Interview with Dr. Iwao Uehara, the man from the pine forest
This summer, NatureMinded & Forest Therapy Today are organizing the first International Forest Therapy Days in beautiful southern Finland. This event brings together practitioners of forest therapy, as well as scientists, health care professionals and natural resource management representatives to discuss and better align their common interests. The seminar is followed by a 4-day-retreat where leading forest therapy practitioners will introduce different forest therapy practices. Participants to the entire event will receive certificates.
One of guest speakers at the seminar, and a guide at the retreat, Dr. Iwao Uehara, is a professor of Silviculture laboratory of Forest Science Department of Tokyo University of Agriculture. Dr. Uehara is the president of The Society of Forest Amenity and Human Health Promotion in Japan, a licensed counselor and a Shinrin-ryoho practitioner.
We had a chance to chat with Dr. Uehara about why he does what he does. Here is a short interview with him. Enjoy!
For Dr. Uehara, the foundations for his work within forest therapy was laid at a very young age.
“It was natural red pine forest in my home town, Nagano city. Every nursery and kindergarten children have to hike in the nature. I climbed up to red pine forest. I do remember the day and the smell of the forest”.
His love for the forests became his occupation. His form of forest therapy, shinrin-ryoho, which translates as “forest amenity” is his own mixture to which he has gained inspiration from the book “Japanese forest and nature conservation” by Masataka Oomasa in 1973. Dr. Oomasa was a professor at the University of Tokyo, who researched forest soil. “But he introduced a small episode about a depressed girl who was in heavy depression condition, but with the help of walking in forests through the seasons, she recovered from this depression condition. This small episode in the book gave me a inspiration about forest therapy”.
Another inspirator was his teacher, Mr. Kenji Sasaki, who was a teacher for disabled students. He took the children to the local forest and taught occupational activities. Finally, another book that inspired Dr. Uehara, was Momo by Michael Ende in 1973. “Momo, the girl, has no license and only listens to others talking. But clients figure out their problems. She is a model of counselor for me. In the forest, forest and I just listen to the clients talking”.
Dr Uehara enjoys spending time in any forest, but there is one above others: that same pine tree forest in Nagano Prefecture, with which he has been familiar his whole life. In this forest, Dr. Uehara prefers to go to in the morning in every season. “Morning time, the air is clean, it is quiet, and peaceful”, says Dr. Uehara.
His second favorite forest is his own forest. “There are many animals and various species of trees living in my forest. They say nothing, of course, but I feel the words in their minds kindly. It is my peaceful time”.
Lucky for him, he gets to practice what he loves. If Dr.Uehara was not working as a researcher and educator, he would probably be a picture book writer or a novelist. “But I will publish picture books in this real life!”.
But it does not look like he will need to change jobs any time soon, as there is still much to explore in healing effects of the forests and forest therapy. “We have to keep learning and studying through our lives!”, urges Dr. Uehara.
This weekend my friends and I treated ourselves to a weekend at the sea at an ocean front apartment.
Oostende was recuperating from a northwestern storm called Dieter that made some big waves and caused the gusts of wind to be mighty powerful. These gusts also brought ashore a bunch of seabirds that would normally not make their way to the coast. One type of seabird, on the other hand, made its business to get to know us much more intimately.
We were walking down the shoreline, slowly making our way to the city for some fresh fish, when we suddenly crossed paths with a bird. This bird immediately headed towards us, directly to the feet of my friend, making a noise and not looking very happy at all. It seemed it had hurt itself – why else would it so fearlessly approach humans? And fearless it was, and very determined to be making contact with one of my friends. I quickly found the number for injured birds in Oostende and called them and as luck would have it, they answered and sent someone to pick up the bird immediately!
As I grabbed my phone, my friend picked up the bird who almost immediately stopped the weak attempts to peck at my friend´s glove covered hands and settled down in the warm woolen mittens. Turned out, this penguin resembling bird was a young razorbill (ruokki in Finnish, alk in Dutch).
After the bird was rescued by one of the volunteers from the Middelkerke Vogelaziel, we continued our weekend of good food and wine, long conversations, laughter, and lots of kilometers covered walking in the sea breeze.
As we walked along the shore, we started noticing more and more trash that had washed ashore. It was incredible: everything from pieces of fish nets, ropes (heavy-duty and just normal-duty), lots and lots of plastic bottle caps and plastic bottles, and pieces of torn balloons.. Everywhere we looked, there was trash to be picked up. We noticed and adopted an old plastic baskets that once probably belonged to fishermen who had lost their fishing baskets from the deck to the sea. Now they had landed back on the shore and they served perfectly as our trash carriers.
