How IFTDays 2018 came to be

We have been asked time and time again, what brought on IFTDays.  Here is our story, written a while back already but got buried under all the other work.

The idea for this event started brewing in the hearts and minds of two Finnish forest therapy practitioners. Heidi Korhonen, a project manager from the southwestern coast of Finland and Katriina Kilpi, an expat Finn working as a consultant in Belgium, work as a Nature Connection Coach and a Forest Mind guide, respectively.  The two exchanged experiences and realized how different their contexts were, and how these contexts shape their work as forest therapy practitioners.

Heidi was astonished to find how her work as a nature Connection Coach, which is based on ecopsychology and ecotherapy, was received in Finland. Although forests and nature at large are a crucial part of our culture and important to the general wellbeing of Finns, the value of Heidi´s work was difficult to establish.

Outdoorsy lifestyle is something typical to the Nordic countries and in Finland and forests have traditionally been a place for many utilitarian functions. Quoting Florence Williams in her book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017, p.134): “Nature is where the Finns can exult in their nationalistic obsessions of berry picking, mushrooming, fishing, lake swimming, and Nordic skiing. They don’t watch moose, they eat them the way their ancestors did. And they do these things often”.

The forest has always been a place for the often introverted Finns to get away from the world and find peace. Was there no need for coaching for nature connection in Finland? The challenges in Finland made Heidi look beyond her home country. She established her work online, and as a result, her Forest Therapy Today website and social media has now a few thousand subscribers.

Katriina brought the Finnish Metsämieli, a method of forest bathing that includes elements of mindfulness and coaching, to Belgium under the name of Forest Mind. Belgium, one of Europe´s least forested countries, had not heard of forest therapy before. Trying to understand what she was up to, many tried to fit the label of life coach on her. However, where life coaching in nature, or wandelcoaching, as it is called in Belgium and the Netherlands, focuses on the dialogue between the coach and the coachee, Katriina´s form  of Forest Mind focuses on the dialogue between the person and her surroundings. Both approaches are good, but different.

Forest Mind was not an instant hit in Belgium, though it was well received among those who came to try it.  Katriina was met with surprised reactions, as people found Forest Mind to be very “spiritual”. But of course, there was nothing more spiritual about those walks except what people were experiencing as they were connecting with their natural environment in a more mindful way. Katriina felt she needed more work on her guiding skills and decided to let Forest Mind rest for a while and continued guiding  regular nature walks, all the while sneaking in elements from Forest Mind.

Power of Global community

Feeling somewhat alone with their endeavors, both women stumbled upon the Forest Friends Facebook group put together by Nitin, a new acquaintance from India. They quickly learned that forest friends come in all shapes and sizes, ages, skin tones and cultural backgrounds. And, from different kinds of natural environments. The group and the newly found community made these two realize how much power there was in the global community and how much wisdom every individual had to share. Driven by their own nature connection and the belief, that helping people find their connection can be the key to solving many of the current challenges we are facing in the world, IFTDays started shaping up. And because the two had already learned to know people from various backgrounds and domains through their interaction in the Forest Friends community, they knew exactly who to contact first.

Dreaming big

The first ever IFTDays has come up organically. Friends invited friends, who invited their networks. Heidi and Katriina came across people in their work and studies, and as references in the works they read. After word got out, they were contacted by people who wanted to participate in the program. The efforts have been very well received, which is a sign of the right timing for this event.Though a number of practitioners and scientists whose work is tremendously important were not able to be fit into this first edition, we hope that the event itself is a testament to all the incredible individuals´ effort thus far and that in the following editions of IFTDays, all of this important work will become recognized.

Heidi and Katriina are organizing everything from “thin air”, meaning that no outside funding has been used.   “We hope to change that in the next editions to make the event accessible to more people. We had to start somewhere and we are learning as we go along”, say Katriina and Heidi who have received inquiries for next year´s event from people who are not able to join them this year.  “Give us a few more months, and we will start on that too. First we want to see what IFTDays 2018 will become”.

