Forest School teaches preschoolers outdoor risks and catches on in Hong Kong
The Forest School school education framework is catching on in Hong Kong, where parents warm to its outdoor risk-taking elements far from the city
The Forest School model has become more popular over the past decade among preschools – even in a city where people jostle for living and working space.
Such success raises a question: is it plausible to implement the Scandinavia-originated learning approach in Hong Kong’s concrete jungle?
It is “quite impossible” to directly copy the approach, according to Ngan So-fong, a senior lecturer from the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK)’s Department of Early Childhood Education. And it has little to do with Hong Kong’s spatial limitations.
Forest School needs to be adapted against the local backdrop, the visual-arts teacher says. “I teach my students [prospective kindergarten teachers] how to find forests around the school campus and build sculptures with natural resources,” she says. “Teach the children to respect nature; then they will learn to respect other people.”
“Even though we do not have many ’forests’, look around you,” Ngan adds, pointing at a nearby shrub in an alfresco canteen at the university. That could, indeed, be a miniature forest too.
So what exactly is “Forest education”? The Forest School Association (FSA) defines it as a long-term process of regular sessions that take place in woodland or a natural environment to foster a relationship between the learner and nature. Learners are given an opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
One of the most important elements of this education model – and particularly associated with early years education – is that it is play-based and child-led, Ngan says.
“It is very important to distinguish between task play and free play,” she says. “Task play is adult-centred, where teachers tell children to play according to a given task with provided tools and samples to follow, and therefore does not help in creativity. In free play, it’s child-led. Children can make what they want.”
Ngan recalls how this concept was implemented during her visit to a forest school in Germany. Teachers would take a trolley full of tools and snacks, and bring children into the forest every day, she says.
There, toddlers would climb trees and try their hand at carpentry work. “If they cut their fingers, teachers would bandage them up and off they go again,” Ngan says. “Risk-taking is the most important curriculum [component] in a Forest School.”
One of the biggest challenges of implementing the concept of Forest Schools in Hong Kong is parents’ demand for visible outcomes. “Learning achievements could appear in the form of the child’s ability to climb a tree, which shows courage and the willingness to take risks,” Ngan says. “The problem is, parents need to know that this counts as an achievement too.”
Do primary schools recognise this kind of learning outcome? “No, I don’t think so,” Ngan says.
Reading and writing are still very much an emphasis in many local curricula, despite the Education Bureau’s statement of discouragement towards schools from asking K1 children to “hold a pencil and write” in the Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide.
Having said that, some schools in Hong Kong are determined to prove that Forest School is possible. At the moment, a handful of local and international kindergartens have adopted the Forest framework in various ways, which differentiate in the frequency of outdoor lessons as well as the mode of implementation.
Eleanor Loran, Head of Early Years at Discovery Bay International School, for example, strongly believes in the possibility of translating the Scandinavian approach to Hong Kong’s context, despite the city’s limited countryside and ambitious parental mentality.
“Nothing is impossible; it is all about changing mindsets,” says the early childhood educator, who joined the school 12 years ago. “When parents have an understanding of Forest and Beach Schools and consequently see their children benefiting from these experiences, this creates momentum, and a change in attitudes.”
The school keeps parents informed of the programme details through weekly newsletters, class tweets on Twitter, online learning journals, and workshops.
However, pollution and inclement weather can stop students from going outside, Loran says.
“Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child,” she adds, citing how she originally embraced and developed the education philosophy at an early childhood centre for under-fives in New Zealand.
“We respect that children develop in individual ways and at varying rates,” Loran says. “It is, therefore, our responsibility to equip each child with the skills, knowledge and understanding to create their own paths, rather than it being created for them.”
At the through-train school, Forest education began in a conscientious and considered way, in land formerly used as a thoroughfare for a nursery classroom, when the school decided to reinforce its outdoor curriculum, a year and a half ago.
Plants were grown, and different types of terrains were created to let children have a taste of making dens and tying knots for shelters.
Open-ended resources were the bricks of this purpose-built “forest”. The school even asked for tree stumps from trees toppled during typhoons, and also cable-wire wheels from a nearby redeveloped sites.
Nursery and reception classes attend an hourly Forest School session every week, on a 1:10 teacher-pupil ratio. Pupils play and create with sticks, logs, pebbles and mud.
