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Think of a classroom and the first image that very likely comes to mind is of rows of students sitting in a closed box-like room facing a black or green board.

Now, ditch that image and close your eyes to mentally take a walk into a green bower that is a riot of colours of seasonal flowers– marigolds, daisies, ixoras, geraniums, pansies, roses. While the sight is a one that soothes the eyes, the fresh fragrances overwhlem the olfactory cells even as you feel the gentle breeze tickle your skin. Listen carefully and you can hear the chirping of birds even as you breathe in the chlorophyll-scented air wafting in from the green lawn.

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Human beings have a genetically predetermined affinity to nature, and being in harmony with the environment and having greater exposure to it can help improve their wellbeing

Now add to this the voices of happy children laughing, chatting and imbibing so much from Mother Nature and you will quickly realise it is quite literally the most down to earth way they can learn about nature and everything in it.

Welcome to Forest Schools, a trending concept around the world that is catching up in UAE schools too.

Approved by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) the concept has been implemented successfully by several schools with great success.

Education experts are convinced that there are several advantages to this mode of teaching, while psychologists underscore the therapeutic and rejuvenating impact of this concept.

Dr Anamika Vajpeyi Misra has been closely researching the impact of forest schools on the learning methodology for children. The Dubai-based licensed clinical psychologist and psychiatric social worker, who is the head of the Social Work Programme at the Higher Colleges of Technology at the Sharjah Women’s College, believes forest schools are the future of education as they provide a unique learning environment to young learners.

Dr Anamika Vajpeyi Misra

‘When learning environments are in harmony with nature, there is inspired learning. [Children’s] social and emotional skills are enhanced, and empathy, communication, creativity, problem-solving naturally improves, motivating them to intrinsically imbibe all the learning.’

She quotes the concept of Biophilia espoused by biologist EO Wilson. According to the theory of Biophilia, human beings have a genetically predetermined affinity to nature, and being in harmony with the environment and having greater exposure to it can help improve their wellbeing. This is exactly what the forest schools are tapping into to aid positive child development.

Dr Anamika backs up her comments with various research papers published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education and Journal of Educational Psychology as well as by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The Gems Wellington School in Dubai’s Silicon Oasis is one of the early adapters of the forest school concept. The school’s forest classrooms have been running since 2013.

Initially, the school focussed solely on forest classrooms at the Foundation Stage. One of the teachers, Charlotte Rayner, kickstarted the project, keen to provide younger students with natural play spaces by using play-based learning theories and forest school principles to define the programme.

‘It soon became apparent to the management that there was a need for all our students to have natural play spaces to play, collaborate, gain confidence, understand risk and generally do what children do best– get dirty,’ says Lewis Miller, Head of the Department of Outdoor Learning, Digital Literacy Coordinator.

Today the concept has been extended for students in the age group of 3-16 years and since its inception thousands of school alumni lives have been enriched with the experience learning to work with tools, picking up skills of gardening, composting, and managing outdoor spaces, among others.

Lewis echoes the views of experts. ‘The Forest School model is well documented in applying learning theories that provide holistic and academic development,’ he says.

As the concept matured, the school started a Department of Specialist Outdoor Learning with Forest School teachers dedicated to providing primary students with at least one hour a week for a term with a Forest School experience, says Lewis, about the evolving experience which has now been introduced to middle school as well.

Several new features have been added to enhance outdoor learning and encourage students to work with their hands and learn about environment and sustainability.

‘We have started to work across the academy and work with secondary students developing a progressive outdoor skills-based curriculum from FS to Year 9 and hope to go beyond in the coming year,’ says Lewis. ‘We have grown and developed our Outdoor Learning spaces over the years to have several areas that support the Outdoor Learning curriculum.’

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The Gems Wellington School in Dubai’s Silicon Oasis is one of the early adapters of the forest school concept

The Primary Outdoor Learning site incorporates the best features of Forest School play: mud kitchens, tool working area, sand and construction elements, trees and climbing structures, water play and a pond. ‘One area is specifically designed to replicate the log cabins of woodlands with a specific area for students to work with tools such as axes and a purpose-built fire pit,’ says Lewis.

‘Our WSO farm has regular growing beds and compost heaps and teaches students a self-sustainable model whilst also using the latest technology with a fully automated state-of-the-art hydroponics system.’

