About the Author

Peter Bentsen is a Senior Researcher at Steno Health Promotion Center, Steno Diabetes Center A/S and the science center Experimentarium. Previously, he worked as a researcher and lecturer at University of Copenhagen (UCPH) for 12 years. Today, Peter works to advance education outside the classroom, pedagogical work in nature, health promotion, and informal learning environments. Peter holds a PhD in education and landscape space management from UCPH. In 2011, Peter received the Danish Outdoor Teaching Award. E-mail: pebt@steno.dk

UDESKOLE IN SCANDINAVIA: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places

It is August. It is first day of school and the sun is shining. The new pupils are curious and excited; their parents likewise. The school and the classrooms are decorated. The head teacher wears a suit and a tie, and the new pupils have new clothes, new school bag, combed hair, stars in their eyes, and great expectations. Nine years later, most of these expectations and stars are extinct.

It is not unusual to hear stories about pupils being tired of school and disengaged in school learning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that as early as primary school there are pupils who lose the urge to learn, and that approximately one third of these students have lost the desire to go to school at the end of secondary school. This lack of motivation may be due to the way school teaching and learning is organized in our society.

An outdoor school near Copenhagen.

Scholars have pointed towards a number of inherent problems in the structure and organization of ‘modern’ education. Historically, the ‘mainstream’ curriculum has focused on the classroom, the book, the teacher, and the timetable. Perhaps, we are left with a school system that is a relic of an industrial society?

If policy-makers, headmaster, teachers, parents, and society at large wish to increase pupil’s motivation to go to school, to learn and to continue with higher education, then a change in learning environment and teaching methods could be a way forward.

Udeskole: Education outside the classroom in a Scandinavian context

The Scandinavian concept of udeskole (meaning “outdoor school”) has been described in a Norwegian context by Jordet, in a Swedish context by Dahlgren and Szczepanski and in a Danish context by Mygind. Udeskole targets children aged 7-16, and is characterized by compulsory educational activities outside of school on a regular basis, e.g. one day weekly or fortnightly.

Udeskole can take place in both natural and cultural settings, i.e. forests, parks, local communities, factories, farms, galleries, theaters etc. Teachers may draw on history and development of the local community to create a closer link between schools, community and local places.

A Danish geography teacher, for example, lets pupils take photos of different places in the local city: the parks, the castle etc. Subsequently, they work with local history and origins of names of places. Other specific examples include visits to local museums, cemetery or library.

Udeskole, however, has mainly been practised in green space to date. One example of teaching in natural places is Røsnæs School, which has a row of “green bases” in the local community, within walking distance. One of them is on private land, some on the school grounds and others on public land. Here, the pupils can identify plants and animals living a specific place.

Udeskole activities are characterised by making use of the local environment when teaching specific subjects and curriculum areas by, for example, measuring and calculating the volume of trees in mathematics, writing poems in and about nature when teaching languages or visiting historically significant places or buildings in history education.

Teaching and learning activities are often cross-disciplinary. Thus, the approach is often to work with an academic subject matter or concept in its real, concrete form to facilitate learning and understanding. Schools and teachers often argue for the potential of pupils’ getting to know their neighborhood and visiting nature as an aspect of everyday life. Visiting and knowing their local environment can help them develop a sense of community; recognize and understand neighborhoods; and build a relationship with their own place and with local people.

Another example of udeskole practice is the teaching mathematics in the school yard with a focus on body and movement. A Norwegian math educator has developed a series of teaching activities where children’s play and movement cultures are integrated with mathematics education. The pupils jump, run relays and use gestures. Pupils in a circle throw a ball while they say numbers in order to practice the time tables or jump math problems in hopscotch.

When practicing udeskole, teachers often encourage pupils work together in large or small groups. At several schools, pupils work together in groups and carry out specific practical task, such as build a table, light a campfire or cook lunch. Every autumn, a Danish teacher from Kalundborg conducts a course in mathematics and home economics; students in collaboration make their own jam of collected blackberries and use a homemade scale to follow a recipe.

