Forest Schools

by NDFAuthors

  • Aug 30, 2013

This week’s method of Early Year’s Education is not so much focused on the content of its curriculum or its style of delivery, but the learning environment itself.

As adults we are all aware of the myriad of dangers that lie in wait for children and it is our greatest desire to keep them safe. Most of the concrete, visible and tangible risks which could befall children are those outside: the risk of traffic on the roads, the risk of drowning in rivers or lakes, the risk of falling from a tree and breaking, at the very least an arm, at the very worst a neck. However, it seems that this has had an adverse effect in that we are keeping our children too safe and, as a consequence damaging their development. So much so that Richard Louv published a book in 2005 entitled Last Child in the Woods, and in it, coining the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ referring to ‘the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.’ Whilst this is not an actual disorder per say, it is a useful term to describe this current social phenomenon.

Following on from this book, the National Trust in the UK commissioned a study entitled Natural Childhood. This examined three specific categories: health problems including obesity, mental health problems as well as children’s growing inability to assess risks, both to themselves and to others. It studied the consequences of the increasing disconnect between children and their natural as children all around the world spend more and more time attached to screens and less and less time outside.

One type of early year’s education could be the solution. Forest Schools, which originated in Scandinavia, are spreading across Europe. In a Forest School, traditionally, all learning takes place outside in woodlands but there have been variations in this. Meadows and beaches are also being used and time spent outdoors can vary from full days, to half-days, to one day in the week. The programme of work is very much child-led with the child following and progressing in their interests. Learning outside stimulates the imagination, creates a real world environment and encourages risk management. All the senses are stimulated and children develop the confidence to take risks. This is one of the most important aspects to this model of education. We cannot eliminate risk from life so it is important to teach children to manage and assess risk from a young age. Of course this needs to be done in a controlled and supervised way and should:

  • Include supportive adults who don’t intervene too early and who point out the risks to children.
  • Encourage children to make choices and provide opportunities to keep themselves and others safe.
  • Encourage children to assess their own risks.
  • Encourage parents to participate in activities.
  • Provide small achievable tasks.
  • Children should always have appropriate kit and clothing to manage all weather conditions.
  • Understand and match the appropriate skills to the child’s ability.

What Proof Is There That an Outdoor Education Can Benefit Your Child?

There have been numerous studies, one of which took place in Sweden over a thirteen month period, which found that children being educated in the forest school were more balanced with greater social skills. They took fewer days off sick and had better concentration and co-ordination than the children from a city pre-school. This was attributed to the greater range of opportunities present for play in nature. Children played for longer with less annoyance and fewer interruptions compared to the children in the city pre-school.  It sounds idyllic even if the thought of being out in all weathers might take a little getting used to.

But Are There Any Disadvantages?

As with all children, the key in getting them to learn is to do it in the way which most suits them. For those who don’t like or don’t seem to thrive in the outdoor environment, this may not be the best educational setting for them. There may also be difficulties in transitioning from a Forest School environment in the Early Years to regular school when the time comes. Additionally it seems that there is a wide variety in the quality of Forest Schools as educational settings as well as how much time is spent outside, so you would need to do a little of your own research and conduct a visit to the one you are interested in. All things considered, if you feel that this is the right environment for your child it could be one in which they would thrive.

What if there are no forest schools in your local area? What activities could you include in your daily routine to get your own flavour of forest school life? Here are some suggestions:

  • Art work using natural materials: leaf collages or rubbings of leaves or bark. You could even make collages of words or letters using these natural materials.
  • Shelter making using either gathered or manmade materials. What are the differences between them?
  • Use the forest as a stage to act out stories.
  • Treasure hunts for plants and other natural features. This can lead to discussions about identification and classification of what the children have found.
  • Use the forest as a natural obstacle course to improve their coordination.
  • Make musical shakers from seeds and pebbles and compare the sounds that they make.

What are your children’s favourite outdoors activities? What do you think about them being out in all weathers? Do get in touch and share your thoughts and ideas.