The forest as a classroom

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2018. Download the PDF version from our publications database.

Children carrying a branch together.

For tots to teens across Canada, forest-based learning programs are increasingly popular.

Forest schools started in Sweden and Denmark in the 1950s. Using nature as a classroom, youth are encouraged to engage in open-ended play to enhance curiosity, teamwork and problem-solving skills. Proponents of forest schools, also called nature schools, say that youth show greater self-confidence, concentration and motivation, skills that benefit academic performance. By incorporating forest-based learning from preschool to high school, numerous students across Canada are learning to appreciate the complexity and value of Canada’s forests.

Benefits in early education through an integrated approach

Chelsea Forest School in Chelsea, Quebec, offers outdoor, play-based, child-led learning throughout the year, regardless of the weather. Children ages three to ten participate in diverse activities such as building and floating stick boats, following animal tracks and measuring the circumference of tree trunks with ropes. These activities are designed to promote stewardship for the environment as well as stimulate critical thinking and develop leadership and risk-management skills, which translate into self-confidence and curiosity in the classroom. “I am a strong believer in Forest School for my son’s development,” says Sherida McKean, mother of a six-year-old. “I believe that the time he spends at Forest School is essential to his emotional and physical health. It gives him the platform he needs to thrive in the mainstream classroom.”

This holistic approach to early learning is also used at the Alpenglow School in Canmore, Alberta. Alpenglow School blends the provincial curriculum with the Waldorf education principles of integrated intellectual, practical and artistic development of children – in this case from kindergarten to grade six. Ronna Schneberger is the founder and director of Alpenglow School. She explains that by developing enthusiasm for nature and learning through hands-on outdoor activities, students “learn how to problem solve and build social skills,” which complement the traditional public school curriculum subjects while reinforcing the concepts of conservation and responsible use of natural resources.

Rewarding for youth, teachers and volunteers

Children examining branches, leaves, and moss.
Forest schools encourage curiosity about the natural environment, and place emphasis on soft skills such as working in a team.

Not just young children benefit from incorporating forest-based learning into the traditional school curriculum. Through its Forestry in the Classroom program, the non-profit organization Forests Ontario connects volunteers with local schools and community so students can learn what it’s like to make a career in forestry. As of spring 2018, more than 13,000 students have participated in a Forestry in the Classroom program. Craig Robinson, Principal with ArborData Consulting in Waterloo, Ontario, regularly volunteers with Forestry in the Classroom. He says the program helps students “see the connections between the environment, the climate, forests, trees, wildlife and forest products,” which reinforces the concept of sustainable resource development. Robinson adds that he considers volunteering with youth a personally rewarding part of his career.

Across the country in Lumby, British Columbia, Martin Tooms is equally passionate about his work with youth. As the coordinator for the Forestry Program at Charles Bloom Secondary School, he oversees students learning practical skills like carpentry, welding, logging and forest management in the school’s woodlot. The school’s Forestry Program allows students in grades 11 and 12 to earn up to 28 credits toward high school graduation while learning about work ethic, initiative, reliability, teamwork skills, problem solving, respect, confidence and character building. “These valuable skills focus on future employment, no matter what field,” says Tooms.

Child reaching for a pinecone.
In forest schools, children use natural objects found in the forest – such as spruce cones or pebbles – to learn basic skills such as counting.

Like the Forestry Program at Charles Bloom Secondary School, the Alberta Junior Forest Rangers program also focuses on teamwork and leadership, as well as actively incorporating traditional ecological knowledge. The Junior Forest Rangers engage with Elders and community leaders to learn about traditional practices, history and land uses, and to appreciate the value of this knowledge as it relates to natural resource management. Joda Snyder, who participated in the Junior Forest Rangers program in 2017, says that during the program his crew drove out to the Kainai reserve and spent three days learning about traditional Indigenous culture with an Elder from the Blood Tribe. Joda calls the experience, which typically includes traditional medicine harvesting, ceremonies and protocols, “unforgettable.”

Appreciating the value of forests

Canada’s forests provide children and youth with a unique learning opportunity. Whether it’s counting ferns, learning about Indigenous history or operating a chainsaw, youth learn to recognize and appreciate the importance and value of one of Canada’s greatest resources.