Homeschooling mum Shirin Tan believes that education in nature, particularly forests, is precious learning.
From the Editor’s Desk:
Schooling, for most, occurs within four walls; restricted to the classroom. This article shares an approach to schooling that has gained popularity in recent years. Our writer shares how her children learn through strengthening their connection with nature. Unburdened by conventions, forest schooling offers deep learning and opportunities to make priceless, treasured memories in the great outdoors.
Shirin Tan is a mother of four boys between the age of three and 15. She homeschools her children at different stages of their educational journeys based on their needs. A Montessori-trained pre-school teacher by profession, she loves being in a constant search for the meaning of true education. Shirin believes that learning begins at home but it can happen anywhere and anytime, especially amidst nature.
Opinion: Forest School
By Shirin Tan
It is a common perception that if you are homeschooling, you are mostly at home, away from the outside world. Before the onset of the pandemic, we have mostly not been at home while homeschooling. The world is our classroom.
The word “outdoor education” has become a buzzword lately, with more people feeling the urge to go back to basics and connect with nature. But what is “outdoor education” about? Is “nature education” another fad?
Decades ago, I read an article about Forest School in Sweden. I was immediately drawn by the freedom it allows and the awe that the children can experience while they are immersed in the wild. However, at the same time, it seemed so foreign to me when I related it to my own schooling experiences. About four years ago, I was thrilled to find out about a forest school program right here in Singapore. My son and I signed up for a term with the program’s founder, Coach Darren. Those 10 weeks with Forest School Singapore transformed my views on education and the way we learn.
Although we owe our earliest exposure in outdoor education to Forest School Singapore, this article does not represent or promote any particular forest school program. The term “forest school” in this article refers to the philosophy and a way of learning that hinges on the outdoors and nature-based experiences. I share in the following paragraphs, my reflections on forest school as an approach and why I have been encouraged to start my own group, called, “Nature Co-op Homeschool Singapore.”
Connecting with Nature
Growing up in an urban society, we spend our lives daily going from one artificial environment to another. An example of a typical day would entail going from our air-conditioned concrete home to an air-conditioned vehicle, then to the office or school, and perhaps, the malls. We barely have a chance to be in contact with nature. Having said that, we are grateful to be living in Singapore, a garden city, where nature is still valued and within the proximity of our living spaces. We just need to make a point to take time off to go to a park or forest.
Humans are essentially a part of nature. We have an innate need to connect with other forms of life such as plants or animals and a desire to be close to Mother Earth. Many have experienced feelings of peace and calm when immersed in the tranquillity of the forest, which also brings about a sense of bliss and contentment. We do not need studies and research to tell us that being with nature is good for not only our body but for our mind and soul.
The first principle that I learnt when we attended the our first forest school program was, “hands behind, lips sealed”. Learning to let go as a parent and an educator means to trust that children have a natural curiosity and want to learn. They have the ability to learn by themselves and be independent if we just allow space for the children to grow.
I had to get used to getting mud on our shoes and to trust that my children know their physical limits. They are more likely to get hurt or lose their balance when the adults startle them or scream at them to get off the high ground. When we let go to become observers, magic happens.
Learning is Achieved Best when it is Experiential
Can science be learnt from a textbook? To a certain extent, yes. However, after a while, the learning might get cumbersome and becomes mere memorisation of facts. Experiential learning, however, yields better outcomes.
An example of experiential learning would be our weekly findings of different seeds, plants, flowers and fruits that we see during the walk. Once, the children came across some lovely red seeds called saga seeds. I shared with them that when I was a child, I used to pick these seeds from a park near my home and we would put them in a glass bottle, adding to our collection every time we visited. We called them “love seeds” because of their heart shapes. Another shared that the seeds cannot be eaten as they are poisonous when chewed. As we were drawn to the seeds, our natural curiosity urged us to seek out more information and these experiences as well as stories are etched in our memories till today.
On another occasion, it started to rain during our walk and we had to seek shelter at the Visitor Centre of Bukit Timah Nature Park. There, we saw a display of seeds, leaves, bark samples from several trees, along with interesting facts on them, which included their common and scientific names. Here, I found myself overwhelmed with the facts before me and it was very difficult for me to remember much from it. This was such a big contrast to the previous occasion where knowledge is acquired through personal experience rather than rote learning, listening to stories, experiencing the joy of picking seeds, looking at leaves and seed pods and identifying different trees.
