Students at the Berkeley Forest School have story time by the bay. (Photos courtesy of the school)

Stomping through puddles, scrambling over fallen logs and digging in the dirt with sticks may not sound like traditional educational activities, but they are core parts of the curriculum in “forest schools.”

Learning amid the leaves is the hallmark of a forest school, an immersive outdoor education model devoted to the exploration of nature. Forest schools, which have their roots in Scandinavian educational tradition, generally focus on preschool age children. Instead of sitting quietly at their desks, these students build forts in the forest, pick berries fresh from the bush and have story time at the shore.

Can these outdoor schools offer lessons to other preschools and K-12 public schools at a time when being indoors is so risky?

Champions of the movement suggest outdoor education may be a common-sense solution to the myriad difficulties of remote learning, from getting students up to speed on shifting technology to keeping young children engaged without constant human interaction. Forest schools also encourage physical activity and build resilience through social connections with peers in a natural setting, teachers say. These may well be crucial coping mechanisms during a turbulent time for many families.

‘It’s much safer to be outdoors’

“More and more people are turning to the outdoors as a way to cope with the challenges of COVID,” said Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist who recommends outdoor experiences to combat issues of attention and focus in children. “It’s much safer to be outdoors because the rates of transmission are far lower outside. On top of that, children just aren’t built to sit still for most of the day. It’s basic neural science. They need to move.”

Finding Berkeley Forest School was a lifesaver for Traci Moren, whose sons Archer, 5, and Izzy, 10, chafe at sitting still for hours. They delight in having a classroom where you can dig up snake skins, bury treasure maps and climb trees.

“Forest school has been a game changer,” said the Berkeley mother of two, whose sons are also doing distance learning through Berkeley’s Washington Elementary School. “It’s pretty great. We are very lucky. I honestly don’t think our family would survive all this and still like each other without forest school. In the days before, I had to schedule our day around getting outside or else we’d have meltdowns and screaming matches. It was so exhausting. Now they get their energy out, are calmed being out in nature and the learning comes while they’re out moving around. They are celebrated for their energy and creativity, not asked to sit down and be quiet. They’re happier when they come home.”

Students gather at the Berkeley Forest School, which operates out of scenic César Chávez Park.

Even before the pandemic, there has been a rise in the number of forest schools, which encourage children to explore the outside in rain or shine. A 2017 national survey of nature-based early childhood educators reported more than 250 nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating across the country, serving an estimated 10,000 children a year. Most forest schools aren’t licensed in California because they do not have a permanent indoor venue. Washington became the first state to license outdoor preschools last year. There are an estimated 50 such schools in California, according to the California Association of Forest Schools.

Now, during the COVID-19 crisis, a time when minimizing the spread of the virus is vital, there’s been a surge in interest in outdoor learning and turning Mother Nature into a living classroom. Forest schools are having their moment in the sun.

“Because of COVID, a lot of people are looking at outdoor learning for the first time,” said Liana Chavarin, founder of the Berkeley Forest School, which operates out of scenic César Chávez Park with its windswept views of the bay. “There’s much more demand than before.”

Forest school teachers say that children can blossom in wide open spaces even during a pandemic. They note that outdoor learning was also prioritized during previous plagues, such as the tuberculosis outbreaks of the early 20th century. Across the country in 1907, classes were often held on rooftops and ferries and other open-air classrooms to avoid transmission.

The coronavirus spreads mainly from person-to-person contact between people within about 6 feet of each other, according to the California Department of Public Health. Masks are used at times when the children cluster, but being outside means space is plentiful and social distancing is doable. Children are encouraged to interact with each other, teachers say, which helps them stay engaged.

“Children need the joy of connecting with their peers, which is just not possible inside right now,” said Chavarin. “Part of it is that being outside can help you relax. That helps build resilience and confidence. Children feel the land is their own. It belongs to them.”

Berkeley Forest School students explore the shoreline.

Outdoor learning is a rich sensory experience, educators say, that can stimulate the brain as well as the body. These teachers view the natural world as part of the lesson plan.

“Nature is your co-teacher. You may have a plan but then a cluster of ladybugs starts flying through the air and suddenly that’s your new curriculum,” said Joanna Ferraro, founder of Oakland’s Early Ecology preschool, which operates out of various East Bay parks. “That’s what makes outdoor education special. We go with what the kids are interested in, and we can do deep dives. We can stop and watch a spider for as long as we want.”

