Over the last few years, awareness regarding the importance of play and its contributions to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children has been steadily increasing.
With that in mind, Chloe Khor founded Little Urban Forest, the first play-based, place-based preschool for children aged 2- 6 in Kuala Lumpur. Little Urban Forest incorporates the forest school pedagogy hailing from Scandinavia, promoting the holistic development and fostering of resilient, confident and creative individuals.
We interviewed Chloe to get to know more about Little Urban Forest and how it sets itself apart from traditional preschools.
What are some of the main objections you’ve heard from parents when it comes to playing outside, and how do you see it as beneficial instead to a child’s education?
Some of the objections I’ve heard the most are:
“The children are constantly playing. It doesn’t look like they’re learning much.”
“You don’t have a strong curriculum to prepare my child for primary school.”
“They won’t adapt to structured lessons in primary school.”
Most parents’ definition of a strong curriculum is academics and preparing children for that as young as possible. It’s a general conception that when parents pay so much for school, their child has to constantly engage in well-planned and structured activity.
While these are genuine concerns, we should bear in mind that children don’t learn like adults. They learn through hands-on experimentation, which is play.
Having a structured, half-hourly planned outdoor activity usually does not provide children enough opportunity to explore, be creative, and socialise with friends. They will constantly be told what to do and they have a lesser chance to think for themselves.
As for the children’s mental adaptation to formal schooling, they may take some time to adjust in the initial stages, but will eventually adapt.
Similarly, adults take time to adjust to a new environment as well. We need to see children as capable human beings, rather than helpless beings who constantly need supervision. There’s no need to start adaptation at 3 years old.
What interesting facts do you wish parents knew about the importance of being outdoors and connecting with nature?
Children are born with an inherent love for nature.
From my experience, when we take away their opportunity to spend time in nature and make them focus more on academics and preparations for formal school, they’ll gradually become detached from nature and begin to fear many natural things such as rain, heat, cold, as well as certain animals and plants. The child may eventually distance themselves from nature, choosing instead to focus on the urban and digital aspects of life, getting tired easily from a short walk, losing interest in living beings, and potentially taking the resources provided by nature for granted.
What inspired you to found Little Urban Forest?
I used to manage a preschool located in a commercial building where fresh air and outdoor space were a limitation. The children were constantly falling ill and were easily agitated in a confined classroom. I had a theory that it was due to the lack of outdoor exposure.
Based on my experience as an educator, I’ve come to notice that children cannot sit down in a classroom for prolonged hours and listen attentively to the teachers, unlike adults. Most children have this energy inside of them which they need to release.
In looking for an outdoor curriculum to overcome this issue, I came across the Forest School. My first forest school experience was when I attended courses at Green School Bali, where all their classrooms had no walls. The environment brought about a very relaxing and stress-free feeling. The students’ ideas weren’t confined to a box - the sky was their limit.
My experience with forest schools was further enhanced when I did a placement in 3 Danish Forest Schools, where the forest school pedagogy originated from. I was able to see first-hand what forest school children were like. These children were more outgoing, outspoken, confident, and happy compared to conventional school children.
After witnessing that, I was sold on the idea of forest schools, becoming more eager and confident to start my own.
Tell us more about the forest school pedagogy and how you are adapting it to fit the Malaysian education landscape.
Basically, a forest school is where children spend the majority of their time learning in a natural, outdoor environment on a regular basis. The aim is to connect children with nature, discover the circle of life, understand the ecosystem and how we can live harmoniously with nature.
Children are engaged in play-based, place-based and experiential learning approaches. Forest schools encourage children to take age-appropriate risks when playing outdoors or in the forest, such as tree and rock climbing, building dens and forts with sticks, branches and rocks. Instead of child-proofing the forest, we educate children to identify risks and how to manage them.
Forest schools develop children who are not only academically-inclined, but also more ready to learn. We don’t build robots who merely follow their teacher's instructions. In fact, forest school children are more prone to asking questions and discovering answers by themselves.
Forest school children perceive learning as an exciting activity, while conventional preschool children may perceive it as an uninteresting task. Children of forest schools are also constantly exposed to problem solving themselves rather than relying on adults to provide answers.
In other words, a forest school education prepares children mentally, physically and socially for formal school, rather than just academically.
How do the forest school teachings better prepare children for the future?
The forest school approach aims to build children’s love and appreciation for nature. We do so by exposing young children to nature to develop their relationships with the trees, animals, plants, soil and people around them.
When they grow up, they are more likely to advocate for the conservation of forests and nature, as well as become more conscious of the impacts of their decisions towards the environment.
How is nature included in Little Urban Forest’s curriculum?
By being outdoors all the time! We also have monthly themes that are based on permaculture education, where children learn about soil, sun, plants, animals, water, air and growing our own food.
Our curriculum also involves bringing children to the forest on a weekly basis to expose them to wild plants, bugs, soil and discover how the ecosystem works. We aim to increase the frequency to twice a week next year!
What benefits can parents observe if they enrol their child at Little Urban Forest?
The most notable benefit of being outdoors all the time at Little Urban Forest is the enhancement of the children’s immune system. Children are constantly active - running, climbing, digging, balancing, crawling, you name it.
As a play-based school, children are given ample opportunity to discover, experiment, explore and understand the world around them, without constantly being fed information by the educators. Our educators’ role is to facilitate, as well as observe children’s learning.
The teachers get messy, dirty and play with the children to encourage their love for nature and the outdoors. Sometimes, we also step back and observe when they are playing, being careful not to intervene too quickly by telling them what’s right and what’s wrong, when a child’s learning is taking place on its own.
When children are given the freedom to play or choose their own activity, they learn how to problem solve by themselves, rather than relying on the educator.
Outdoor learning also improves children’s concentration and attention span. Forest school children are more in touch with real-time through observing nature’s processes, for example, understanding that it takes 1 month for some vegetables to grow, instead of growing overnight.
As for academics, we only introduce it when children turn 5 years old, with the reason being that children’s brains are more developed and ready to accept formal language and number lessons then. They are also better at regulating their emotions to concentrate during lessons when they are older. It is enough time to prepare them for primary school because they learn more readily.
Little Urban Forest works to build a resilient child – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
What’s more, children are always happy to come to school!
What does Little Urban Forest’s partnership with Universiti Malaya (UM) involve?
The primary purpose of this collaboration is to empower Little Urban Forest in fostering our mission to promote ‘Education for Sustainability and Environmental Awareness’ in the early childhood sector. As part of our MoU with UM, we collaborate in promoting awareness in sustainability through education. This partnership also allows LUF to utilise the facilities in UM, such as Rimba Ilmu, where we’ll be bringing children on a weekly basis to experience a natural forest setting within the city. Additionally, UM sustainability team advocates LUF, our parents and children on sustainability practices.
What are some little tips parents could do to spend more time outside with their children?
Go to a natural environment on a regular basis, be it a park, forest, playground, zoo. When you’re outside, observe nature with your child and talk to them about it. Follow the trail of ants and see where it leads to. What can you see on the tree? Can you spot any spider webs, bird nests or fruits on the tree? Why are the leaves turning yellow? How did this tree fall?
What is your vision for Little Urban Forest in the future?
My vision for LUF is to build a community of teachers, parents and children who are appreciative of nature and understand the benefits of learning in the great outdoors. I also envision to build an environment that encourages collaborations with other preschool operators, sustainability organisations and other related industries, not as competitors but as fellow educators who want to give children the best start in life and in advocating sustainability.
Thank you, Chloe for taking the time to talk with us! If you want to learn more about Little Urban Forest check out their website: https://www.littleurbanforest.com or call +603 7971 4466 for more information.