“Forest School is all about getting your hands dirty, having some fun and learning important skills at the same time,” Loran says, adding that this kind of “messy fun” can foster children’s capacity to communicate and work as a team.
“Fun is of course the emphasis of all the activities in the Early Years, children often don’t even realise that their construction or art projects are making them better mathematicians or collaborators,” Loran says.
Through “fun” class activities such as building bridges, fairy houses and sculptures, the school hopes to stretch pupils in their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.
The Forest programme is married to Britain’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework at the international school, and supported by guidance material Development Matters, which lists the characteristics of effective learning and the literacy, social and physical development milestones that should be reached at different stages of childhood.
Practical and outdoor learning experiences make up the core of the curriculum as an extended part of indoor classes, with exploratory and investigative projects at its heart. Through a careful balance of child-initiated learning with adult-led activities, the school aims to stimulate intellectual curiosity and trigger the pleasure of imaginative play.
While DBIS enjoys the advantage of being near Lantau’s mountains, rock pools and beaches, schools such as the Malvern College Pre-school Hong Kong, are not as lucky.
Located in the rather desolate Coronation Circle, among residential buildings in the beating heart of Yau Ma Tei, the “first Forest School in Hong Kong to have Level Three FSA-certified Forest School leaders” was not immediately discernible from the outside the kindergarten.
Founding Principal Jacqueline McNalty of Malvern College Pre-school Hong Kong, who has worked in Asia for 10 years, is well-aware of her school’s concrete locality, however. “Forest School takes on the culture and the climate of a place,” she says. “We know we’re not in Scandinavia, and yes a lot of children do live in a concrete jungle, but that’s even more reason to give them the learning opportunity.”
Once a fortnight, at 9am, the school’s children take a 60-seater bus to the outdoors. Family members and carers are invited and bused on every expedition, where the adult-child ratio can be up to 1:1.
There are two sites for two year olds in Sai Kung, each equipped with a beach and a woodland setting. One has an organic farm where children can enjoy the company of animals and planting experiences. K1 to K3 students, on the other hand, embark on their little adventures on a hillier site more geared to their age, also in Sai Kung.
The programme design depends largely on the forest school leader; which is why the “textbooks” could vary from day to day, ranging from a demonstration of a rope swing in action with pulleys, to explaining the forces involved in a zip line.
This practicum-based approach, McNalty says, would help illustrate abstract concepts at a child’s later stages of learning.
“Children would remember seeing how water evaporates, how rain forms and the interplay between the environment and flora and fauna,” she says. “Their understanding of the concepts will become deeper and richer.”
It’s a bit of a scaffold, but Forest education is not just play, says the principal who has also specialised in early childhood education in Australia, Britain and Singapore. Learning intentions from the Forest curriculum are balanced with provocations from the Forest School leader, and at this school, learning outcomes are recorded in digital learning portfolios, where teachers’ observations are linked to achievements in prime and specific growth areas.
Playing with sticks, for example, could blossom into different learning experiences for different children. One group of children would order them according to sizes and spark a discussion of the mathematical language, while another group would use them to build stickmen to use as props to tell stories.
“The creation of stick puppets with twines demonstrates fine motor control, and the storytelling points to communication and social interactions through teamwork,” McNalty says. “All these showcase the Early Years Foundation Stage. But we have to tease it out for the parents. We upload videos and photos and we make anecdotal notes about what happened. We have to make learning visible to parents.”
Forest School is also an opportunity for shy and quiet pupils to break out of their shells, as self-confidence gained from taking part in something they’re passionate about and challenging themselves physically can be shifted to all areas of learning.
While the great outdoors presents a background for joyful learning, schools often reassure parents who might worry about potential hazards behind every bush.
Once, the school introduced campfires to teach scientific concepts. Children and parents spent months chanting the song Going around the Campfire as they circled an unlit campfire, in order to practise safety and ensure the experience was tailored to the children’s developmental readiness. Risk assessments were made; logs were designated for each pupil to sit on, and certain dangerous areas were restricted, before the first spark was even ignited.
“Forest School is like a dance between what’s in the environment, what’s the interest of the children, and what the Forest School leader wants to introduce as a provocation,” McNalty says.