Science has long suggested that children’s mental health and academic performance can be improved by increasing exposure to natural environments and decreasing time staring at screens. A recent University of Adelaide, South Australia report, which distilled the results of 186 studies, found that most researchers conclude that time spent in nature contributes to both psychological stability and academic achievement.

Glued to electronic devices

Time spent gazing at electronic devices, meanwhile, is associated with poor outcomes, including increased mental illness, lessened cognitive functioning and decreased academic achievement.

Some fear the impact of remote learning — children glued to their iPads and laptops for many hours — on child health and wellness.

“Remote learning can often lead to kids being on Zoom all day and then playing Roblox all night,” Chavarin said of the online game popular among children. “It’s a very sedentary lifestyle.”

Pediatricians warn that, now more than ever, children need to be physically active to stay healthy.

“With the incredible increase in screen time all school-aged children are now experiencing, it is more important than ever to encourage non-screen time experiences,” said Casey Gray, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente Fresno. “Time spent outdoors and in nature is extremely important for the developing brain. This allows active exploration and interaction with the real environment. It promotes good social skills, allows for free, uninhibited play and gives children experiences that simply cannot be replicated on the screen.”

Beyond the role of exercise in child development, some experts are asking, does nature help inspire kids to learn?

“Definitely,” said Stanford professor Deborah Stipek, whose research focuses on early education. “Many lessons can make use of what children encounter in their natural surroundings.”

Masks are used when students gather at the Berkeley Forest School.

Anything children stumble upon in nature can become a springboard to learning, Chavarin said. A dead bird can spark a discussion about the circle of life. The fog kissing one’s face can turn into a lesson on the water cycle. A muddy stream can become the source of a clay-based art project.

“We harvest the creek for mud to make ceramics,” Chavarin said. “Then we learn how to fire the clay. The learning is in the process and the children feel very powerful because they have made something on their own.”

Empowering students is the core of this educational philosophy, in which activities are child-led. Getting to pick a lot of the topics helps children focus, they say, as does the fresh air.

“Being outside gets you in a calm but alert state which is ideal for your brain,” said Hanscom, founder of Timbernook, an outdoor therapeutic play program which operates nationally. “It helps you organize your thoughts, which is what so many kids struggle with.”

Make no mistake, proper gear is crucial to outdoor learning. On rainy days, children come decked out in rain boots and slickers. Teachers bring along tarps and blankets and occasionally move children to covered areas because of high winds or heavy rain.

Of course, there are times when going outside is not an option. During the recent wildfires, many outdoor schools in California had to cancel class because of the smoke-choked air.

Still, proponents of open-air education believe that it can be a lifeline for children who struggle with remote learning because of technical difficulties or because they crave live human interaction.

‘An antidote to remote learning’

“The outdoors may be the antidote to remote learning,” said Hanscom, who has been advising schools on the benefits of outdoor education, “which can be such a struggle for so many families.”

“You just don’t want to put your child through that every day,” said Chavarin, who has expanded her program to try to meet growing demand.“The parental guilt is so heavy for all of us right now.”

Early childhood experts agree that remote learning can be troublesome for young children and their parents alike.

Trees are teaching tools at the Berkeley Forest School.

“Distance learning is more problematic for young children than older children, and it has its limitations,” Stipek said. “My main concern is that it will increase the achievement gap — more affluent families have access to technology and more additional resources (tutors and nannies who can help children with their school work) than low-income families.”

For Moren, watching her son try to hunt and peck his way through typed writing assignments last spring was painful.

“It’s so horrible to make a 9-year-old type. It’s ridiculous and I’d just end up doing it for him,” she said. “Remote learning makes you stress over the details while forest school is about the big picture of ‘Are my kids thriving?’ My goal is to keep a calm home.’’

Many outdoor educators also believe that spending time in nature may help alleviate the strain and trauma of the last six months.

“There is a lot of repair work that needs to be done,” Ferraro said. “Children have been under so much stress, not knowing what is going to happen, and it’s gone on for a long time. For many families, it’s been pure stress. It’s heartbreaking.”

Nature should be part of the teacher’s toolkit just like tech is, some say. In our current pandemic reality, teaching children how to cope with stress may be as fundamental a skill as learning the alphabet. Outdoor education teaches children to find solace in the majesty of nature, they say.

“Nature is soothing,” Ferraro said. “Children learn from nature that they can feel safe in the world. They can feel the air on their face and see the leaves fall. They feel grounded. That experience of connectedness is what we all need right now.”

Story originally published by EdSource.