Katriina and Heidi: “We are the engines of IFTDays but we all make it. What drives us is the idea that everyone will return home from this event inspired and fired up by the experiences they have had, armed with new knowledge and contacts they can use to take this important work forward, as well as a feeling of belonging to a solid worldwide forest therapy community”.

1st International Forest Therapy Days 2018 (opening words by Katriina & Heidi)

Welcome, forest friends, to the first International Forest Therapy Days!

We have named this event International Forest Therapy Days. But as it happens, the definition seems to still hang in the air.  Who practices forest therapy? A human being  to a human being in the forest environment? Who is the therapist anyway? Theift up our moods, rejuvenate and calm us down at the same time. And the list goes on.

human or, as Amos Clifford so beautifully describes her, the more than-human world? Therapy has been defined as “the attempted remediation of a health problem”. Indeed, bathing in the forest air can decrease our stress levels, improve our immune function, lower blood pressure and high blood sugar levels, increase natural killer cells, l

 

Dr Cindy McPherson Frantz from Oberlin College and Conservatory has been researching nature connection for years. In a recent talk, Dr Frantz underlined that of the so called core social motives, the need to belong is one of the most powerful motivators of human behaviour. According to Frantz, there is evidence that nature connection fulfills this need to belong and thus meets our most fundamental psychological needs.

Dr Frantz also posed the question as an implication to practice: “How can interactions with nature be designed  so that they maximize a sense of connection and belonging?” And further still, “How can the sense of belonging be used to motivate pro-environmental behaviour?” That is a valid question, as nature connectedness has been found to indicate pro-environmental behaviour.

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Acting in an environmentally friendly manner is urgently needed. After all, we have managed to use all the renewable resources of the Earth by August 1st, 7 months into the year on the Global Earth Overshoot Day.  The same day was reached already in April this year in Finland.

But behavioral change is difficult, especially because we humans are an impatient sort of beings. We rush from one moment to the next, not really present in any. It often takes a crisis or disaster in our lives to stop the race and to pause.

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The beauty of forest therapy guides can be summarized as being the providers of a shortcut. A shortcut that makes us hit that pause button faster, without having to go through a crisis first. And guidance is sometimes needed to experience the sensation of connectedness, especially in challenging environments. A forest therapy outing, as we know, is not just a forest walk. It goes beyond the superficial contact with nature. A guide gently sets the pace to slow, and stops you to smell the roses. A guide shows the forest from a different point of view.

Sara Malve-Ahlroth

Lumber, Richardson & Sheffield (2017), have recently identified 5 pathways to nature connectedness. These are:

  • Contact, e.g. using the senses to listen to birds and smell the flowers
  • Beauty, e.g. appreciating natural scenery or engaging with nature through the arts.
  • Meaning, e.g. language and metaphors
  • Emotion, e.g. reflecting on your feelings about nature.
  • Compassion, e.g. behaving in an ethical and ecological manner towards nature

Most forest therapy approaches accidentally incorporate these pathways as they happen to focus on opening the senses; engaging with the aesthetic qualities of nature; finding inspiration in nature in symbolism and metaphors; seeking an emotional bond with nature and in the best case, extending oneself to include nature (Lumber et al., 2017).

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Paying her respects at the ancient oak of Paavola.

Forest therapy not only exposes us to the physical and mental health effects of being in the forest, but also creates possibility for people to connect with nature. Sounds like a winner formula. No wonder that forest therapy and many of its forms are trending at the moment. But how do we make sure this is not just a trend? How do we make sure it reaches those who need it the most urgently but never know to look for it?

The scientific community might feel the audience breathing down their necks:  all the eyes are watching.  We desperately want to know how nature works on us & why nature works on us.

But research is not much if it’s not implemented into action. It is important to listen to the practitioners, the ones who bring the field forward.

