Natural Learning in Forest Schools

This edition of Green Gazette has updates on forest schools in the U.S., organic producer scorecards for consumers, planting trees to mitigate climate change, and more.

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by Getty Images/JacobLund

A standard school day for the average American youth takes place indoors and includes brief recesses that allow students access to enclosed outdoor spaces at certain times of the day. But for some young students who attend “forest school,” most, if not all, of their preschool or kindergarten education occurs outdoors in forests, parks, or other wild sites. At these schools, educators allow their students’ curiosity to guide the curriculum, and rely on nature to aid development and instill environmental values.

According to Natural Start Alliance, forest schools vary in the amount of time children spend outdoors, what they study, and how they’re assessed, but all forest schools put nature front and center. They have the same standards for child development as traditional schools do, but their methodologies are rooted in exploring and conserving the natural world. Being outdoors has numerous benefits for young children; the National Wildlife Federation says a connection to the natural world can offer children stronger immune systems, improved attention and depth perception, enhanced critical thinking, lower stress levels, and better sleep.

Khavin Debbs, the partnerships manager at Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle, Washington, says one of the benefits of a forest school is how it can adapt to students’ unique needs. High-energy students can run and climb. Shy students can sit alone to observe an earthworm with a magnifying glass. At Tiny Trees, in addition to learning with art materials, books, and toys, students engage in a wide range of play-based learning, including going on hikes, observing wildlife, and identifying plants and animal tracks. They might cook over a camp stove, or harvest berries to make jam. The school provides seasonally appropriate gear, and as the seasons change, so do the students’ daily experiences. They don waders and splash through puddles when it rains; they put on winter gloves and form snowballs when it flurries. The students’ hands-on activities help them grasp scientific concepts that might otherwise seem abstract. “Our children’s science scores tend to be high going into kindergarten, because they’ve lived in it for two years,” Debbs says. “They’ve seen the seasons change. They’ve seen a tree’s leaves turn different colors in fall, and then seen that same tree bloom again in spring. All those things really do help them — and even me as an adult — understand.”

The notion of children spending time outdoors to learn and play is nothing new, but has become an anomaly in certain locations and cultures. The modern-day forest school concept originated in Denmark in the 1950s, and then spread through Europe and abroad. In the United States, forest schools are currently on the rise. A 2017 national survey of nature-based early childhood educators found 250 forest schools operating in 43 states — 100 more than the year before, with 80 percent of them maintaining waiting lists.

But even though they’re increasing in popularity, forest schools aren’t yet reflective of the cultural, linguistic, or cognitive diversity of U.S. youth. Schools that want to be more inclusive must be purposeful in increasing their reach and making their programs more accessible. For example, because its regular programming is part-time, Tiny Trees has started to host hikes, cultural gatherings, and library events on weekends so that working families who need full-time daycare can engage with the forest school model at times and in spaces that work for them. Debbs says Tiny Trees has also been looking to partner with indigenous tribes in the region to help students understand where the knowledge about the land initially came from. “We want to give credit where it’s due, and empower families with that knowledge, because with that comes stewardship,” he says. “As you get older and your worldview broadens, you’ll apply that stewardship to other parts of your life. And hopefully ‘environment’ will stop being a buzzword for trees and water and start becoming a buzzword for the whole world that we live in.”

To find a forest school or “nature preschool” near you, go to Natural Start’s website.

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Watchdog Group Ranks Organic Food

Choosing organic foods from a standard grocery store’s shelves — lined with numerous options that brandish an array of labels and certifications — often requires consumers to do some sleuthing beyond the price point. Even among brands labeled Certified Organic, the principles and processes that led to their creation vary. Marie Burcham, Director of Domestic Policy for The Cornucopia Institute, says, “Once industrialized food producers realized consumers were willing to pay a premium for organic food, corporate interests turned their attention to the lucrative market. The resulting change in the landscape of organic agriculture left ethical, organic family farms without a level playing field, and consumers ill-equipped to make the best choices about the food they feed their families.”

To cut through some of that confusion, Cornucopia provides scorecards that rank several organic brands and farms in various food categories, including dairy, eggs, grain, plant-based beverages, and more. These scorecards sum up Cornucopia’s independent research in user-friendly, searchable charts, which can be accessed via cellphone or printed as a shopping guide.

