mother.

Tadhg had been a vivacious and highly energetic toddler. At school, he continued to have high levels of energy and at times struggled with paying attention. He had a natural curiosity about nature and the mechanics of how things worked. Rudolph thought his school environment was limiting his creative potential.

“It just didn’t seem like there were many opportunities for him to move around or explore,” says Rudolph. “More often than not, if he was moving too much, he would get isolated from the rest of the group – there was a real separateness. I felt like he was losing a lot of confidence in his capabilities.”

She did not know anything about forest schools before a friend mentioned the École élémentaire publique Rivière-Rideau in Kemptville, Ont. After visiting the 630-acre compound and meeting staff, Rudolph knew this was the perfect fit.

“It was night and day,” Rudolph says. “The forest school had such a holistic way of understanding him. He could get up and roam if he needed to – he had all this natural space to just move.”

Tadhg started looking forward to school again and began to regain his self-confidence. Now 11, Tadhg is thriving.

“A month after he started at the forest school, I remember Tadhg coming up to me and saying, in a very grown-up way: ‘I think this was a good idea, Mom,’” says Rudolph. “If we hadn’t put him in this school, we wouldn’t have had this happy, confident child on our hands.”

The changes Rudolph saw in her son have been demonstrated in research: Several studies have shown the correlation between nature and benefits in children with attentional difficulties. A 2009 study found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were able to perform better on cognitive tasks after only 20 minutes of walking in a green space, compared with children who walked in an urban or residential area. The study concluded that “doses of nature” were an effective and accessible tool for managing ADHD symptoms.

In 2011, another study concluded that children with ADHD who regularly play and learn outdoors have milder symptoms than those who primarily play in built outdoor or indoor settings, regardless of gender and socioeconomic status. Many studies since have replicated these results: Learning in nature is good for children who struggle with hyperactivity and paying attention.

The benefits aren’t limited to attention and behaviour – they also extend to academics. A 2019 study found that students who were taught outdoors are more likely to achieve better reading test scores. Another study demonstrated that schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening. Since children with neurodevelopmental disorders consistently lag behind their neurotypical peers in academics, this is an important finding.

Discussions about the benefits of nature for children have extended to include children with other neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and learning disabilities.

A 2013 research report commissioned in the United Kingdom found that nature-based learning is beneficial for children with autism because its curriculum can be applied to each child’s unique needs, helping to bring “book learning” to life. A 2010 study found six key benefits to taking a child with autism outdoors – increased social participation and communication, more positive behaviours, regulated emotions, improved cognition and physical activity.

We have seen this locally, too.

In 2013, a public school in North York initiated a program in which all children spent at least 75 minutes a day outside, no matter the weather. The changes in the students with ASD surprised them: The children started to play more with each other rather than by themselves, were calmer, showed fewer behavioural outbursts and also demonstrated improvement in their muscle tone and strength.

In forest schools, children can play in the mud, walk barefoot and climb across logs for a variety of learning activities. Some argue that this provides the ideal sensory experience for children with autism, who often struggle with sensory dysfunction.

The benefits extend to children at all developmental levels. One study found that learning in nature significantly reduced anxiety and improved trust in a range of students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. Another emphasized that science taught outdoors is especially accessible to students with disabilities.

Results are not confined to young children: A Spanish study that followed 63 disruptive and low-performance high-school students over six years found their dropout rate decreased from 30 per cent to zero and that there were significantly fewer disruptive episodes.

The evidence is clear: Children with socio-emotional, behavioural and attentional challenges thrive in the forest. Why, then, are more of these children not enrolled in nature-based schools?

The answer is funding. Not only do most forest schools charge tuition fees, most also lack the funding to fully support children with significant needs.

“If we have a student with significant needs, we try our best to provide some supports, but our resources are limited,” says Heather Dabrowski, the acting director at Cambridge Farm & Forest School in Ontario, which runs part-time programming for children. “If the students can fund their own educational assistant or have a parent willing to come in, we would certainly welcome that.”

The Victoria Nature School in British Columbia has seen a significant increase in interest this year and faces similar challenges. Its director, Anna St Denis, is trying to meet that demand for children at all developmental levels, but the challenge weighs heavily on her.

“This is our opportunity to think about applying nature-based education to every child – but how do we come up with a process that is inclusive for everybody?” she asks. “We are strapped for funding. We know how beneficial nature-based learning is for neurodiverse children, but the funding supports are lagging behind.”

One of the reasons for forest schools’ costs is the expensive teacher-to-student ratio, one teacher for five students. And if a child needs one-on-one support, most forest schools do not have funding to support this.

St Denis says she knows some children with disabilities who have been asked to leave as many as five schools because their needs cannot be adequately supported. “These children are so perceptive,” she says. “They are getting this message of ‘You are not welcome here.’ It’s heartbreaking. We do our best to keep children with us. If possible, we ask parents to pay for a support person out of pocket, if they can afford it. If they can supply additional help from a governmental agency, we do everything we can to make the accommodation seamless. But I wish we could offer more.

“The beauty of forest schools is that it meets the child where they are developmentally. We want to include everyone – but it is very challenging to find a sustainable solution in the current system.”

Still, she says, “we have to keep trying.”

Until all children can participate in nature-based schools, there is hope: Some public schools have already started to include more nature-based programming.

Ontario school boards and educators have been encouraged by a Hospital for Sick Children report that acknowledged the benefits of outdoor play and learning. An elementary school in North York has started using a nearby pond for biology and art lessons while students at one public school in Oakville now start their day outdoors, talking about what they see, using the wind for ribbon wands and painting with water on sidewalks. Students at another public school in Sudbury are learning about the food chain while perched on logs, watching worms on the ground and birds in the sky. Even in winter, children are cultivating their imaginations in the world’s largest playground.

Many hope this is a pandemic-borne trend that is here to stay.