The school also has a Secondary Outdoor Learning site ‘that supports students in coming up with creative solutions to problems with various resources we use to mimic real-life, real-world problems’.

According to Lewis, the process is focused on real life context, extensive problem-solving skills and application of knowledge gained from genuine real-life experiences they have gained.

Another school in the Dubai that has also included this concept is GEMS Metropole School in Motor City.

Although part of the bustling city landscape, the school has been able to provide a unique green and quiet environment by nurturing a thriving forest school department.

Naved Iqbal

‘The Forest School is a core part of our youngest school years for the last two years now,’ says Naved Iqbal, the Principal and CEO of the school, proudly. ‘We have students as young as three (FS1) up to the age of seven (Year 2) and encourage them to be sustainable learners.’

The Forest School runs from October to April, and in the warmer weather is limited to the early morning hours.

Here, students learn more about the environment around them, where foods come from, and have the opportunity to plant seeds and care for the growing plants.

The stundents study about indigenous flora and fauna, and take care to plant what is locally sustainable to the eco system of the region. ‘Students are a key part of our Forest School as they help to maintain the fruit and vegetable farms in the school,’ he says.

All saplings are grown in the school potting shed by students, which are then transferred to the school farm. Students are also involved in the upkeep and tidying of forest areas, and preparing them for Forest School lessons. ‘Yes, they have standalone forest school lessons too,’ explains Iqbal.

While younger students get to learn outdoors, older students get an opportunity to visit the farm and run a farm shop enterprise to sell the produce and other sustainable products of the farm. ‘The Forest School concept can be far more than a green space, but can link to various other aspects, in our case enterprise and employability as well as an online B2C enterprise led entirely by our students,’ says the principal. ‘The forest schools are a core part of the school community, led by all and used by all students in different ways.’

Iqbal has a lot to say about the visible benefits and advancement in student wellness and learning following their experience in the Forest School.

‘Post the pandemic, the green spaces helped support our students to ease back into school and helped alleviate any anxieties, particularly in our youngest students who only knew lockdown and restrictions. The outdoor learning truly transformed their perspectives and how to learn.’

Honing basic skills

During their time in the Forest School, students learn important life skills including learning how to use tools safely, natural resources to build mini dens for small animals, as well as creating natural art.

‘The children also learn some basic games to play with friends. These examples are not novel to perhaps the older generation, or if you are from a part of the world where playing outdoors was the norm. But we find more and more students are becoming insular, and happy to interact through technology. Though I am a big advocate of EdTech, [it should not be] at the detriment of these very important life skills which connect us with the environment and our primal being in essence,’ he says.

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When a child learns in a natural habitat, with flora and fauna surrounding him, it helps replenish the cognitive resources.

Iqbal makes it clear that teachers have reported a marked improvement in students’ resilience, levels of confidence, and risk taking ability, especially in girls. ‘We have also noticed an improvement in students’ academic outcomes in EYFS. Students have been achieving better Early Learning Goals since the introduction of the Forest School than the previous few years.’

Dr Anamika is not surprised. She talks about how learning in a natural habitat can relieve mental fatigue that new technologies trigger, rejuvenating the learning potential of a child. ‘One of the most interesting concepts in childhood learning is the Attention Restoration Theory (ART ) developed by Kaplan and Kaplan. Demanding tasks in academic learning in conventional technology-adapted classrooms with cognitive overload, triggers fatigue and results in depletion of the child’s cognitive resources as they demand very high attention. But when a child learns in a natural habitat, with flora and fauna surrounding him, it helps replenish the cognitive resources. The theory proposes that natural environments offer a ‘soft fascination,’ which captures attention in a manner that does not require conscious cognitive processing, thereby providing an opportunity for restoration of directed attention capacity, reduction in mental fatigue, and enhancement of cognitive performance.’

It is clear that a drop in anxiety levels improves learning. Research has proved spending time in nature reduces the production of cortisol hormone thereby reducing anxiety in children. ‘This is especially true for neurotypical children. There is research to show that children have an improved mood in outdoor settings. Studying in nature takes children out of the familiar environment and challenges them to adjust to the change, thereby enhancing their life-skills such as adaptability, coping and resilience,’ adds Dr Anamika.

With successful implementation of forest schools worldwide, teachers are working hard to add back the spontaneous joy in learning and attempting to subtract the tedium of rote learning. It is a matter of time before the tables might turn where Forest Schools will be mainstream and indoor learning might become selective.