Research on udeskole — and the future of outdoor teaching and learning

Emerging Scandinavian research on outdoor learning in school contexts have generally shown positive  benefits. Research in Norway has documented the learning potential of udeskole. The influential case study-based ‘Rødkilde Project’ from Denmark found a significantly higher level of physical activity among pupils during outdoor learning in natural settings compared to a “normal” school day, and a Norwegian case study reached the same conclusion through an analysis of physical activity by heart rate monitors in a sixth-grade class.

In a Danish case study, the pupils expressed a significantly higher level of well-being, improved social relations and joy while being taught in the outdoors compared to classroom teaching. A Swedish study documented a stress-reducing effect on teachers using the outdoor environment for teaching.

Some might argue that my initial picture is a caricature or distorted version of the schools of today. But historically, and probably also in much of existing education, the school has focused on the classroom (as a generic learning space), texts (as transferable knowledge) and the teacher (as the knower) in a carefully planned school schedule (as sequences of selected and important knowledge), in a school system that has ignored places, people and activities.

If educators, teachers, school principals, researchers, and parents do not address some of these problems and change the school and institutionalized learning, there are definitely others who will. One way, among others, to address these problems could be through teaching and learning in natural places. In the future, it will be important to explore and answer questions such as: how is it possible to include external learning environments as natural spaces within the conditions that exist in schools and institutions.

______________________

Selected references and links about udeskole

Bentsen, P., Mygind, E. & Randrup, T.B. (2009). Towards an understanding of udeskole: education outside the classroom in a Danish context. Education 3-13, 37(1), 29-44.

Bentsen, P., Jensen, F.S., Mygind. E. & Randrup, T.B. (2010). The extent and dissemination of udeskole in Danish schools. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 9(3), 235-243.

Bentsen, P. & Jensen, F.S. (2012). The nature of udeskole: theory and practice in Danish schools. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 12(3), 199-219.

Jordet, A.N. (2008). Outdoor schooling in Norway – research and experiences. Conference proceedings, Healthier, Wiser and Happier Children. Outdoor Education – learning with mind, heart and body. Conference at Branbjerg University College, Jelling, 24th-25th January, 2008.

Mygind, E. (2007). A comparison between children’s physical activity levels at school and learning in an outdoor environment. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 7(2), 161-176.

Mygind, E. (2009). A comparison of children’s statements about social relations and teaching in the classroom and in the outdoor environment. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 9(2), 151-169.

More about udeskole in Denmark

Photos: R.L. 

 

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  1. Great inspiring post Peter. yes, it begins with the doom and gloom but change is happening!!! I love the idea of mathematics and home economics; students in collaboration make their own jam of collected blackberries and use a homemade scale to follow a recipe……how deliciously wonderful!!!!!
    This is the reason I run my nature art classes all outdoors and why I am passionate about taking nature art into elementary schools and getting the children outdoors. Both nature and art can easily be infused into other subjects in the curriculum. There is no more formative age for instilling a deep love for the natural world than childhood. Whats really exciting is the “early educators” too, are seeing the huge benefits of spending more time outdoors with their class. Although changes are slow, the nature movement is gaining momentum and the more we share, learn and take action….the more brighter the future looks.
    http://youtu.be/xBVZvjFEtT0

  2. Kari says:

    Hi Peter !
    So great to hear more Scandinavian voices in writing in English about what you are doing in Scandinavia especially when it comes to education. I’m a Norwegian living in Canada inspiring parents and educators to take kids outside. I also spend some time in Norway last year and my daughter did go to Norway school. It was nice to see all the great programs they have but I discovered that all the free play in n.hoods was not the same as when I was a kids and discovered a lot of overweight children there as well.

    http://www.activekidsclub.com/fresh-air-living/feature/norway-the-daycare-generation-but-it-is-outdoors.html

  3. Deb Tashoff says:

    my children are disengaged with school and I have become increasingly frustrated by the situation, Your article brings to light so many good things that can be happening in education…but here in the US they are so focused on testing, children and staff are sedentary…I want for my children what I just read about in your article…outdoor classrooms and less stress.