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That´s what IFTD is about:  creating a space for the exchange between research and practice at the seminar, but also a medium to learn and to try out these different approaches and styles of forest therapy at the retreat. Some want to experience a deep spiritual connection, while others simply long for a quiet moment in nature.  Needs are different, so different styles are needed and welcomed.

And to underline the core message of IFTD, we borrow the words of Dr. Howard Frumkin (2017):

We need culture change. A deeply felt appreciation of the natural world and the human place in it, a sense of reverence and humility, and openness to awe and wonder, the ability to think in systems, a commitment to creating  and preserving a legacy – these must be promoted  as cultural norms.

These, he says, can be found in the wisdoms of indigenous people worldwide, in philosophy, art, poetry, and popular culture, from ancient Greece to the New England transcendentalists.

..and we might add: in the Japanese tradition of forest bathing, the Zen practice, India’s ancient wealth of knowledge, the traditional ecological knowledge and the cultural traditions being revived across the world.

And if we look deep into ourselves, in that individual nature connection in all of us.

Sara Malve-Ahlroth

-Katriina & Heidi –

Interview with Mr. Amos Clifford: Engaging in the healing dialogue between humans and other-than-humans

One of guest speakers of this summers´ First International Forest Therapy Days event is Mr. Amos Clifford, the founder of the American Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  ANFT has trained and certified 384 forest therapy guides across the globe. We are honored to have Mr. Clifford speaking  at the seminar, and a guiding at the retreat. We had a chance to dig deeper into how he got started with the fastest growing Forest Therapy approaches with a certification program.

Here is an interview with him for your reading pleasure!

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“I grew up in the foothills of the mountains of Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens were very near my home. In those days, there were no admission fees or barriers to prevent neighborhood children from playing there, so I did… a lot. Because the gardens are organized into sections that collect plants from specific bioregions, I unconsciously absorbed a lot of knowledge about plant communities and species.

In 2012, after several years of deep inquiry involving multiple vision fasts, I made a 10 year commitment dedicating the next phase of my life to bringing forest therapy into the world beyond the borders of Japan and Korea. I founded ANFT in 2012. I then spent a couple of years guiding many walks, giving workshops, and working with my mentees. I wove together many strands from my 40-year professional career to create what is now the Standard Sequence, Language of Invitation, Way of the Guide, and other
elements of forest therapy as taught by ANFT.

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Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

I suppose if I had not founded ANFT I would continue to explore and teach methods of healing dialogue between humans and other-than-humans. Because embodied awareness, imaginal sense, and development of the Ecological Self are central to the work of restorative dialogue with the more-than- human world, it would have looked a lot like forest therapy.

In the years 2009-2012 I was working in restorative practices, where my interest was unusual, because I was focusing on how to use restorative dialogue to heal relationships between humans and the other-than-human species we are harming, and also the landscapes and places that sustain us all. I developed the “Aloha Ropes” technique then, which is still used in the Council of Waters and Trees workshops that ANFT provides.

I don’t have a specific hero; my intuition has long been that when we choose a hero or singular role model (such as guru, for example) we risk dis-empowering ourselves. I am aware of a being who is known to me as Coyote who has been instrumental in my path and while Coyote is not really a role model (that would be a disaster!) he is a source of inspiration and periodic humbling that is very important to me. A role model to me is anyone who has fully embodied their unique medicine and is living from a place of authenticity.

My work is not separate from my life. It’s all in nature. In fourth grade I memorized these lines by the poet Robert Frost, from his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (the one that also mentions the “path less taken.):

Yield who will to their separation
My aim in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
as my two eyes make one in sigh.

That has always been my aim and I’m happy to say that now that I am in my sixties I have accomplished that, specifically through the work of forest therapy and training guides”.

Introducing Nitin Das, the forest film maker from the Himalayas

You´ve probably already seen the beautiful promotional film of the International Forest Therapy Days. It has been made by Nitin Das, the forest filmmaker from India. Nitin has the exceptional ability to capture people’s attention by telling fascinating stories of uncommon people and extraordinary forests. Nitin is currently working on a series of films, one of which we get to premier at the IFTD retreat, that describe how forests heal people. On top of film making, Nitin engages people to connect with nature through different campaigns that he runs through the Healing Forest project, which he is the founder of.

