Since China became one of the world’s largest economic powerhouses, the country has shown huge enthusiasm for many aspects of British education.
So far, experts from the UK have advised the Chinese on everything from art teaching to school leadership and the English language. But now Britain has a less obvious export – our expertise in fire-making and tying knots.
Experts from the UK are making presentations and giving direct training in two major cities this week on how to run projects based on Forest School – a concept that is taking off in the communist state now that it has become heavily industrialised.
Organisations involved in promoting Forest School training say the concept is particularly appealing to Chinese parents who grew up in the country and moved to cities, who want their own children to experience the natural environment in the same way they did.
Staff from Manor House Forest School in Margate, Kent, will talk to thousands of educators in Suzhou, in eastern China, and in Chengdu, in the west of the country, about the benefits of children spending time outdoors during the school day.
The delegation follows a visit by a group of Chinese early years and primary teachers to Manor House last month.
Feeding the imagination
Sean Sheerin, joint director of Manor House, said that the Chinese want to use Forest School to develop aspects of their schools system that they think are missing, such as teaching empathy and imagination.
“They are fascinated by how to get children’s imaginations to really function. Woodlands spark imaginations,” he said.
“They really couldn’t believe our children were being allowed to use tools; our children cooking for themselves over an open fire and being very self-reliant, very self-sufficient. That is something they feel that they lack – children may be sat at a desk for six or seven hours looking at a board.
“Not all children feel comfortable sitting indoors. Some children would far rather be outside in the natural environment.”
Stuart Welby, Manor House’s Forest School leader, who is on the Chinese trip, added: “We are honoured to represent the UK in China. This is a great opportunity to show them what we have learned in helping children gain from spending time in the outdoors.
“The Chinese have realised that this will help their population by taking them out of their densely populated cities and they can benefit from being in a forest environment.”
Adrian Bryant, the director of UK China Education, which has been working to promote Forest School in China for the last two years, said that interest had grown larger as urbanisation had increased: “People at conferences will also speak about how they remembered going and playing outdoors when they were children and now their poor children are born in cities. They want them to understand nature a bit more.”
Manor House, which operates as a charity, offers Forest School courses for children aged 3-18, as well as staff training. It also advises schools on the potential that their sites have for learning that is based on the Forest School concept.
Taking risks in learning
The Forest School Association said that its core purpose is to foster resilient, creative learners who are willing to take risks through activities in woodland and other sites. All learners are led by a qualified practitioner.
And the concept isn’t just for rural schools. In Lambeth, South London, an initiative called Natural Thinkers was set up in 2012 as a way of getting more teachers in urban schools and nurseries involved in Forest School activities.
“The expectation is that it does take place in a wooded environment, but you can follow the philosophy in something less than a forest. Urban schools often have to make do within an area of playground with a few trees and bushes,” said Gareth Wyn Davies, chief executive of the Forest School Association.
“The philosophy is that it is child-led. So it is the child’s decision on what they want to do and the practitioner has to have sufficient skills to facilitate that. If they are playing a game and then it turns into den-building, the practitioner needs to have the skills to build the den. You don’t go expecting to do a certain thing.”
Mr Wyn Davies added that since it arrived in the UK from Scandinavia, Forest School has spread to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and more recently to South Korea.
Principles of Forest School
1. It is a long-term process of regular sessions in the natural environment.
2. Activities take place in a woodland or natural wooded environment.
3. It aims to promote holistic development – the physical, social, linguistic and emotional aspects of the learner.
4. Forest School offers opportunities to take supported risks, such as using tools and fire, where appropriate.
5. It is run by qualified practitioners.
6. Activities have a learner-centred approach.
Source: Forest School Association
Forest School: a timeline
1980s: Originated in Denmark.
1995: Bridgwater College, Somerset, establishes the UK’s first Forest School after a visit to Denmark. Children are taken to woodland and allowed to explore and take part in bushcraft activities. The college now trains people in Forest School practice.
2005: Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission, estimates that there are 100 centres for Forest School in England; some are privately run, while some are supported by local education authorities.
2012: An estimated 9,000 people have been through Forest School training, according to the Forest School national governing body. The Forest School Association is established.