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Learn, grow, protect – environmental education in urban forest

Written by Vera Knill

„Don’t underestimate the ability of children to help drive change!“ Jo Sayers (The Mersey Forest)

Urban forests serve as a biodiversity hub and enhance resilience to environmental changes. As one of the most significant ecosystems for CO2 reduction from the atmosphere, forests do not only mitigate climate change. They also increase societal benefits, improve the quality of life and shelter the declining species of manifold flora and fauna. To spread this knowledge and to preserve and restore forest ecosystems, education for sustainable development is key.

The importance of strengthening forestry education was examined by the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), held at the beginning of May in New York. Also, the European Forum on Urban Forestry (EFUF) 2019, held last week in Cologne, put a spotlight on environmental education. The topic was widely discussed among urban forestry researchers and practitioners, managers and policy-makers. Within the scope of EFUF 2019, valuable insights and experiences were shared at the Leidenhausen estate (Gut Leidenhausen), a center for environmental education. Along with Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald Köln e.v., this area involves more than 5000 children per year in forest school activities – learning about nature in nature. 

Implementing urban forests in nature pedagogics involves many benefits, as highlighted by Barry McGonigal, International Director of the LEAF (Learning About Forests) Programme: Frequent forest visits, e.g. among school children, enhance a healthy and holistic child development while hands-on learning methods increase knowledge retention and promote stewardship of natural resources and their ecosystem services.

The daily surroundings of many children living in urban areas are often characterized by concrete playgrounds, asphalt, passive movement in strollers or cars and much time spent indoors. The Natural Childhood Report by National Trust (2017/2018) states that children spend half the time playing outside than their parents did. This results in higher stress levels and a desperate need for movement and free play among dirt, water and bushes, which cannot be fulfilled in the concrete jungle of a city. So why not shift the everyday playground into urban greenery?

Jo Sayers stressed the importance of bringing children into green areas, by providing a natural, soft environment, where children are given time and space to play outdoors in an unstructured way, leaving out pressure, obligations and competition. Also, it enables children to unfold in many ways, collecting valuable experiences which influence life-long connectedness with their natural environment. Such skills, acquired at an early age, turn out to be crucial in later stages of life: increased social competence, natural confidence, personal resilience and trust, team-building, as well as skills to assess and cope with risks. This becomes even more valuable when skills are later on shared with family and friends.

Intact forest ecosystems are linked to essential aspects of life on earth: Soil fertility, biodiversity and carbon stocks. Therefore, restoration of degraded land and nature conservation are high on the international agenda. But a holistic approach to tackle climate change calls for action starting from the bottom: creating consciousness about the importance of ecosystem services and natural resources can be achieved by implementing environmental education programmes in urban forest areas worldwide.

Hungry for more? The presentations held at the sessions for “Learning Forest – Environmental Education” and “The healthy Forest – Urban Forests as healing spaces” within the scope of the European Forum on Urban Forestry 2019 are accessible here and here. All presentations are accessible here: https://efuf2019.wordpress.com


Full of energy – dive into the vibrant topics of the European Forum on Urban Forestry 2019 in Cologne. This video presents some of the delegates, exchanging views and sharing knowledge on the importance of green space governance in shaping future cities.

Vera Knill is a Master student in the Sustainable Resource Management Program at Technical University Munich.With a focus on Management and Protection of Forest Ecosystems, she aims to understand forest ecosystems and their inter-dependencies. As part of the IFSA Youth Delegation, she attended EFUF2019 along with two other international students. By supporting the EFUF communications team,she shares her view on the importance of urban forests and environmental education.

Photos and video: Vera Knill

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