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Educating the next generation: keeping nature at heart

One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that different educational styles and environments work better for different people. As students start a new school year after 18 months of disruption, what better time to look at how wood can improve learning chances – and to consider how we can arm the next generation in the fight for our natural environment?

The right learning environment

Imagine if you could significantly decrease stress levels among students and, at the same time, increase average test scores three-fold, just by changing the design of a classroom. A study conducted by Baltimore’s Morgan State University and others in 2019 did just this, by creating a biophilic classroom and comparing the experiences and outcomes of secondary school maths students in this classroom to those in a standard classroom.

Biophilia is a love of nature. Biophilic design mimics nature by using indoor plants, views of greenery and natural materials such as wood. The results can be lowered heart rates and blood pressure and an accompanying feeling of calm that can reduce stress and boost productivity. With surveys from The Children’s Commissioner and the Mental Health Foundation showing that levels of mental ill health amongst children and young people rose during the pandemic, learning environments that tend to lower stress and anxiety levels are more valuable than ever.

image of Mellor Primary School

In the UK, there are many schools and classrooms that have been designed with these benefits in mind. One award-winning example is Mellor Primary School, in Stockport, designed by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. An extension to the school uses timber for structural and cladding elements with built-in nooks to host mini habitats to encourage biodiversity, and a view onto its woodland setting.

Further North in Edinburgh, the Arcadia Nursery for children of staff and students at the King’s Buildings Campus and others was designed to encourage creativity and play, both inside and out. Designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, the nursery’s extensive use of wood includes a Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) structure, timber acoustic ceilings, external cladding and decks, walkways and play features externally.

Doing things differently

Between September 2020 and April 2021, more than 40,000 pupils were taken out of school to be home educated, according to research by the BBC . This represents a 75% increase on the average numbers of children switching to home schooling over the previous two years.

While some parents took the decision based on health concerns, others believe that their children will enjoy a better education at home, with remote learning experiences during the pandemic encouraging them to try something different.

The home schoolers aren’t alone. There are a growing number of alternative schools and learning styles in the UK and around the world that turn away from the rigid and demarcated curriculum-controlled versions of teaching and learning. Some such as Steiner schools and Montessori schools, are well established and widespread. Others are newer and growing in popularity.

Forest schools are relatively new in the UK, the first one having been founded in 1995. In other parts of the world, particularly Scandinavia, the idea of forest schools is much older, with the first one founded in Denmark in 1952.

Even before the pandemic, and the added attraction of being in outdoor environments, forest schools were growing in popularity. Although, as an article in the Guardian in June 2019 reported, not all ‘forest schools’ follow the true ethos of this alternative method, using outdoor learning space as a marketing ruse rather than as a transformational learning tool.

Forest schools are not simply about transposing indoor lessons outside. They are supposed to allow child-led play and discovery, including activities that might conventionally be seen as ’risky’ such as climbing trees or whittling wood with a knife. Forest schools can also build confidence, especially among children who may not be thriving in an academic setting but come into their own outdoors.

A Forest school for 2-to-5-year-olds is part of the education offer at Forestry England’s recently refurbished Delamere Forest Visitor Centre in Cheshire. With a new building constructed from CLT and glulam, and clad in larch, the refreshed facility features flexible educational and office space alongside the visitor centre and cafe.  As well as offering a raft of outdoor activities, the centre, designed by architects Design Group Chester, will host art and cultural events.

image of delamere forest centre

With a growing appreciation of how nature can boost learning, and the need for alternative settings for home schoolers and others, developers are looking at how alternative educational facilities can add value to all sorts of schemes. For instance, the Oxford Science Park combines the poplar-clad Science Oxford Centre, which has indoor and outdoor learning elements, with the Wood Centre for Innovation which provides office space for science and technology start-ups.

And for schools that want to follow the Forest school pathway, or simply have more learning activities outside, architect O’DonnellBrown has invented a wooden kit-built outdoor classroom, the first of which was erected in its hometown of Glasgow. The Community Classroom can be disassembled and reassembled, with the architects hoping that schools and other organisations will purchase a kit to enable more outdoor learning.

Educating the next generation

With the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow fast approaching, the need to attract more young people into forestry and conservation has received a boost, with initiatives and events around the UK.

The summit will recognise the importance of the next generation, with Friday 5 November dedicated to ‘Youth and Public Empowerment’. On that day, children and young people from all over the UK will form a ‘Forest of Promises’, with a promise to the planet written on each leaf. The hope is that, as well as inspiring children, the Forest will raise awareness and start conversations in the wider environment too.

In preparation for the Glasgow event, Forestry England held a COP26 Climate Change Youth Summit on 18 September 2021 at the National Arboretum in Tetbury. For children and young people aged between 14 and 25, this was a day of workshops and discussions, with messages gathered from the summit being taken forward to COP26.

Scotland announced its first Young People’s Forest in the run up to COP26. Involving national charity Young Scot and agency YouthLink Scotland, the aim is to create more forest and woodland in Scotland, with a panel of young people leading and governing the forest. The initiative will offer opportunities for young people to learn about the roles involved in forestry – as well as the challenges involved.

England, too, will have its own Young People’s Forest, with plans for young people between the ages of 10 and 20 to help develop plans for the forest and plant over 250,000 trees in a former open cast mining site at Mead in Derbyshire. And in Wales, schools have already started planting trees, as part of the Welsh Government’s ambitions to create a National Forest for Wales.

With the seeds of interest being sown in projects such as those above, new career pathways into forestry are also being created. In England, there are several higher-level apprenticeships under development to add to two existing lower-level apprenticeships in Forest Operative and Arborist. In Scotland, Confor has just hooked up with the Young Engineers and Science Clubs (YESC) to help inform secondary school pupils about the range of roles in both forestry and wood processing.

Forest future

To give the next generation – and our planet – the best chances of a healthy and sustainable future, we need to make nature and forests a part of their lives and growth from the very earliest stages of play and education. With that foundation of biophilia and a respect for trees and their ecosystems, there is a far greater chance that they will become a new, more creative generation of forest guardians and innovators.

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