Challenges Education by Moving “Backwards”

Preparing children for independence and success does not always happen within the four walls of an educational institution. For Sharon ‘Shawi’ Cortez, the founder of Forest School Philippines, nature plays a huge part in raising confident and resilient kids.

Being a parent means feeling perpetually worried for your children. Is my child ready to go off on their own? Are schools teaching them the skills they need in the real world? Even after they grow up and pave their own roads, these thoughts never really go away.

Shawi recognized these problems and realized that it can be solved through two things: nature and play. Thus, the idea for a forest school bloomed in her mind.

Play-based education through nature exposure

As a co-parent of her nieces and nephew, Shawi saw how babying children resulted in a lack of confidence and independence. “The world was given to her and she almost did not lift a finger. The problem with that is that she became too dependent on other people to do things for her.”

She also saw how providing children with gadgets at a young age proved to be detrimental to their communication skills. However, taking away screen time can be challenging, since technology is ubiquitous in our daily lives. So when she saw a post on social media about a forest kindergarten, her heart skipped a beat.

“[I] knew that this was something I want to pursue and bring to the Philippines,” Shawi shares.

A forest school is an outdoor educational model where students are encouraged to learn personal, social, and technical skills through play. Children will spend the entire time in the woodlands together with their friends and the forest school leader. Although there are no formal classes like in traditional classroom settings, the environment can be used to teach math, science, communication, and other concepts.

The forest is the perfect setting for holistic development where children are developed in several areas. It helps them become physically fit, master motor skills, and strengthen their bodies. Playing outside with their peers encourages creative thinking, complex problem-solving, and effective communication. It also helps them channel their emotions, form new friendships, and develop an awareness for life.

Raising independent and responsible kids

The forest school is open for everyone, but Shawi says that her ideal clients are parents who are open to non-traditional educational approaches.

“They dream about raising kids who can speak up and think for themselves. [They also dream of] having kids who know what they want, yet are grounded in their values.”

The Forest School is different from traditional educational institutions in a way that it is based on child-led unstructured play. Shawi believes that a lot of like skills are learned through play. Instead of protecting them from the risks of playing outdoors, exposing them to risks will actually help them discover their inner capabilities. 

It’s not an easy job, but the small successes of the kids enrolled in her school are what keeps her grinding. She has had students who were extremely dependent and sheltered transform into active, self-reliant kids.

She shares how Sab, one of her students, learned how to take care of herself:

“Sab was getting dressed after swimming by the waterfalls. She took out her change of clothes and handed them to me. I asked what help she needed, and she said she has never tried putting on her clothes. I gave back the shirt to her and asked her to try it herself. It took a while, and she wore the backside in front, but she still did it! Her face was beaming with pride.

“Clients hire me because they know I have their child’s best interest in mind. They know that I give their children tough love to achieve the confidence and resilience we want for their kids,” she says.

Envisioning The Forest School’s future

The Philippines only has four existing forest schools as of today, including Shawi’s. Three of them are offered in Zambales, UP Diliman, and Las Piñas-Parañaque. Shawi wants to promote the awareness of paid forest school since it is not widely practised in the country.

Aside from training as a forest school leader level 3, Shawi is leveraging all of her resources to grow her venture. She is actively building her social media presence, joining Facebook groups to reach out to parents, and is welcome for collaborations.

She is also looking into adding more courses to The Forest School. As of today, the only activity she caters to is the weekly forest school sessions at ₱750/session and ₱3,000 for 6 sessions–including Nature Walk with parents, starting on October 1. This is especially for those with kids below 8years old. In the near future, there will be forest school leader training and private nature walks offered by the school.

Shawi is positive that the concept of forest schools will become more popular and well-received in the country. The current educational system is insufficient to prepare children for the ever-changing times, and forest schools boost a child’s potential through becoming one with nature.

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