Each of the scorecards is designed differently, depending on available data and relevant criteria. The egg scorecard, for example, lists the rating of each producer in a number of areas on a scale of 1 to 5; the status of the chickens’ outdoor access; the product’s market area; and the producer’s overall score, which is calculated based on its answers to Cornucopia’s survey and, occasionally, verification via farm visits or visual evidence. Clicking on a product’s name reveals more detailed information on the farm that produced it, and how its overall score was determined. A farm’s transparency is factored into its final score, as is its ownership structure and additional certifications.

The Cornucopia Institute updates the scorecards as new products come available and as producers adjust their organic practices. Cornucopia also prompts concerned consumers to contact companies with low ratings and urge them to improve. “When consumers support the best organic brands, they are instrumental in helping to keep those organic farmers in business,” Burcham explains. You can access and download the scorecards at Cornucopia’s website. 

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Confronting Climate Change with Trees

For decades, Los Angeles non­profit TreePeople has organized communities around planting trees in the city to bring shade to areas replete with concrete and other materials that store and amplify heat. As climate change ramps up urban temperatures, exposing residents to ever more extreme heat waves, the group’s efforts are diminishing heat buildup and reducing the energy required to keep people cool. 
According to TreePeople, the 3 million trees it’s planted since its inception have also provided habitat for animals, produced food for foraging, saved water, and slowed soil erosion, making the region more resilient, biodiverse, and water-secure.

In early 2019, with the support of the California State Coastal Conservancy, TreePeople extended its mission be­­yond Los Angeles proper, launching a three-year program called Calles Verdes, or “Green Streets,” through which it will plant at least 750 trees along San Fernando roads, as well as revamp the city’s pavement with features that capture rainwater and reduce surface runoff. To date, TreePeople has planted the first 250 of the planned 750 trees, and has trained San Fernando residents on how to care for their newly planted canopy for years to come. The installation of the program’s pollution-reducing, water-saving features is scheduled to commence in 2020. San Fernando sits above an aquifer, so its increased supply and quality of water will have a ripple effect on the entire region drawing from that underground source.

Visit TreePeople to get involved or find resources for greening your own school, home, or neighborhood.

Female Tawny Mining Bee - Andrena fulva

Wild Bee ID

North America is home to more than 4,000 species of native bees whose pollination is essential to healthy ecosystems. But many of these bee species are in decline, in part because of diminished habitats.

To support these precarious populations, the Center for Food Safety has developed Wild Bee ID, an app for identifying wild bees and the plants that attract them. Gardeners and conservationists can use the tool to learn more about indigenous bee species, and to cultivate flowering plants native to their locations to strengthen bee populations. The app includes a directory of bees with crisp, close-up photos for identification; recommendations for plants that pollinators prefer; and guides on bee anatomy, behaviors, habitats, and more. It also lists ways to take political action to secure protections for bees, and hosts a forum for users to ask questions and share tips.

Wild Bee ID is free and available for iOS and Android.

Wind Farm Makes Waves

Eighteen miles off the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, five wind turbines tower over the ocean, generating enough energy to power 20,000 households. The turbines, operated by energy company Equinor, form the 1.5-square-mile Hywind Scotland Offshore Park, the world’s first fully operational floating wind farm. Unlike conventional bottom-fixed turbines, these turbines sit atop poles that are anchored to the seabed.

Equinor’s interest in harvesting the energy available in deeper waters, where winds are stronger, prompted the company to create a small-scale pilot park in the North Sea near Norway in 2009. Based on the data it drew from that experience, Equinor, in partnership with Masdar Clean Energy, launched Hywind in October 2017. According to the company, this wave of turbine technology has exceeded expectations since startup, operating at 65 percent of its capacity, compared with a traditional wind farm’s average of 45 to 60 percent. Equinor expects the park’s success to help make floating wind farms cost-competitive.

A Threatened Refuge

A single polar bear settles into snow alongside a burnt-orange barrel of oil, contrasting a vulnerable species with a symbol of the development that threatens it. So starts The Sacred Place Where Life Begins, a 25-minute documentary film by Jeremy Là Zelle and Kristin Gates. In 2018, the couple trekked through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to witness the longest land mammal migration in the world, that of the Porcupine caribou, and to learn about the region from members of the Gwich’in Nation, who live along the migration route and whose cultural traditions and food supplies are connected to the caribou.

The Gwich’in people have stewarded this land, spanning northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada, for thousands of years, and they’re currently fighting to protect the Refuge’s Coastal Plain, which was opened to oil and gas development in late 2017. Such development will adversely affect the Porcupine caribou’s calving grounds, and will expose the region’s inhabitants to pollution, habitat destruction, and oil spills. View the film, and learn more about protecting the Refuge, on Jeremy Là Zelle’s website.

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