Michele Baker, an international educator, shares her experiences with Forest School and its benefits for learners and teachers. She shares several ideas for teachers to implement as schools bring students onsite. Physical, social, emotional, and learning gains can be achieved through an engagement with nature.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have a great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:33 The value of learning outdoors. On today’s podcast, I’m excited to be joined by Michele Baker, a early childhood educator, highly experienced. She’s currently at the international school of Brussels, having previously taught at international schools in Zurich and London. She has an extensive background in several specialty, early childhood programs. And she and I connected on LinkedIn with kind of a shared interest in in play and learning and outdoor education. So Michele, welcome and thanks for joining us here.
Michele: 01:15 Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:16 I looked at your background and saw that you’ve worked with with Forest School. And several years back I was introduced to it. I’ve put pieces in my blogs a couple of times. Forest School is pretty unique to teachers in the US, so I’m wondering if you might start out by explaining a little bit about what forest school is and your experiences there and what you’ve learned from from working with Forest School.
Michele: 01:47 Sure. So, I mean, Forest School, most people associate Forest School with starting in Scandinavia. So Denmark, Sweden, Norway, they have run for school programs for many years. It’s been part of their – just to kind of almost a natural part of their education system. I think they have a much more open view of nature spaces and they, you know, they feel that children should be out in all weathers, whereas other cultures are maybe a little bit more protective of children being out in all sorts of weathers. So in those Scandinavian countries, they’ve, you know, those programs have been part of their school system for a long time. A lot of kindergartens being outside all day, you know, and they have the proper gear to be able to withstand all sorts of variations of weather. And you know, I mean, we lived in Norway ourselves, and my daughter was in kindergarten when we lived in Norway.
Michele: 02:44 So I experienced firsthand her spending her whole day out in the forest, and she had a whole one piece suit that covered her from head to toe and she was plenty warm and dry so she could enjoy all the elements. You know, I think it’s gained huge popularity in different parts of the world. I know the UK has really embraced Forest School education and a lot of schools have incorporated as part of their programs. And I think it’s just the, you know, it’s a very valuable addition to any curriculum no matter what the age of the children because the forest offers us so many resources and opportunities to inquire and investigate into things. And Forest School can, you know, the other thing I think is important to know is that Forest School, the term Forest School can take many forms. You know, a full day, Forest School could be where kids spend the whole day outside from the minute they arrive at school until they go home at the end of the day and there’s a basic shelter that they have. Or it can be that as part of a IB program, you spend one afternoon a week out in the forest. Or it could even be as much as every week, you decide a learning area that you’re going to do outside rather than in the classroom. So forest learning or forest school can be incorporated in a lot of different ways. It can have a lot of different meanings and you can incorporate it in different ways.
Steve: 04:18 So the indicators that I’ve seen as schools around the world are looking at at heading back into some form of classroom instruction following the the pandemic, I’m seeing indications that teachers should be encouraged to be outside for whatever chunks of the day they they can possibly manage. So I’m wondering if this might not be creating a new opportunity for us.
Michele: 04:51 Yeah. And I think it’s a brilliant opportunity. I think it’s a really, I mean, first I kind of want to talk about just the possibilities of how teachers could start incorporating being outside. And then after that, I’d like to talk about some of the reasons why I think it’s really important. So I mean, you know, again, I think one of the main things I really want to stress with teachers is that it doesn’t have to – you know, a lot of times we feel that there’s not enough time in the day as it is. You know, like we have pressure to get our math work done our language work, and then we’ve got specialist subjects that we’ve got to fit in. And I think it’s really key to try to not think of it as an additional extra to what you’re doing, but to look at what you’re doing and see, is there something in my day that I could have the kids do better in an outdoor environment, you know?
Michele: 05:48 And that could – one day that could be that it’s better that we take them on a forest walk instead of their normal recess. On another day, it could be that you at your math lesson and you think, you know, actually I think this would be more engaging if I took that to an outdoor space. So I think it’s really important that teachers don’t feel like they have to find another time slot to fit into their day because that that can make it almost impossible. And then it stops people doing it. I think looking at your schedule and finding out how you can incorporate what you’re doing and then move it to an outdoor environment, it changes things for the kids. You know, you suddenly find my experiences that you take learning engagements outside and suddenly children who were not so successful in the classroom, or maybe they find it hard, the confines of the indoor space, maybe they’re a little bit loud or they just find it hard to keep their body still, you take that learning to the outside and suddenly that student is a superstar.
Michele: 06:47 You know, that student gets an opportunity to shine and be a leader and things. So I mean, I think that’s really important to know too, that when we change that learning environment, we give other kids an opportunity to be the leaders. Whereas if we just always stay in the classroom, we’re letting the same types of kids be successful. You know, so – and there’s just so many, you know, when I look at Forest School too, I think I have a really – I feel that Forest School needs to be a balance between sometimes it’s engagements that the teacher has organized, planned and kind of directed. But then other times I think it’s really important that you have opportunities where the kids just have some free exploration because through that free exploration, then you can find out what kids are interested in.
