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Finnish forest schools are enhancing children’s health and cognitive growth by prioritizing outdoor learning, fostering resilience, and a profound connection with nature.

In the heart of Helsinki, a unique educational approach is transforming the way children learn and interact with their environment. At Hopealaakso nursery, a group of three to five-year-olds, known as the Samoojat, spend their days immersed in the forest, engaging in a form of learning that is as old as humanity itself yet innovative in today's digital age.

Juho Pietarila, a parent whose son attends the forest group, has witnessed a remarkable change in his child's behavior. The once tantrum-prone Kauko now eagerly anticipates his outdoor adventures, a testament to the positive impact of this nature-based education.

The Samoojat children, clad in weather-appropriate gear, spend up to seven hours a day outdoors, regardless of the season. They trek to their base camp, engage in free play, and even nap in tents, embodying a lifestyle that many urban dwellers might find extraordinary. This Scandinavian-style forest school is not an isolated phenomenon; it's part of a growing global trend that values outdoor learning for its myriad benefits.

Research has consistently highlighted the advantages of spending time in nature, from reducing obesity and enhancing mental well-being to fostering environmental stewardship. Annina Kuusisto, a professor at the University of Helsinki, notes that children who engage with nature develop a sense of responsibility toward their local spaces, which translates into proactive behavior in protecting the environment and combating climate change.

The daily routine at the forest school is a blend of structured activities and ample free play, allowing children to explore, create, and learn autonomously. They build, forage, and observe, guided by teachers who ensure safety while encouraging independence. This balance of freedom and guidance has led to children who are not only physically robust but also psychologically resilient.

Forest schools are rising in popularity around the globe. But they're not within easy reach for everyone: according to the World Bank, 56% of the world's population now lives in densely populated urban areas. Still, experts say children growing up in cities are not necessarily excluded from the benefits of outdoor education.

A Finnish study has provided scientific backing to the anecdotal evidence of forest schools' benefits. It found that children playing in natural settings had increased microbial diversity on their skin and in their guts, a healthier immune system, and a higher number of T cells, crucial for immune response. These findings support the hypothesis that contact with nature can prevent immune system disorders such as allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Samuli Rabinowitsch, a nursery teacher, observes that his students are seldom ill, attributing their resilience to the constant interaction with the diverse microbes found in forest soil. This interaction is not limited to rural settings; urban nurseries that incorporate natural elements also see benefits, suggesting that even children in concrete jungles can reap the rewards of outdoor education.

The forest school experience goes beyond physical health. According to the BBC, it instills in children a profound connection with nature, equipping them with the skills and attitudes necessary to navigate and protect their world. As they grow, these children carry with them not just memories of play and discovery but also a foundational respect for the environment that will inform their future actions.

The Hopealaakso nursery's approach, while seemingly unconventional, is deeply rooted in a philosophy that recognizes the intrinsic value of nature in child development. It challenges the status quo of indoor, technology-focused education, offering a compelling alternative that may well shape the future of learning. As these children of the forest grow, they carry with them the lessons of the land, a legacy that promises a greener, more sustainable future.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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