Nature offers the tailor-made space for learning


The children should design classrooms themselves. Unfinished classrooms promote the pioneering spirit and creative power of children, with the understanding that the world is not there for them to create and renew, but that it is the world of children that needs to be renewed.

We read an article about a German school that has a “marketplace” in its school building instead of a schoolyard and “learning studios” in classrooms where students are only allowed to whisper. The building is furnished with comfortable furniture in purple, blue, yellow and green and light wood. On the bright market place there are colourful sofas, cushions and bar tables. Many things are different at this school. Visually, acoustically, hectically, tension and restlessness are not noticeable. A self-created “room philosophy” with new room ideas, for which they even received the German School Award in June 2019.

NatureFlow: After reading the article, I got the idea why the school didn’t found green classrooms in nature right away, because all aspects nature offers us were interpreted into this new spatial philosophy. Now I know that in Copenhagen you are the founder of one of the first forest schools in Denmark. What do you think about this concept?

Karen MacLean: I always think it is great when learning spaces are created with good materials and a clear aesthetic in mind; who could be against that? Who doesn’t want indoor spaces to be calmer, quieter and better to work and play in?

NatureFlow: Do you think beautiful interiors are enough as study rooms?

“We still need outdoor learning spaces…”

Karen MacLean: But no matter how lovely the indoor spaces are, we still need outdoor learning spaces. Outdoor learning spaces offer us everything that indoors provides, and a lot of things that the indoors does not offer, and that’s regardless how well-designed and –maintained these indoor spaces are.

NatureFlow: How do indoor spaces influence children in their learning?

Karen MacLean: I’d say first off, that outdoor spaces offer a freedom from the “messaging” of the indoors. From the very first we are taught to heed the cues of the indoor spaces and their organization. How many times have I told my toddler standing on her chair that the chair is for sitting and the floor is for standing? The indoors is full of messages and cues that tell us what to do and how to behave,

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what behavior is approved and what behavior is frowned on, and these cues and messages not only affect what we do and how we do it, they also affect how we think and what we think.These messages constitute

“…they also affect how we think and what we think”

the hidden learning of indoor schooling and in the day-to-day, they limit what children can learn and how they can learn it. In reality, in terms of learning, indoor spaces that are designed specifically for learning are of limited use.

NatureFlow: What consequences does this have for the development of children and their role as adults?

Karen MacLean: One of the hidden messages of these kinds of schools is their finishedness – their very designed-ness. It gives the children the erroneous impression that the world is finished and perfected. The vast majority of children will assume that the adults – who are all-powerful and good – have made determinations about the best way to do things and have settled on the best classroom, the best space, the best procedures. This is not a conscious

It gives the children the erroneous impression that the world is finished and perfected”

understanding, but it is very, very noxious. It is profoundly disempowering for children in the short term – after all, what can they contribute to a world that is ‘done’, in which they have no productive role? And even more disempowering in the long term, for they grow up expecting implicitly to achieve this expertise for themselves, and when they do not, they will either be ashamed or disappointed or both.

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NatureFlow: How do you think rooms should be created in schools for children?

Karen MacLean: If and when learning takes place indoors, let the spaces be unfinished and in progress, let the older children redesign their classrooms, let there be lots of building and an ongoing

If and when learning takes place indoors, let the spaces be unfinished and in progress

pioneer spirit, so that children can learn to own these spaces and go on to own other spaces in life, with the understanding not only that the world is there for them to make and remake, but also that it is THEIRS to remake.

NatureFlow: In your opinion, what difference does it make whether children learn in natural spaces or in a perfectly furnished interior?

Karen MacLean: Learning in its essence is messy business, make no mistake; exploring, experimenting, taking apart the world (physical and virtual, things and rules and expectations and norms) and putting it back together again – it takes time and it makes a mess!

“…it takes time and it makes a mess!”

If children are learning neatly and nicely, cleanly and efficiently – and if there is an imperative to live up to beautiful and clean designer facilities – then that learning is of limited value. Then it is too passive – that is, it doesn’t reach the whole child and activate her –it is not firm enough to build on, and thus short-term.

NatureFlow: Instead, what does nature offer as a learning space?

Karen MacLean: The outdoors offers us a wealth of different kinds of spaces for different kinds of activities, different kinds of learning, different kinds of thinking, or knowledge production. The foremost of these spaces is of course nature. Nature offers the tailor-made space for learning

“Nature offers the tailor-made space for learning”

All those spaces that you mention in the German school can exist in nature. With the added pedagogical advantage of the children creating them and inhabiting them in a much more embodied and sensory way. In real nature settings children can have sensory experiences, observe, explore and build and take apart. There is so much in nature to explore that one is never done!

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NatureFlow: What is your conclusion about these architectural design learning spaces from the article?

Karen MacLean: Moreover, these kinds of spaces exist in society – all around schools. Outdoors, but also indoors in libraries, shared workspaces, businesses. And it is a learning experience for children to visit and use these spaces, to see how the adults use them and adapt them to their own use. Instead of walling children off in these

Moreover, these kinds of spaces exist in society – all around schools.

expensive for-children-only in which children have no role to play, have them visit the world and be a part of the world. That doesn’t mean that they should not have a home base somewhere – a hut in the forest, or even a more traditional learning space. They just need to spend as much time as possible away from it.

Karen MacLean, Ambassador of the Children of Nature, is part of the movement “Children of Nature Worldwide Hand in Hand” of the International Day of the Forest Kindergarten and #FKIFF (Forest Kindergarten International for Future). She was present with her workshop at the International Conference in May 2019 in Zurich

Kontakt zu Karen MacLean - Education for a sustainable tomorrow  -
Kontakt zu Karen MacLean – Education for a sustainable tomorrow  –

The digital journal “NatureFlow” offers concrete topics according to the basics of nature education and earth-oriented ideas for the future. The interview was published in the February/March 2020 issue.

Whether you are a forest playgroup leader, forest kindergarten teacher, educator, pedagogue and adult educator or outdoor family, you will all find nourishing knowledge with us.

Editorial management: Christoph Lang, Nadja Hillgruber

Editorial design and implementation: Nadja Hillgruber

Picture credits: Photography © Feuervogel

The digital journal “NatureFlow” is in its 11th year of publication under the umbrella of the Feuervogel Genossenschaft für Naturpädagogik in Switzerland

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