Michele: 07:43 You can then, it can be a springboard of then going into an inquiry that you might not have even known was a possibility or
something that the kids would be interested in. So I think it’s really good to have that balance of sometimes going out with a very clear plan of what you’re going to do. It’s linked to the unit of inquiry, or it’s linked to your math lesson and you’ve got clear outcomes of what your learning objectives are and what you’re gonna, you know, what the kids are going to be doing. It’s all planned out. But then other times I think just planning a session where you’re going to let the kids explore and let them kind of tell you what they’re finding interesting. What are they noticing? What are they hearing? What are their senses telling them about that outdoor environment? And then that can lead to further explanations. When I lived in Switzerland, I was just going to say, when I lived in Switzerland, you know, going to the stream at different times of the year would spark so much curiosity. You know, in the winter when it’s ice and freezing, you know, snow and things like that. Like, and then we do experiments on how long it would take for the snow to melt and, you know, so many things.
Steve: 08:58 I was with a group of kids whose teacher, well the kids turned over a log and the insects ran like crazy. And the teacher grabbed her phone quick enough to film it. And back in the classroom that turned into an extensive study and student writing and research and everything coming up out of that at a level that the teacher probably couldn’t have planned for, but was able to capture it as it happened.
Michele: 09:30 And you can’t – and it’s that excitement as well. You know, I think that engagement and excitement, you can’t, as much as we can find on the internet and as many videos as we can find, it doesn’t replace that excitement of a real life experience and seeing those, those bugs scatter when you move the log. You know, you want to find out about them and understand that.
Steve: 09:56 As I was listening to you, the other thought that was going through my mind – I’ve just been doing some writing about the start of this school year being a a high need for teachers to be looking at students’ social-emotional wellbeing as part of their learning. And I’m sensing there’s a part of this outdoor component that that speaks to that.
Michele: 10:25 Yes, absolutely. There’s a huge part. You know, I think just being, you know, we’re coming out of lockdown, kids have been in various situations during this pandemic. Some kids have not been able to go outside at all. Some kids have been able to maybe go out a little bit, but there’s some fear and trepidation associated with that because, you know, again, the world has changed. It looks different. Some people are wearing masks or, you know, so there’s, there’s all sorts of – just going out in the forest, I mean, I think coming back after this pandemic, you know, we’re being asked to have some physical distance between students and, you know, to slow the spread of the virus and to keep people healthy. Being outside, we have the space to have more physical distance from each other. We have fresh air and ventilation. You know, I mean, we want to keep air moving around people and not be in enclosed spaces so much to kind of slow down the spread.
Michele: 11:30 And then, you know, physically the trees give off chemicals that actually build our immunity. They help our body to produce more of the killer cells that attack the viruses in our cells. So that’s a really important part of being out in the forest. And also cortisol levels for both teachers and the children are going to be raised. We’ve been under stress. You know, there’s no way – even the most calm family and, you know, trying to manage this situation the best way you can, everybody’s routines have been disrupted which leads to a higher level of stress for everybody. And being in the forest research shows that it lowers our stress levels, lowers our cortisol levels. So that’s a good thing for everybody, teacher and students.
Steve: 12:25 As I was listening, I’m just wondering if we shouldn’t have a teacher leaders and administrative leaders who are planning the opening days of staff coming back a few days ahead of kids. If we shouldn’t be looking at a major outdoor walk in the woods as a part of the teacher early PD sessions here.
Michele: 12:50 I think, yeah, I think it would be very good. I mean, I’ve recently been studying forest therapy as well, which is, I don’t know if you’ve heard of forest bathing or shinrin yoku.
Steve: 13:00 Just one article I saw in the forest bathing. Yeah, go ahead and talk about that.
Michele: 13:04 Yeah. So again, it’s really, mindfulness in the forest. So, and through my studies, I have led some teacher sessions at our school of leading some forest bathing sessions. And I will definitely be leading some when we go back to campus after the summer. And it’s really, you’re given invitations. So you enter the forest and maybe an invitation might be to sit underneath a tree and what do you see, hear, smell, taste, like tasting the air even, and feel, and then you come back after you’ve sat there for maybe 10 minutes – for an adult, 10 minutes for a child, two to five minutes, you know, just sitting there letting your body relax, just letting your senses absorb everything around you. Then you come back to a sharing circle and you just share what you experienced. No judgment, no comment from anybody else, not even, you know, oh, I felt that too.
Michele: 14:05 It’s just letting that into the space. This is what I was experiencing in that moment. And then it can be other invitations such as a walking meditation where you just, you find the patch of ground that’s maybe six foot and you walk slowly up and back, up and back with – just to clear your mind. And again, it’s lowering your cortisol levels. It’s been shown to lower blood pressure. So again, for adults, it’s really good. And then it also helps to, you know, the, again, the chemicals that the trees are giving off while you’re out there, are building your immunity. You know, so I think the forest bathing sessions are going to be something that will very healing for staff coming back.
Steve: 14:54 It’s going through my mind that I watched a video on on Forest School and they were interviewing a doctor who said he had yet to find an ADHD child in forest kindergarten. It just didn’t exist with, between the movement and the and the impact of of nature. It’s a powerful piece there for for all of us.
