From Gloucestershire to Shanghai - we're taking Forest School 6,000 miles to China!
An unexpected email from China earlier this year has sparked a remarkable three-month project in Shanghai, with FSLI trainer Sarah Pender travelling out to China in September.
Five international schools in Shanghai have started to introduce the concept of Forest School as part of a training programme FSLI director Chris Dee describes as ‘life changing'.
“The enquiry came out of the blue, with husband and wife Tianshu Xin and Alice Sheng finding us on the internet and then flying six thousand miles to come on one of our Forest School Leader courses in London. It marked the start of six months of planning and working together to launch Forest School China in Shanghai.”
The Chinese couple were inspired to learn more about Forest School after a holiday in 2014 to visit friends in England, where their children attended a week of Forest School activities.
Tianshu Xing commented: "We could see a big change in our children after just a few days - they were totally involved in their own learning, grew in confidence and enjoyed every minute of being outdoors. It set us thinking about the opportunity to introduce the concept of Forest School to schools in China which, culturally, takes a very different approach to teaching young people."
He added: “In China, students will follow adult instruction in a strict and formal classroom setting. By contrast, Forest School is child-led - everything is about the child exploring, being creative and problem-solving. It’s also very unusual in China for children to spend much, if any, time outdoors. Many schools no longer do PE lessons and, typically, children stay indoors under the close eye of their parents and grandparents. We saw the opportunity to introduce Forest School to international schools in Shanghai, and develop a business from there." (L to r) Tianshu Xin & Alice Sheng
FSLI Director Chris Dee and trainer Sarah Pender travelled to Shanghai in September to establish the programme. The assignment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sarah, a primary school teacher from Wiltshire, who will be based in Shanghai until Christmas before returning to her school.
Sarah said: “The first few weeks flew by, with no day the same. Despite the differences in culture, learning outdoors in a natural environment is proving to be as effective in China as it is in the UK, with the children becoming more confident, creative and skilled in so many ways. I think parents are amazed at the differences they’re seeing in their children.”
A Shanghai bicycle made for two (l to r) Sarah Pender and Chris Dee
Taking the concept of Forest School to Shanghai presented a unique set of challenges as Chris explained: “Having translators to hand has been absolutely essential, as the language barrier sometimes makes it near impossible to communicate. And there are fascinating cultural differences, too. Typically, Chinese children are cared for with an intensity we don’t see in the UK, by parents and grandparents who are highly-protective of their every move and watching all their activities closely. It’s normal for children to be carried everywhere, for example. As a result, they are not used to physical play and it’s noticeable how motor skills and co-ordination are delayed. It‘s striking also how children are not brought up to be aware of the natural environment: for example, when the children see a bug their instant reaction is to stamp on it and kill it! So it takes some time for the children to learn to leave insects alone and enjoy watching them in their natural habitat.”
She added: “We’ve been privileged to be invited into schools to meet teachers, children and parents, and observe classroom lessons. In Chinese schools, for example, it’s usual for the children to sit at their desk with their arms behind them for the entire lesson unless they are writing. And if they are asked a question in class, they will snap to attention and stand up instantly to answer the teacher.”
During her two weeks in China, Chris spent much of her time educating parents about Forest School, explaining the concept and proving the benefits: “By the third or fourth session, parents started to see the difference for themselves. The woodland area we used was a one and a half hour drive from the city centre, which was not an issue for parents who battle with standing traffic in Shanghai every day. Because parents expect to observe their children closely – and in some comfort! - a large area of decking was built in the woods with comfortable chairs and yoga mats. A freshly-prepared lunch was provided each day (we soon learned there’s no such thing as a ‘packed lunch’) and parents could easily see what their children were doing.”
“Until they come to Forest School sessions, the children have never seen so much open space. A lasting memory for me was when one child started spontaneously to assemble sticks and propped them up against a tree. Gradually, more and more children were drawn into the activity by their own curiosity and, as they collected wood, talked together and explored their ideas, the first few sticks began to turn into a huge woodland house built by all 22 children – it was incredible to watch their learning unfold before our eyes.”
Although the teacher training programme finishes at Christmas, this is the first phase of a longer relationship with Forest School China, as Chris explained: “The results so far have been fantastic and, working with Tianshu and Alice, we see enormous scope for developing Forest School further. One of the innovative ideas we are putting in place is a Forest School environment on a rooftop, bringing in trees and natural materials to create an alternative to the indoor classroom. There are eight international schools and 20 bilingual schools, each with around 1500 students, so we still have some way to go to train more teachers as Forest School leaders and give as many children as possible the chance to explore outdoors and learn through play.”