  4. this is so inspiring. It’s how every school day should begin and even in adverse weather conditions lots of things are still possible to do outside if wearing the correct clothing.
    Most schools blow the whistle on the slightest drop of rain and keep the kids indoors for break times. What message are they delivering to the kids?
    They are important questions to explore. How do we incorporate the external environment into school learning? Every single day and not just once a week with small groups. That’s still detachment from reality.

  5. Violeta Vrcelj Odry says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thank you for your text. My name is Violeta and I am a pedagogue (an educator) in kindergarten, in Subotica, northern Serbia. I have 15 years of working experience but recently I have realized and revealed my mission in education of kindergarten teachers, young learners and their parents. It is – to advance education outside the classroom/walls/fences. I beleive that nature and forest can teach us how to improve our life in urban environment. Last week, I spent three days in the forest with 8 teachers and 4 groups of children. It was wonderful experience. We decided to repeat it once a week. I started to search for experinces/programs/projects which exist all around us. Could you give me an advise where to begin?
    Best wishes
    Violeta

  6. Peter Bentsen says:

    Dear Violeta,

    Thank you for your comment to my post. I appreciate it, and I am glad that you have found your mission within education. If you want to know more about Scandinavian (and some German and Anglo-Saxon) approaches to (outdoor) education in kindergarten, you might want to have a look at the references below. Feel free to contact me for more references, links and articles.

    Good luck with your important work.

    All the best,

    Peter

    Bickel, K. (2001): Der Waldkindergarten. Germany: Norden Medie

    Borge, A. I. H., Nordhagen, R. & Lie, K.K. (2003). Children in the environment: Forrest day care centers – Modern day-care with historical antecedent. History of the family Vol 8, issue 4, Page 605-618.

    Fjørtoft, I ( 2000): Landscape as playscape – learning effects from playing in a natural environment on motor development in children. Doctoral dissertation. Oslo: Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education.

    Fjørtoft, I. (2004): Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural Environments on Children’s Play and Motor Development. Children, Youth and Environments 14(2), 2004.

    Häfner, P. (2002): Natur- und Waldkindergärten in Deutschland – eine Alternative zum Regelkindergarten in der vorschulischen Erziehung. PhD Thesis, Heidelberg University.

    Knight, S. (2009): Forest Schools and outdoor Learning in the early years. London: SAGE Publications Inc.

    Muñoz, S. A. (2009). Children in the outdoors: a literature review. Sustainable Development Research Centre. http://www.countrysiderecreation.org.uk/Children%20Outdoors.pdf (1/4 2010)

    O’Brien, L., Burls, A., Bentsen, P., Himo, I., Holter, K., Haberling, D., Pirnat, J., Sarv, M., Vilbaste, K. & McLoughlin, J. (2011). Outdoor education, life long learning and skills development in woodlands and green spaces: the potential links to health and well-being. In: Nilsson, K., Sangster, M., Gallis, C., Hartig, T., de Vries, S., Seeland, K. & Schipperijn, J. (Eds.). Forests, trees and human health. Springer, 343-372.

    Tobin, J., Wu, D, Y, H., Davidson, D. (1989): Preschool in three cultures: Japan, China and United States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Waite, S. (red) (2011): Learning outside the classroom: from birth to eleven. London: Sage

  7. Ina says:

    Hi Peter,
    It was very inspiring to read your article. My family will be spending 6 months in Copenhagen soon and I am wondering if you know of any forest kindergartens in the Copenhagen area that I could visit?
    I would very much appreciate your response,
    Ina

  8. Peter Bentsen says:

    Dear Ina,

    Thank you very much for your post. I appreciate it.

    You are more than welcome to contact me if/when you come to Copenhagen.

    Please, send me a personal e-mail (you can see my e-mail above my guest blog) with some information about time and place, and I will try to help you.

    Take care.

    All the best,
    Peter

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