Finnish forest school inspires playful education in China

The students are particularly fond of the free play at the end of a "forest school day." Here, they are playing home base.  Sara Lilja Steensig   gbtimes

A group of 43 second graders in neon-green vests are restlessly waiting to leave their school yard in Kangasala, southern Finland. They are about to exit the school premises to spend the remaining two-three hours among nature.The students are accompanied by Lancy Jia from educational company Sumino. She has come to learn more about this special form of outdoor education that she plans on bringing to China already next year.

Reclaiming childhood

For two years, these students from Vatiala Elementary School have been spending every Monday, all year round, in forests, parks and beach areas. Here, they study all possible subjects, from maths and languages to art and physical education.

“Our school is part of a project aiming at making children move more and make our teaching methods more activating. During a course in Scotland we got the idea to develop our own forest school,” explains teacher Maarit Tuomanen, who has been one of the driving forces behind the educational experiment.

Lancy Jia, CEO of the Finnish company Sumino that works with educational exchange mainly between Finland and China, plans on exporting the playful and active approach of Nordic teaching to kindergartens and schools in China.

“China is currently reforming its education system and Finland is promoting education export, so I think the match and timing is perfect,” she says.

The education system in China is very competitive, but the overwhelming focus on academic skills can mean that there is only time for studies and hardly any time for play.

“I want to help Chinese children reclaim childhood. They should enjoy life and have fun,” thinks Jia, who has observed how many young parents in China have understood the importance of play and fun in their children’s education. “There is a huge demand for the Finnish education approach in China right now.”

Maths on the beach

On this sunny day in May, the kids from Kangasala are not going to one of the two forests near to their school as they usually do. Last week they got so many mosquito bites that they need a break from the shadowy woods. Instead, they headed to a beach by a lake less than a 10-minute walk from the school.

"I don’t like walking here, but when we get out to the forest or the beach it is a lot of fun,” says eight-year-old Meea.

She is especially fond of the 20-30 minutes of free play at the end of each forest school day.

“It’s great, because the boys also join us, when we play here. In the school yard, they just play football,” she explains.

“I prefer being outside,” says one of the boys, nine-year-old Tomi. “It might be quieter, when we are inside, but it is fun being outdoors.

The students are divided into three groups that rotate between three different points: one where they play a maths memory game; one with a relay race to find different words from which they have to form sentences; and one using nature materials, such as twigs and dandelions, to form different geometric shapes.

“It is really a surprise to me that the kids can learn mathematics from nature, but they can. I think this is brilliant,” exclaims Lancy Jia.



Outdoor education can be done anywhere

After a couple of hours of learning in the sun, the kids quickly consume their packed lunch, because now it’s time for what they think is the best part of a forest - or beach - school day: free play.

When Maarit Tuomanen blows her whistle three times half-an-hour later, the students all come running back, filled with sunshine, knowledge and new experiences.

But is it even possible to take a concept from Finland – a country full of trees and vast nature – to a big city in China?

“Outdoor education can be done anywhere,” says Tuomanen and adds that no matter what kind of surroundings, there is plenty of reason why teachers everywhere should take their students outside.

“It is a proven fact that learning is more efficient when the students get to move at the same time,” she states.

Jia agrees. “Of course, it will not be exactly the same, because there really isn’t the same access to nature around Chinese schools, but we can find alternatives; we can, for example, take the kids to the school yard to study instead of the classroom.”

In the autumn of 2019, Sumino will open the company’s first Finnish kindergarten in southern China, and Jia hopes to open more within the next few years.

“Right now, we are focusing on early education, but step-by-step we will export Finnish education for every age to the Chinese market. Next step will be elementary school,” explains Jia.