Quite unexpectedly, I heard about a forest school in Belgium. Someone who had the same trajectory as the kids in their reflecting vests heading toward a big park in Gent mentioned it to me. Apparently there had even been a piece in the newspaper about them. Why did I not know about this?
My guess is because the “Buitenklas” (Engl. outside classroom) takes place as part of the Steiner school and for most people, the buitenklas sounds like something the Steiner school could have invented by themselves. After all, the Steiner school is all about the natural materials, the softer approach, following the seasons and closeness to nature in general (says me, who has little to no exposure to the Steiner school — until recently).
I had a date with Claudia, a Swiss born teacher at the school in the early afternoon, when the class had already returned from their site. Claudia asked me to come at an occasion when the kids are not there, so as not to disrupt the class.
We first went to check out the first site they had had. This was a hilly little forest corner at the outer banks of Bourgoyen park. However, because the site was not closed off , there was no way to protect the tree houses or other structures the children had built from being broken down by others. On top of it, there was too much dangerous trash being left behind at the park, so Claudia went to look for a new site.
They finally found one, from the large garden of a nice couple very close to the initial site.
Claudia and the parents build a shelter for the children and acquired other materials that would be needed at the buitenklas, such as a fireplace, storage facility. Because this edge of a garden was for the children´s use, they were able to start their own little vegetable patch and a herb spiral and claim the site for themselves. They were also able to leave their treasures as they were knew that they would be able to find it all back the same way they left it.
The buitenklas is outside every morning until about 12.20. Claudia is at the site from 8 onward and the children are brought there directly by their parents or they walk to the site together with the child carer who waits for the children at the school. By 8.45 they are ready to start the day. By the time everyone has arrived, the children who have arrived as first ones, have already had the time to play.
The day starts with a moment sitting down in a ring in the shelter and greeting everything around them, the plants, trees and the bird. The day is filled with singing, moving, doing handicrafts and having a chance to participate in the chores, such as making soup, cracking nuts etc. On Tuesday´s the children get to enjoy an open fire, an important natural element to us all. The nature around invites the children to use their imagination so toys are not necessary though there are some dolls and hand puppets that can be used. There is also a “mud kitchen” where getting hands dirty is a requirement. The children get used to using tools such as saws, hammers, sandpaper, wool etc. to build structures to play house in, to play the supermarket, etc. On top of that, their site invites them to run through the bamboo thickets, play hide and seek and observe the nature around.
The buitenklas has been running since September 2012. Claudia says she is doing the same things she would be doing inside, only, she is using less paper and pencils. The children enjoy playing outside and the parents have been supportive. Those wanting to enroll their children in the buitenklas need to still go through a waiting list.. The parents who sign up their children for the buitenklas, are aware of what they are putting their kids into and therefore there have been no difficulties in having the children be correctly equipped in terms of clothing etc.
Claudia feels lucky to be able to run her buitenklas outside as she realizes that this is not self-evident. However, as the ideology of learning outside is close to the ideology of the Steinerschool, it is less of a hassle and work to motivate the leadership to find the money for the extra child carer to accompany Claudia outside everyday.