Michele: 15:26 Yeah. And I was, you know, I’ve been I’ve been listening to some lectures from the Play First summit that’s been on this week. And they’ve been talking too about how, because especially young children, but I think this will apply to all children, but especially young children, because their cortisol levels have been raised because they’ve been under a bit of stress, they’re going to have excessive energy, like more energy than normal. And we all know, like, even when you come back after a normal summer, you know, kids are full of energy and excitement and stuff like that. And I just think, again, they’re, you know, they’re predicting that kids are going to have more energy to extent because they’ve maybe not been outside as much and things like that. And so, you know, I really think utilizing the outdoors and getting ourselves going for nice, challenging hikes, you know, like I take our, you know, the five-year-olds last year when I was in kindergarten, you know, we’d go for an extensive hike. And there was like a nice big hill that they called the mountain and, you know, they’d be like “we’re climbing the mountain today!” You know, just to see that joy in their face and know that it’s just so good for their body to be expending that energy and moving their muscles and having to navigate that uneven ground and step over stumps and balance on a log. And, you know, it’s so important for their development.
Steve: 16:51 So would it be a fair statement – I know you’d raised earlier the issue of time, which is kind of always on teachers’ on teachers’ agendas. But I’m wondering if it’s almost – I’m thinking kind of a double whammy here, so check my thinking. But there’s a piece of me that says in my own explanation to myself, or if I’m in one of those spots where I need to explain to an administrator or a parent you know, why we took that walk today and I’m sensing that there’s a combination of what we learned while outside, but my guess is that the learning is enhanced when we come back inside because we took that time outside. Am I in the right spot there?
Michele: 17:47 Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think I there’s, again, there’s two situations that can happen in any week or a day. And, you know, one is that it’s, it’s a learning activity that is taken outside. But then the other one, which is what you’re talking about is we went for a walk to support our wellbeing. You know, to help our bodies, to just get calmer. To just absorb all the good energy and the good chemicals that trees and forests give off. And then when we come back, not only are we much more prepared to concentrate and sit down quietly because our bodies have moved in a healthy way, but also we’ve seen some interesting and exciting things that will spark our imagination for our writing, or maybe help us think about something we want to design or build because of something that we’ve seen outside. Just even seeing the way the trees move or seeing how – and, you know, when you move a log and see how those little bugs move and their legs move, that could spark you to want to create or make something from that.
Steve: 19:04 There’s another piece that’s going through my mind as I listen. A lot of opportunities to give kids a common experience so that you can then teach from that common experience. So it strikes me that the outside for that walk in the woods or outside for the trip to the top of the mountain, when we come back, you know, there’s 15 or 20 of us that did this. We’ve had this common experience. So now whether it’s something that we’re reading or writing or connection I’m making in history, I, as a teacher, I’ve got this common experience that I can relate it back to that everybody had.
Michele: 19:49 Yeah. As for writing recounts, you know, it’s a, it’s a great tool for coming back and writing a recount. And again, sometimes kids get stuck on like, especially if we’ve had a very different time with not going as many places and then you’re suddenly asked, write about your weekend or write about this, or write about… And you’re like, well, we didn’t – I watched TV all day, you know, whatever. So I think, you know, again, having those exciting common experiences, then suddenly they have some – they have an experience to write about that they’ve all been on, but have all seen something different and they can all recall something different about that experience. And then you can, you know, the other, the other thing that I’ve often done is, you know, you can do simple things like, you give each child a piece of a one meter piece of string and you ask them to find their own spot in the forest and they lay the piece string down. And then they have to weave a story around the things that are surrounding that piece of string. You know, it could be a little acorn is there, or there’s a Fern leaf or whatever. And then they have to kind of mentally come up with a story that explains what’s on their one meter piece of string. And then when you come back in the classroom, they actually write their story.
Steve: 21:11 I’m also thinking that we, as teachers, should give ourselves permission to take the kids outside because I need to get out there right now, myself. And their afternoon’s going to be better when I come back inside because I got out for…
Michele: 21:28 Yeah. And I think that, again, I think that’s a really important consideration for coming back after this experience and for what we might be experiencing in the rest of the year. You know, there’s very likely we’re going to have further disruptions. You know, none of us know yet whether we’re coming back fully, whether we’re coming back partially, whether we’re going to have to lock down again ever in the future. And I think giving yourself as, again, giving yourself permission as the teacher that you’re putting you and the children’s wellbeing at the top of the agenda and thinking to yourself, you know, all of us could do with a little walk in the forest because it’s gonna make us, you know, just feel better. We’re going to get some fresh air. We’re gonna be able to breathe better. We’re going to just feel more ready to sit down and do our next bit of learning. And there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. We should applaud that. We should be, you know, glad if teachers are making that decision to do that.
Steve: 22:40 Well Michele, thank you so much for getting this into our thinking. It’s the perfect time for it. And it’s okay with you, we’ll stick your link to your website into the lead-in to the podcast so teachers can visit you there, but also raise any individual questions they might have directly with you.
Michele: 23:01 Great.
Steve: 23:01 Thanks so much. Thanks so much. Have a great day. Bye bye.
Steve: 23:06 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.