Forest schools catching on in Japan

The natural park in Yokohama where my daughter and her schoolmates had their "forest adventures"
The natural park in Yokohama where my daughter and her schoolmates had their “forest adventures”

My daughter attended a yochien(kindergarten) that offered forest education without having advertised it as one. The school was built on a mountain slope and everyday the children spent at least an hour in “forest adventures”(mori no tanken”, climbing slopes and trees, collecting all manner of bugs. Across from the school is situated about an acre of a satoyama landscape, with marshland, a lovely pond, a spring and stream around which the kids could catch crayfish and bullfrogs. The park is beautiful in all four seasons. My daughter and the other yochien children spent many happy hours there in nature lessons, learning the names of trees, observing insects and the changing seasonal landscape, mostly in natural conversation with the teachers. Bentos were eaten picnic style several times each season in the park under open skies or under the glorious trees of blooming sakura cherry blossoms or the shade of keyaki trees. My children came home often with pillbugs or acorns in their smock pockets (kindy kids often wear smocks for outdoor play). Playing daily in all sorts of weather conditions and in such beautiful natural landscape helped them develop Japanese sensibilities and love for the familiar satoyama landscape, while toughening them up with the scraped knees (or cuts and bruises) they invariably got from time to time from all the tree-climbing and crawling over pond edges to collect or examine plant/bug specimens.

Every time I pull into the train station of a different town or city, I look out for school signboards, and more often than not…tucked into some corner…there is at least one kindergarten (yochien or hoikuen) that is named Mori-no-ie or Mori-no-youchien (Forest Kindergarten). Although not every kindergarten so named, is a kindergarten offering true Forest School education, the forest school philosophy has taken root earlier than in the UK or US and is growing, according to scholars and observers. This award-winning NHK TV documentary feature called In the Heart of Nature: The Forest Kindergarten spotlights kindergartens such as the Marutanbo in Shimane prefecture and others, without walls or ceilings that epitomize the forest education, click on this link to watch.


Ute Schulte-Ostermann, president of the German Federation of Nature and Forest Kindergartens (BVNW), reported on the Japanese situation after returning from a tour of Japan, among other countries, “Schulte-Ostermann says she thinks the US and the UK’s obsession with health and safety and regulations may have slowed adoption of the idea, but points out that forest kindergartens have proved very popular in Japan, which is also known for its red tape bureaucracy.

“Our biggest achievement was to set it (Waldkindergartens) up in Japan, where education is so regulated,” she says in the staff room of the inner city Berlin school used for the conference. “We have helped them take it out of the authorities’ hands and give education back to the people.”

An Escape from Strict Rules

Hiroe Kido, a Japanese student writing her postdoctoral thesis on the forest kindergarten movement, says there are more than 100 Japanese Waldkindergartens following the German model — a number that is expected to double by next year. “They are very, very popular in Japan because they are an escape from the strict rules in Japanese society,” she says. “Some parents are worried that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate with nature, so they really like waldkindergartens.”

Kido says nearly all Japanese waldkindergartens are oversubscribed despite parents being forced to cover all the costs. In Germany, however, waldkindergartens are subsidized at the same level as traditional kindergartens, meaning parents pay no more than €80 ($108) a month to place their kids at Die Kleinen Pankgrafen.

Japanese demand for places spiked even higher following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. “Fukushima made the Japanese think again about our lives, and realize that we need to get back to nature more,” she says. “Life is very extreme sometimes in Japan.”

Schulte-Ostermann, who has just returned from a tour of Japan and South Korea, says that if Japanese people can realize the need for nature in children’s lives then she might be one step nearer to her rather ambitious goal of turning all of the world’s indoor kindergartens into waldkindergartens.” — Source: Campfire Kids: Going back to nature with forest kindergartens, Spiegel Online

What are forest schools and what is the benefits of a forest school?

Geoffrey Guy’s “Forest Schools Essay” traces the beginning of the concept and schools to a Scandinavian origin, specifically to the Norwegian “Friluftsliv” fresh air living concept.