Cleaning up the shore or the forest is something I do regularly. I don´t go to the forest or the seaside with the intention of cleaning up, but I cannot help but pick up the trash that I come across.
I know it can feel useless as there will always be more trash to collect. I had to convince some of my friends to follow my lead. But in the end, we were all exercising our squatting muscles, picking up the trash.
This kind of catch could make one depressed, but to me it works just the opposite. It gives me a rush of hope and a feeling of empowerment. Afterall, I am making a difference. I can help to clean up that stretch of beach. What´s more, I can help out by making sure my crap doesn’t end up in the ocean, educating my children to protect the ocean and keep on picking up the crap that I come across. I can lead by example and hope that that example is contagious.
Similarly, us attempting to save that young bird, was a reminder that indeed, small drops can together make a big splash in the bucket. This bird was not supposed to be where it was, but nevertheless ended up on the Belgian coast being cuddled and fussed over by a group of Finnish women. She (or he) certainly made an impression on us – it was a lovely contact we had with nature, and though we worried about how the poor thing would pull through, we knew it ended up in a warm and safe place where it had the best chances of making it out and back to where it should be.
Growing up in Finland in a small town, we had a wonderful little forest close to and a big yard around our apartment building. There were varied terrains: stones and rocks, little hills and slopes, bushes, and trees to climb into. By spending hours and hours on that yard waiting for friends to come out to play, I had the time to learn the type of typical spots the wild strawberries would grow in, trace the surface of the rocks on the yard and know where most of the lichens grow, and to learn not to walk barefoot under the specific part of the yard where there were too many pine cones and needless to hurt your bare feet. With friends we played around in the small forest where we flipped a coin to help us decide the direction we would take and where we climbed the rocks and scratched our knees in the process.
According to an article on a Finnish News site YLE, a child´s social environment, friends and hobbies might have a greater effect on the formation of one´s relationship with nature, more so than the place of residence.
Following this line of thinking, children growing up in the country side should grow up with a healthy relationship with nature. However, according to the environmental educator, Mari Elonheimo, interviewed in this piece, the types of hobbies a child has and the activities the family engages in, influences the role nature will play in a person´s life as an adult.
Today there is a lot of talk about the alienation of children from nature. What with the digital world, the busy schedules of the parents as well as the children’s time consuming hobbies. On top of sitting inside, we spend a lot of time sitting in the car getting from place a to place b.
Enabling time to be outside exploring nature is of great importance. In fact, Elonheimo points out that in enabling a child’s relationship with nature to form, an educational approach is not necessary. What´s most important is that a child is given possibilities to explore nature. Only through being in nature and personally interacting with natural elements, a relationship can form. If a person has no exposure to nature, it is more difficult to understand it, let alone grow up wanting to protect it through one´s own actions.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to support this nature relationship, according to Elonheimo, is by transferring a parents love of nature to a child. The more nature has been part of a parent´s life, the more natural it is to transfer it to a child. This means enabling the time in nature, involving a child in activities in the natural world, such as gardening, berry picking, fishing, hiking etc. And rather than emphasizing the factual details, the names of the plants and birds and the like, it is important to allow the child to explore freely without needing to label things. Meri Elonheimo reports to have seen structural barriers to increase nature knowledge at schools, for example in holding on to the idea that factual knowledge about nature is essential. Understanding nature, i.e. understanding the necessity of it, will come through spending time out in nature and interacting with it. Although this knowledge enriches one´s nature relationship, it is not the most essential piece. On the contrary, the pressure of learning the details might work against one´s interest towards nature building up as one might feel overwhelmed by the factual details. And the earlier one can start, the better. According to a study, strengthening connectedness to nature is more sustainable when it takes place with kids younger than 11 years of age (Liefländer et al., 2015).
And though parents as teachers about nature to their own children is certainly a powerful combination, any trustworthy and reliable adult who is passionate about the topic, will work as well.
To enable nature contact, what is needed is not daily exposure to wide wilderness or breathtaking landscapes, although these would surely intensify the effects (Joye, Y., & Bolderdijk, J. W. (2015)). Nearby nature is enough for nature contact to form.
It is important that we prioritize the time to be out in the nature to make it possible that a child develops an affinity for playing outside and becoming interested in nature. According to the World Health Organization Report on Urban green spaces and health – a review of evidence (2016), “there is a need for both small, local green spaces situated very close to where people live and spend their day, and large green spaces that provide formal recreational facilities (such as playing fields) and opportunities to interact with nature”.