Setting Up a Nature Co-op
After our ten-week initiation to forest school, another mom and I set up Nature Co-op Homeschool Singapore. This is a Facebook group to create a space for like-minded families to meet, allow our children to connect with nature, play and build friendships with others. We were inspired by the forest school philosophy. Our trips are child-led, free play, with no particular structure or planned activities. Learning happens naturally and the experiences are authentic.
Sometimes, we would visit the same forest or park several times. Adults might be apprehensive about this, fearing that their children may be bored from going to the same place, week after week. On the contrary, we experienced otherwise. With multiple visits to the same place, the children become familiar with the environment and form a relationship with it. No two days in the forest have been the same. Every week, the kids would notice something new. The weather might be hotter or cooler, the sun might be scorching hot and give us sunburn. The skies might be cloudy, it might drizzle or there might be a downpour. These differences change the way the children would interact with the environment.
With changes in the weather, the children and I have learned to be prepared with our hats, ponchos and to seek shelter under trees when in the heat or find big leaves to use as umbrellas in the rain. Once, after several rainy days, the path that we usually hike became a stream and was overflowing with water. The kids and I felt delighted in walking up this same path with our feet splashing in the water. When the season change and the flowers would either bloom or fall to the ground and decompose, we notice that the smell in the forest would also transform. Sometimes we see plenty of fruits. The animals that we encounter would then change. So varied the experiences, and so rich the learning.
Education is a Relationship
Charlotte Mason says that “Education is science in relations.” Education is basically getting our kids in touch with things. Here, we are getting our children to get in touch with nature, forming a relationship with the place, trees, plants, animals and other human beings of different ages. For my family and I, being in the forest, experiencing the amazing creations of God and learning that nature is not within our control, we feel truly humbled and began to develop a reverence for the forest and life in general. If our children feel this connection to nature, it will become natural for them to care, protect it and become advocates to preserve this beautiful nature.
Forming Relationships with Each Other
Our group welcomes people of different ages. Usually, families with kids of multiple age groups join in. While parents lead by example of being in awe of nature, we let the children lead the way. They know that we will be there if they need us.
Our only rule is respect for nature and for each other. We try to observe and leave nature as it is. Parents and older children set examples for the younger ones to follow. The little ones will look up to the older ones for guidance and inspiration. This creates a sense of empathy and compassion, learning to understand the ability of each other.
Socialisation through Play
On one occasion, we found some clay along the river and some started to play with it by making dams at the waterfall. This simple play turned out to be something complex. At the social level, there was communication and a delegation of tasks of mining for the resource and building of the dam. This was also a great lesson for science. The children realised that if the water behind the dam gather enough potential energy, the dam would eventually be pushed over. They then made holes in the dam to release pressure. This was engineering and science at work. They had to discuss and work out the solutions. I saw engaged and motivated children, working together with the same goal. No competition and reward were needed to motivate them to learn. The learning that occurred was joyful, natural and, I believe, will stay with them for a long time. I even overheard my son say, “I want to stay here forever!”
What About Conflict?
It is common for children to have different views. It would be instinctive for adults to step in to break up the argument or fight and get the children to apologise to each other and make up.
I learnt that in forest school philosophy, children ought to resolve conflicts among themselves as long as they do not become a danger to themselves or each other. I experienced this first-hand, during our early days with Forest School Singapore, watching two children battle it out with sticks and throwing sand at each other, with the Coach and parents doing nothing.
It is believed that we need to fully experience our emotions to help us to understand why we feel the way we feel and why we express them as so. More often than not, when we stop a conflict or an argument as soon as it happens, we suppress this emotion and rob them of the chance to resolve the conflict themselves. Therefore, adults ought to only offer guidance when the children’s permission is sought.
This was mind-blowing for me. I am not sure if I have managed to embrace the principle of “letting go” completely, but I think that having this awareness helps parents give our children the liberty and learning opportunity to resolve conflict, come to a level of agreement and work out something together. It was really amazing for me to learn this and allow my children to take charge of their emotions and to find a way to live in harmony with others.
In the forest, we are free to be ourselves. We feel free from judgment and expectations. We discover new things, learn, get to know the place and one another. In turn, we find ourselves. Notice how I have used the pronoun “we” in describing this learning experience. When parents “let go” and observe, we learn as much as our children do.