Forest school refers to “a philosophy in which students work outside regularly in an outdoor natural space over a long period of time (often a year) to build confidence and creativity. Drawing on nineteenth century European pedagogical theories on the importance of outdoor learning, and more recently on Scandinavian principles of open-air, play-based education, the ethos has grown in popularity in the UK over the past two decades in parallel to growing concerns over “cotton wool kids” overly protected from risks and rarely exposed to nature.”

Schulte-Ostermann says the outdoor and nature risks are outweighed by the “massive” mental and physical benefits of playing outside. “Children who have attended a Waldkindergarten have a much deeper understanding of the world around them, and evidence shows they are often much more confident and outgoing when they reach school.”

Although originally a concept learnt from Germany, Japan is increasingly adopting the Skogsmulle forest school concept from Sweden, with over 2000 Skogsmulle leaders and over a hundred courses having been conducted in Japan (Source: Swedish Forest Schools by Juliet Robertson)

Forest schools helps students develop confidence and creativity by teaching practical, outdoor skills – and teachers don’t necessarily need a woodland on their doorstep to incorporate the ideas.

The Swedish Forest Schools report elucidates the benefits of the Skogsmulle or Mulle forest education as practised in Sweden:

“Shimizu, M. et al (2002) investigated the contribution of “Skogsmulle” activities to the formation of environmental awareness and environmental literacy in Ichijima, a Japanese town. They found that children who had experienced Mulle activity within the town acquired better environmental awareness and literacy and participated more positively in community activity.
From this they suggest that nature-based activities are useful particularly at the pre- school age for environmental learning.

Grahn et al (1997) studied children’s behaviour (how they play, how often they are outside, their play routines, etc.), development of motor function and powers of concentration during the course of a year at two day nurseries, one an I Ur och Skur and the other a traditional nursery in new, spacious premises. This is a summary of their findings:

At the I Ur och Skur nursery:
• The sickness absence difference between the nurseries was over 5%. This was consistent and uniform throughout the year with the I Ur och Skur having the higher attendance rate.
• The children from the I Ur och Skur nursery had better concentration. This was verified statistically.
• The I Ur och Skur children had better motor function. To climb and play on uneven ground or to play only on flat ground without trees appears to have a pronounced influence on children.
• The I Ur och Skur children played more imaginatively. The games were more varied. The games had a beginning and end which the children themselves decided upon in most cases. Because objects could be left outside the games were able
to continue for more than one day.”

With many kids today ensconced at home glued to their Nintendos, gameboys, iPhones, iPads and not just the TV sets of yesteryear, more nature-oriented kindergarten and nursery school programmes are needed in Japan to counter the toxic urban lifestyles that parents are allowing their children to adopt.

Find out How can teachers introduce forest school principles to their curriculum? By Lucy Ward

Some schools in Japan that embody the forest education philosophy

Jiyu no mori Gakuen / Freedom Forest School – there is both a Junior High and a High School under their administration. Since 1985

Komazawa Park International Forest Kindergarten

Jiyunomori Gakuen

Related links:

Japanese preschoolers experience Swedish-style eco-friendly outdoor nature program

Environmental and conservation education in Japan

Doctors visit a forest and nature kindergarten in Denslingen

Nature programmes and mountain village education(sanson-ryugaku)

Other resources on forest education

International Perspectives on Forest School: Natural Spaces to Play and Learn
edited by Sara Knight – this book reviews the history of forest education in the UK, based on the Danish model.

Forest Kindergarten/Waldkindergarten on Pinterest

Wholeland: nature connection & creative outdoor learning for businesses, families, groups and schools

In Sheffield, in the UK, you can obtain certification for forest education training


7 thoughts on “Forest schools catching on in Japan”

  1. Hi, Im trying to find a forest Kindergarten to visit in Japan. I am a qualified teacher working in a Kindergarten in New Zealand. Can anyone help me contact Ute Schulte-Ostermann, president of the German Federation of Nature and Forest Kindergartens (BVNW) please as I think she may be able to recommend a good place to visit?

  2. Hi there, I stumbled upon your articles and I found it very useful. May I inquire a bit? Do you have any information related to Hiroe Kido (school/university/department)? Thanks very much

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