Michael D. Barton writes in Children & Nature Network about ERRAND TIME AS NATURE TIME: Finding a Way to Give Your Kids a Daily Dose of Vitamin N, and explains how he finds time in his busy life for nature in between errands: “One of my tricks for slipping in nature with errands is prework. Each day, I spend a little bit of time on Google Maps studying our neighborhood and our route for the day. When you do this, you should think about where you go to shop, run errands, drop off and pick kids up from school.”
This seemingly innocent and well-meaning activity sounds like it takes an awful lot of time. However, Barton makes the point, that we need to make nature a daily activity for children, even if it´s for a shorter period of time. This could mean taking the bike though a greener route instead of the car through the city. This might take double the time, but it accomplishes two (or more) goals at once.
If only we could bring nature closer to the children´s homes through parks and plantings that are made accessible and that invite exploration. It is necessary to let go of the fact that what is beautiful should not be functional. Where possible, nature in cities should be made accessible enough so that it invites people to interact with it, either through harvesting of edible plants, planting and maintaining, or by picking materials for play, e.g. leaves, stones and branches. It is a misleading message that nature should not be interacted with, but only passively admired. However, the protected areas, such as those in Belgium, where people are asked to stay on the path so as not to damage any of the forest floor, leave children cold. Fortunately, many forests in Belgium include a playing area (in Dutch, speelzone) in which children are allowed to safely interact with the surrounding nature. The next step then is to make the nature closest to us all more accessible and attractive.
Finland is one of those countries, where the forest school movement has been rising in popularity in the recent years. In the last 10 years, some 30 forest schools have been established. Most of these are pre-schools that cater for 5-6-year-olds, who spend most days of the week or the most hours of the day at a specific, dedicated natural area, usually a forest.
A bit before 9 am I arrive at the school where the group is preparing to leave. The kids leave the daycare and kindergarten facilities around 9.00 Tuesday through Friday, and they stay to play, learn, eat and move around in the forest until 12.30 when they walk back to the school. In the afternoon the kids either stay at school or are picked up by parents, grandparents or the school taxi. Mondays are reserved for tasks that require a computer or writing and that would be more difficult to accomplish outside.
The walk to the forest school is approximately 1 km, and it gives the kids a good practice about traffic safety, as they have to walk next to the road.
The kids arrive to the main school building with their outdoor gear (weather fitting clothes, shoes and head wear) on. The parents have been well informed at the start of the year, they have visited the site to see what their kids will be up against and have equipped their 5-6-year-olds well. That´s important, as cold and wet can cripple the play.They put on their yellow reflector vests to be more visible on their walk. The kids are accompanied to the forest by kindergarten teacher Mia Kaseva, who has just started her first year in the forest, though not her first year in the kindergarten, Leena Vasama, the brain and heart behind this forest preschool, and an intern.
The kids grab some things they need at the forest school site, and start their walk in a row.
As we arrive to the forest, the kids take out their reflector vests and backpacks and hang them in a small wooden shelter at the entrance of the forest school site. Rather than allowing the kids to run around free immediately, the teachers have a message to share with them. It turns out, the teachers have witnessed a few “border crossovers” the day before and now it´s time to go through the forest school borders once again. According to Leena, this happens only at the beginning of the year, when the kids are not yet used to the border markings. Later on, they can remove the markings as everyone knows and obeys the borders.
The kids are free to take off to their favorite activities – playtime! Most kids run to grab the shovels. Leena tells me that until last year, they didn’t have any “toys” at the site. The saws, knives, hammers, and other tools were their only equipment which were used to build and repair, also by the children. The kids were fine without the toys and used sticks and stones and other natural materials that were molded by their imagination.
There are altogether 11 kids playing around the area. As for the ideal number of children, Leena has a quick answer. Ten is perfect, 11, maybe 12, is doable but any more makes it difficult to keep an eye on the kids and to ensure their safety, as well as to fit them in the “Himmeli”, their little shelter house where they spend some time in the winter months when it is really cold (somewhere below minus 20 degrees Celcius).
The forest school has been popular from the beginning. There has been 17 kids some years ago, even 19 kids, but that was clearly too many. However, this year, there are only 11 kids. Though for the forest school this is a perfect amount of children, Leena is worried. There´s been a dramatic drop in birthrate in the recent years in Tammela and the municipality is seeing more people leave (move or die) than be born.