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The fire to make films about healing forests was ignited by his travels to many beautiful places, which he noticed were quickly disappearing. When he came across an article in the National Geographic about forest therapy, he realized he had found a way to reconnect people with nature.

The lush rainforests of North East India have set the scene for Nitin’s fondest nature related memories. We are lucky enough to open a window to his memories though a film he has made of the area.

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Image by Nitin Das.

If Nitin was not making films, he would probably still be engaging with forests, by planting trees somewhere in the mountains. He finds his inspiration in nature, especially in the mountains, forests and rivers, which have always provided him with answers and showed him the direction. Nitin spends a lot of time in nature tending to his own nature connection. The magnificent Indian Himalayas are his favorite place. In the fascinating valleys and magical forests of the Himalayas one can truly feel the connection with nature.

 

Interview with Dr. Iwao Uehara

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!

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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”.

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Dr. Uehara & the pine 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.

Food for thought..

Neem eens een bosbad. Shinrin-yoku, het aspirientje van de natuur.  Last van stress, vermoeidheid en een gebrek aan concentratie? Shinrin-yoku, de Japanse kunst van het bosbaden, belooft een oplossing voor alles waar de moderne mens aan lijdt. Nu nog een bos vinden, en de moed om uit die sofa te komen (De Standaard, 28/02/2018)

 

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Winter post #2: Big splash in the bucket

This weekend my friends and I treated ourselves to a weekend at the sea at an ocean front apartment.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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 this wonder of 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.

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Enabling daily explorations in nature

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.

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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.

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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.

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My kids and my dad gutting a fish at the summer house in Finland.

Nature nearby

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”.

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Urban park in Paris providing spaces for people and wildlife

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.

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No, this is not what we want. Source.

Adapted from YLE: Ystävät ja harrastukset vaikuttavat luontosuhteeseen enemmän kuin asuinpaikka.

“It doesn´t rain in our forest” – visit to forest school in Tammela, Finland

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.

Tammela forest pre-school school  is one of these schools.

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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.

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The kids grab some things they need at the forest school site, and start their walk in a row.

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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.

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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).

IMG_20160825_112814The 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.

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Donors of materials are listed on the wall of Himmeli

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.

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Dropping off yesterday´s dishes to the side of the road and picking up warm food.

Today we eat spaghetti casserole, watermelon salad and some crackers and water. Luxurious, if you ask me. And everything tastes delicious in the outdoors.

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Every child takes only as much as they can eat. There´s always room for seconds.

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.

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Forest school in Belgium

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.

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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.

img_20161024_150728The 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?

Trekking course: Isojärvi national park, FI

We, myself and my partner, had signed up for a trekking course in south central Finland. The course was my birthday present for my 40-year-old partner. Though I´ve gone hiking near the Icelandic glaciers, the Yukon wilderness, Hawaiian mountains and beaches, and the Finnish forests, it´s been years since the last time I´ve spent a night under the stars. Sleeping in nature for me means sleeping in a simple wooden house, a summer house (kesämökki, in Finnish).

We had no expectations, other than to be able to spend a night in the nature with some experienced people and get a fair dose of trekking-related information.

We arrived at Isojärvi national park´s parking on Saturday at 12.00. It had started raining lightly just a moment before. The parking was, in Finnish terms, full of cars. I was surprised to see that many people. Were they all coming along?

The organizers, Minna and Vesa, handed out our food containers, the dried food packages and a Trangia, the cooker that was to be used during the trip to cook all our food. This we packed into out gear, or, my partner did. We were also handed out the maps of the area, a printed A4.

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When we all had packed up the gear we had received and all of the participants, all together 11 of us, had arrived, we headed to the forest.

