An Introduction to Forest School with Ania Gradkowska

15th Feb 2022
An Introduction to Forest School with Ania Gradkowska

‘Forest Schools’ are becoming increasingly popular across the Asia-Pacific region and Hong Kong has caught the ‘Natural Outdoor Learning’ trend as well.

Learning via the ‘Forest School’ concept combines respecting outdoor environments that surround us and helping students let nature guide and ‘teach’ them. 

‘Forest Schools’ were first developed in Denmark about seventy years ago and as a core basic concept, qualified teachers will help students ‘become one with nature’ by letting them interact with all of nature’s many treasures via interactive play and hands-on exercises. 

Does Hong Kong have Forests? 

People think Hong Kong is simply an urban ‘Jungle’ though in fact, Hong Kong has about 62.9kha of tree cover (2010), extending over 56% of its land area. 

Hong Kong does try to maintain and keep up the conservation of its trees and country parks and in 2019, around 298 thousand tree seedlings were sourced and planted in Hong Kong's country parks.

Hong Kong used to have a widespread of forests though sadly,  lost almost all its forests in the second world war.

Post War, to re-establish the lost number of trees, many fast-growing exotic non-native tree species were planted to help rebuild all the lost foliage. Decades on, in 2009, the focus was placed on growing a wide sample of trees to enhance the biodiversity of Hong Kong’s country parks. As a result, seven years ago, 80 percent of all 400 thousand tree seedlings recently planted in Hong Kong were native species.

Picture from Term 1 Forest School

Benefits of Forest School 

Forest school can entail everything from taking samples of leaves to climbing up and down trees and it is definitely interactive and enjoyable. 

The students tend to enjoy the sense of freedom and independence which this type of learning allows them and helps increase their motivation, concentration levels and allows them to improve problem-solving.

Ania Gradkowska, ESF Language’s Forest School Expert, was happy to delve deeper to explain all the different aspects of Forest School and how it benefits children.

What exactly is 'Forest School' and where does your interest in this new form of education come from? 

“First started in Scandinavia, Forest School is a play-based and learner-focused process facilitated by a qualified Forest School Leader, who follows the needs and interests of the individuals participating in the program. Forest School allows learners to play in nature on a frequent and regular basis, and under most weather conditions. 

For children to develop a connection with nature and build a sense of community, it is best conducted with the same group of children over an extended period, preferably over a full school year. 

My interest in nature-based ways of working with young people emerged a few years back during my time volunteering at a children outdoor programme in Hong Kong. This experience allowed me to travel back in time to my childhood where I played hide and seek in the woods and made mud pies at the back of the garden. I experienced first-hand the benefits of connecting with nature and I wanted more children to feel them too.”

What would a typical 'Forest School' session entail? What would the students learn?

“Every Forest School programme is different as it is developed around the interests of the participants, so there isn’t a ‘typical’ session. However, the experiences in Forest School are plentiful and, depending on the site and participants’ interests, they can range from nature-based art and games, knot tying and shelter building to safe tool use and fire.

Forest School sessions follow a rhythm that is created by the leader through certain routines and rituals which are unique to every group. These routines help learners transition easily in and out of the session, creating a sense of comfort and emotional security.

In the early stages of a programme, physical and social boundaries are established. They are usually followed by games that reinforce the boundaries and teach the learners how to stay safe.

The leader facilitates through subtle modelling of new skills and introduction of open-ended sensory games to spark curiosity and enable learner-led play. 

As the learners progress through the programme, they get more confident and take ownership of their learning. The learner-led play expands and fewer adult-led activities will be needed.

The leader continues to model and observe so they can support the learners with the right resources and appropriately challenging, holistic experiences.”

Are there health and social benefits to attending a forest school programme? 

“There are plenty! An evaluation commissioned by the Forest Commission under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK suggested that Forest Schools can make a difference in children’s confidence, social skills, communication, motivation, physical skills, and knowledge and understanding. 

On top of the above, I believe that Forest School also promotes calm, reduces stress and increases wellbeing. The less stressed the children become, the more they notice and appreciate the world around them, and in turn, they become more patient, empathic listeners. 

Additionally, taking on new, exciting challenges supports personal growth. It develops greater resilience, self-esteem and boosts confidence. 

As the child benefits from the forest school programme, this will also create a positive, ripple effect on their family, school, nature and the wider community they live in.”

Why should students learn more about nature and the environment?

“The more they learn about nature, the more they learn to appreciate it and care for it. 

By noticing the natural cycles and changes in their environment, they start to realise how everything in nature is interconnected and that we are inseparable from the natural world. How we care for it is how we care for ourselves and the planet.”

How can 'Forest School' lessons be applied in real life?

“One of the main aims of Forest School is building resilience - the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. I dare to say, is there a better skill than this that we can teach to our children for their future?”

By Christopher Lau 

Photos by Ania Gradkowska