The school has been through some difficulties of their own. When the forest pre-school first started in 2009, the shelter they had for them was an old army tent fit for many people. However, when the Tammela preschool got a new building in a new location, the forest preschool was in jeopardy as there was no nearby forest next to the new school to accommodate the schools forest class. However, Leena didn’t let the idea die but went around scoping out possible locations near the school, and asking the landowners for their consent. And she managed to find a spot at the border of three different landowners. Luckily, all of the landowners were willing to give the parcel for free for the use of the school for a number of years. However, since the headmaster had other priorities than keeping the forest pre-school going, no funds were made available for establishing a new forest school. Leena mobilized the board of the parents, the local entrepreneurs and finally was able to raise enough money and materials to build a winter warm shelter which was erected with the help of the parents, a composting toilet and a laavu-shelter for year round daily use.
And finally, when everything was set up and everything was running well, the school is now threatened by too few students.
After some playtime, it´s time to gather the kids for a morning snack – some bread with butter and a drink of water. They eat this in the laavu and then start discussing the calendar. They talk about the seasons and the signs that tell it is the end of the summer. After this, they collect their seat cushions and grab some writing equipment and make their way to the rocky outcrop that is bathing in the sun. The kids sit down in a row and with the lead of Mia, they continue their work around the theme of drawing a birch tree. They also practice writing the word “summer (kesä)”. There is no bickering, everyone has their spot, everyone is heard. And everyone is concentrating in their own work.
In the meantime, Leena shows me around the compound. The tepee turns out to be a wood burning sauna which the children have built themselves. Here the kids take a sauna sometime, a detail exotic to some, but common in the Finnish culture from which the sauna originates. All materials of the sauna as well as everything on the compound is recycled or received as a donation. Or “begged for” as Leena puts it.
Leena has no problem begging for things. She loves her work. Both teachers especially love the effect being in nature has on the children. First of all, “it doesn’t rain in the forest”, say the kids. Secondly, there´s room to play and the days go fast. The teachers have seen impressive developments in some kids with learning difficulties who have already been made a plan to follow special education and who have miraculously been cured after some months in the forest pre-school. These children calm down and their concentration skills improve. In addition, the teachers see the kids find their place in a group immediately as they engage in their own games and plays in the forest. No one is left alone.
As one of the main comments from the parents, Leena mentions, is that the parents have a lot of their own time back in the evenings, as the children, who arrive home from the forest school want to engage in calm, solitary activities like drawing or flipping through books, or playing games. Gone are the difficult evenings where children refuse to go to bed, as their appetite is healthy they are ready to go to sleep after a a day in the fresh air and physical exercise outdoors.
But are the kids really outside all the time? Yes. Only in the winter, they gather inside the Himmeli to eat and to do some tasks. But even then, they stay outside. Only if the weather turns very bad, e.g. dangerously stormy, they stay inside or do not come to the forest site at all. In the winter, there is no “freezing limit”, the kids go out as they want, even when it´s -25 degrees Celsius or colder. There is a fire burning in front of the laavu warming up that shelter, as well as in Himmeli. And that, along side constant movement that being outdoors inspires, seems to be enough to keep the kids warm.
At around 11, the food arrives. The food comes from the central kitchen, heated, and is dropped off at the side of the road, where the kids have dropped off the dishes from yesterday just this morning.
Today we eat spaghetti casserole, watermelon salad and some crackers and water. Luxurious, if you ask me. And everything tastes delicious in the outdoors.
After eating, the kids run out to play a bit more. Some are balancing on the tree trunk, some are playing on a raft while others have collected a lot of snails and made a kindergarten for them.
The kids gather around for one more game they have asked Mia if they could play. Then it´s time to start wrapping up and get back to the school where some kids stay until later in the afternoon before they are picked up. At the forest, the kids put their reflector vests on and form a line. “See you tomorrow””, they say, as they wave goodbye to the forest. Their forest.
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.
The waiting list for this class goes to show there is need for such education. As I am about to send my 2.5 year old in the school, Claudia´s buitenklas seems like the obvious choice. However, I take my children to nature and I make sure they play outside every day.Therefore, I feel that there are more deserving kids out there who would need this place more than my little one.
The value of free play in nature has yet to be widely recognized in Belgium. It is still the privilege of a few children, who have access to a green space or whose parents are aware of the importance of nature to their children´s lives and anyway bring their kids to nature on a regular basis. Other children are left out as the schools are not prioritizing free play in nature. Though every bit is better than nothing, a week at the sea, or a week in the forest class, is awfully little to help build a nature relationship where there has been none.
The buitenklas allows the children to come in contact with the familiar nature, learn about it through observing it and interacting with it, and build a bond with it. What you know and love, you want to take care of. Applies to many things, doesn’t it?