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The Isojärvi park is formed around the  Lake Isojärvi, which is a lake formed inside a fracture in the earth’s crust.The  beautiful park is covered mostly by dry and moist forests, with a small area of old growth herb-rich forest but also rugged pine forests on top of the rocks.  Species of interest include the Canadian Beaver (Castor canadensis) that had been doing some extensive maintenance works causing the water level of the lake to rise, as well as the Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica), which provided us with entertainment with its territorial battles as we enjoyed the fire by the lake side in the evening.

We walked only a few hundred meters when we had our first stop at the first camping site. Here, Minna and Vesa asked us to take out the cookers and demonstrated their use. We learned about the different kinds of cookers on the market, their pros and cons and then cooked some water to make us some coffee (just add water!).

After we had enjoyed our coffees and packed away our cookers, we took out the maps Minna had handed out. They quickly ran us through the different signs on the map, how to use to compass on the map and to show us the direction we were supposed to be headed to. I had a feeling I had learned all this at school in as part of forest orienteering, but since it is already more years ago than I care to remember, I had forgot about the details. It was about time for a refresher.

At the Finnish national parks, there are different kinds of camping sites. The facilities  include:

  • picnic sites with tables, cooking shelters and campfire sites with free firewood
  • free facilities such as wells and campfire sites in areas reserved for free camping
  • shelters where visitors may sleep overnight
  • compost toilets
  • waste collection points

(source: Nationalparks.fi )

During our hike, we saw rich forest areas covered with blueberry, areas where we could imagine at nightfall would be the working grounds of the busy beavers.

At times when something remarkable was to be seen in the  landscape, Minna made us stop and look for the spot on the map, to see if we could still “find ourselves on the map”. Places like these included sharp cliffs, big boulders, swampy areas etc that were easy to be seen on the map.

After a while we stopped for a small eating and drinking brake. This was a welcome stop as we had left with just a breakfast in our stomachs. The sandwiches and boiled eggs tasted heavenly in the fresh air. At the same time,the backpack in the back of my partner was getting lighter for him to carry.

We then arrived at our camping site where we found 4 people resting, having started a fire in the fire place. Turned out, that these people had left late at night, with a plan to do a night hike. However, in the dim light of the forest, they had  got lost from their originally planned path and ended up finding their way to the laavu (a type of lean-to shelter) at 4 am. There they rested and slept most of the day until we got there, at around 2pm.They later on excused themselves and walked further.

At these campsites the unspoken rule states that one must make room for others as well. If there´s a traveler who wants to spend the night at the laavu they have the right to stay there for that one night but they need to share the fireplace with others.

Around 4 pm,  we started cooking our dinners. The trangia we were using, was very handy, consisting of 2 pots, one bigger, one smaller, one frying pan, the stands (2 pieces), a sieve and a belt to hold it all together. We took some water from the lake and started boiling it. Tonight on the menu was Italian pata (Italian stew) – a ready made meal to which we would add dried soy. My partner who normally does not cook much, enjoyed the cooking seemingly much. Though the cooking water came straight from the lake, the water that we used for drinking was run through a water purification bag. This active carbon filtered water filter was, according to the organizers, a very effective purifier, having used it at lake Laatokka for very green, algae laden water. The filter would be effective in cleaning everything, except viruses. However, Vesa and Minna reminded us that in the northern Finland, it is not necessary to use this filter as the waters are so clean.

I was reminded of why I absolutely love the Finnish nature and why it is the biggest treasure Finns have. The fact that we could scoop our water from the lake and use that for cooking, and seeing the lichen covered trees with naava, luppo and tons of other kinds of lichens growing on the trees, reminded me again of the purity of this environment. Lichens, especially naava and luppo, are excellent indicators of the air´s quality as they only grow in clean air.

After dinner, MInna showed us the usual contents of her backpack. The back that weigh about 17 kilos, was equipped with everything one would need for 24 hours. Indeed, with the same stuff one could go for a longer time as well, as long as they would pack more food. But the basic things from safety to comfort were all included.

