Updated: Jun 7, 2021
If there’s one thing you can rely on the education industry to excel at, it’s buzzwords. New phrases crop up all the time. Some stick, some don’t; some are simply marketing speak, while others herald real, positive progress.
One phrase that’s been gathering speed in Hong Kong in recent years is ‘Forest School.’ Type it into Google, and you’ll be presented with a raft of results, all singing the concept’s praise. But what exactly is Forest School? How, when and why did it become a thing? When we were kids, we were encouraged to climb trees, squelch in the mud and play in the sandpit – isn’t this just the same as that?
“The term Forest School first started to appear on the UK education scene in the 1990s,” says Howard Tuckett, headmaster of Wycombe Abbey School Hong Kong. “The concept was for schools to seek ways to expose children who had little exposure to natural surroundings during their school day to the benefits of outdoor learning.” Howard explains that UK education authorities at the time were very much focused on improving the outcomes of academic classroom learning, specifically literacy and numeracy.
“As the focus on academic improvement intensified, the time that pressurised primary class teachers had for external activities diminished. A broad realisation of what had been lost [saw] various attempts by teachers across the UK to redress the balance collected together under the umbrella of the Forest School concept.”
The new concept was considered a step forward for children’s general wellbeing, particularly in an era when screen time was starting to become a concern. Of course, since then, children’s access to technology and screens has skyrocketed. Countless studies have been conducted on the subject, and together they make for quite terrifying reading. Children today spend more time in front of screens and less time playing outdoors than any previous generation. Obesity levels are on the rise, and children lack social skills and confidence as a result of increasingly limited in-person interactions.
Here in Hong Kong, it’s all too easy to keep children at home. For many families, particularly those living in built-up areas, it’s not so easy to just send the kids outside to play. But the potential is there. Despite being known for its high-rise urban landscape, 75% of Hong Kong’s territory is green, and the remaining 25% includes numerous urban parks. What doesn’t help is Hong Kong’s work-life balance, so if schools can take learning outdoors and help children develop a connection with nature, we really should grab the opportunity with both hands.
One school that has embraced the new methodology is Malvern College Pre-School Hong Kong, which offers a ‘Forest and Beach School curriculum.’ More than just ‘playing in the dirt,’ the programme promotes risk taking through trying new activities like swinging from ropes, finding ways to negotiate uneven surfaces and using tools such as hammers and peelers to get creative with natural materials. Sessions are led by a level 3-qualified Forest School teacher and focus on developing a love of the outdoors, connecting children with the natural world and the rich diversity of Hong Kong.
The school explains that ‘loose parts,’ such as stones, sticks, leaves, soil, seeds and water allow children to conduct investigations and enjoy real experiences, which begin outdoors and then continue in the classroom.
Connie Kenny, director of Wilderness International Kindergarten in Kennedy Town, says natural, outdoor materials provide wonderful, open-ended opportunities for academic learning through play. “At Wilderness we take every opportunity to include nature and natural resources in our curriculum,” she says. “Even when the children are not playing outdoors, they are using natural resources such as pine cones, shells, pebbles, twigs, leaves sheoak pods, gum nuts and pebbles to enhance numeracy skills such as counting, sorting, measuring and patterning. The different textures, sizes, colours and smells provide children with rich sensory experiences whilst practising their numeracy and fine motors skills.”
Connie says that outdoor discoveries can teach science concepts too. “We have a ‘finding table,’ where children collect, share, discuss and explore their natural treasures,” she says. “Whilst our ‘WilderKids’ are manipulating these materials, they are also developing a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry, observation, experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating – all critical science skills for the remainder of school life and into the future.”
One of the core beliefs at Wilderness, and one of the guiding principles of the Forest School ethos, is that playing outdoors and connecting with nature on a daily basis should be integral to all early years teaching and not just a sporadic event. True Forest School programmes, according to the Forest School Association, should ideally take the form of regular sessions of at least two hours and should continue for a minimum of 24 weeks, or two terms, and cover at least two seasons. Forest School doesn’t stop for the weather!
It’s all about building resilience from a young age, balancing risks and benefits, provoking feelings and thoughts and nurturing not just physical wellbeing but also mental wellbeing by helping children understand and work through problems to find solutions.
It’s also about empowering children and giving them the freedom to drive their own learning while also raising responsible, caring citizens who are kind to and collaborative with one another. Connie adds that the methodology also helps children develop a strong connection with the environment and become powerful, compelling communicators with increased creativity, confidence and self-regulation skills.
Forest School isn’t a place; it’s a philosophy, and Hong Kong’s space limitations shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to providing outdoor learning. Howard points to inner-city schools in the UK that despite having little access to countryside or outdoor space still managed to implement the programme. A patch of disused land here, a small plot of turf there, a previously ignored weedy corner – teachers got creative.
“Wycombe Abbey is located in Tin Wan, Aberdeen,” he says. “It is a built-up area of Hong Kong on the south side of the main island. However, there are various natural locations very close by. The network of paths leading to and around the Aberdeen Reservoir and the nearby coastal locations are all accessible.
“Like most Hong Kong schools, we are challenged by a lack of any grassland or woodland on our school campus, but we do have locations suitable for outdoor gardening and similar activities, [including] a roof garden, which allows pupils to work outdoors, when the weather allows, overlooked by the beautiful southern slopes of The Peak.”
Of course, the other reason it’s important for Hong Kong’s schools to facilitate outdoor learning is the ever-looming presence of the ‘fun police. ’ When kids can’t kick a ball or ride a scooter in a park … when they can’t fly a kite on a beach or climb a tree just for fun … Hong Kong’s children are constantly being told “No!” Thank goodness somebody is finally telling them “Yes!”
For more information on the official Forest School programme, visit www.forestschoolassociation.com
Schools offering outdoor learning experiences in Hong Kong:
Discovery Bay International School – www.dbis.edu.hk
Eminent EIS International Preschool – www.eminent-education.org
Forest House Waldorf School/Garden House Pre-school and Kindergarten –www.gardenhouse.edu.hk
International College Hong Kong – ichk.edu.hk
Malvern College Pre-School Hong Kong – www.malvernpreschool.hk
Wilderness International Kindergarten – www.wilderness.asia
Wycombe Abbey School Hong Kong – www.was.edu.hk
Leapfrog Kindergarten Sai Kung - www.leapfrogkindergarten.org
Extra-curricular outdoor experience providers: Ark Eden – www.arkedenonlantau.org
Dragonfly – www.learnwithdragonfly.com
Hong Kong Forest Adventures – www.hongkongforestadventures.com
The Backyard Gang – thebackyardgang.com