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What we learned is that comfort equals discomfort and vice versa. This means, that if you want to camp and sleep comfortably, you will have to suffer for it a bit on the way. However, packing lightly and being comfortable during the hike would mean sleeping uncomfortably or missing some crucial pieces of equipment.

Then it was time  to set up our tents. Minna and Vesa had scoped out the spots were the tents would be best set up. This was also the reason we hiked to this exact location, because we could house that many tents in this spot easily. Plus, some usual spots could not be used as the ground was still wet fro the past days rain.

As we started to set up the tents, we had an introduction to the types of tents that can be found on the market and the kinds of specifics they come with.

We got to sleep in the (green one above) laavu looking tent. This turned out to be a nice tent, easy to set up, though a bit too wide for just the two of us who didn´t have much stuff with us on this trip. It would be better to surround yourself with as many backpacks and things around to keep you from rolling off your mat, which inevitably happened.

After the tents were set up and all our stuff was in, we headed down to the fireplace to just sit around and chill. We exchanged stories, took the opportunity to ask all kinds of questions to the organizers who have extensive experience in hiking in the wilderness.  Minna told us about the culture of exchange and how friendly and helpful people are towards hikers and campers in the wilderness of the north. For example, when the urge for lemonade hits, even multivitamin tablets work as an exchange items, especially if the other person has chocolate or rye bread to spare. This pleasant chatter was enriched by the territorial fight of the three black-throated divers (kaakkuri).

Later on, when the evening started to get dimmer (remember, it doesn’t get dark at night in the Finnish summer), we decided to walk to where we had seen the beaver work grounds.  However, my greed for the blueberries and the mosquitoes that smelled us, distracted us and we never got to the beavers. The two people who left before us to the beavers did get to see 4 of them swimming around in their newly dammed pond!

It was finally time to hit the tent. I had forgotten the most crucial part of my camping equipment: the woolen socks. Luckily Minna has an extra pair (but of course!) which she let me borrow. I slept surprisingly well though the silence kept me up some time. I woke up only as my partner complained about my snoring or when i rolled off from the matras.

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In the morning, I was surprised about how well I had slept. I was also mesmerized about the beauty of the place and the clear blue skies. I felt almost giddy.

In the morning we made breakfast, which consisted of rolled oats which we then pimped with some jam and butter as well as the beautiful blue berries (Vaccinium myrtillus, mustikka) found in the forest and the banana found in my backpack.

After breakfast, doing the dishes and packing up the tents, it was time continue our journey, and start returning back. The trail back was somewhat steeper and as the sun was out, it got warm very fast.  On the way, we could see some beautiful sceneries, lit up by the glorious sunlight.

Around 2 pm we got to our camp site, where we then cooked up our  lunch.

On the menu today was lihaperunasoselaatikko (a kind of stew made of  mashed potatoes, minced meat and vegetables). All the ingredients, besides the mashed potatoes which came in a premade and dried bag, were dried by Minna and Vesa themselves. Impressive! Again, we took water from the lake, removed the little moving insects in it, and started boiling the water on the trangia.  We added the vegetables, the dried minced meat and the spice cube (bouillon). After about 10-15 minutes, we took it off the heat and added the dried  mashed potatoes and a scoop of butter into it. Maybe it was the hunger or my taste buds that had been altered, but this all tasted seriously delicious.

 

We made a coffee from the excess water we had boiled and poured the rest of the water into our dirty dishes to soak.  We enjoyed the last bits of each others´ company, packed up and started heading back to the parking lot where we started.

By 15.00 we were back, as had been announced in the program.

The course did not feel like a course but a trip with friends. Friends who were well prepared. I got excited about taking our kids out to a hike the same summer, but Minna reminded me, that with small children, you will have to carry much more things, plus, most likely, some of the kids will need to be carried as well. Therefore, it´s better to do day trips but leave the overnight camping trips for later when everyone can walk and perhaps even carry some of their own things. But in the meantime, we can get into the mood of real survival by cooking our own food on our day trips with our brand new trangia.