The Really Great Outdoors
Updated: Feb 7
Despite the research outlining the benefits of children spending time outside, children today seem to be spending more time indoors than ever. The risks of injury or getting lost seem to put barriers between children spending time outside and engaging in risky play. Researchers suggest that these elements of outdoor play have significant benefits for children and not only supports children in all areas of their development but also helps develop their emotional resilience. More specifically, children who are allowed to play outdoors are far happier than children who spend most of their day indoors. These children also demonstrate greater social skills, fewer days of being sick, a greater ability to concentrate and better coordination skills.
From these sources, several schools have started to recognise the importance of outdoor play has for children and this has resulted in them developing or adopting programmes that take and extend the learning outside of the classroom. A program that has developed an enormous following is Forest School. Even though this programme seems to have become very popular worldwide in the last decade, Forest school actually has its origins in Scandinavia and more specifically in Denmark. During the 1980s the purpose of this type of schooling was to find a solution for the children to play, due to lack of indoor facilities! From there, the concept slowly grew to the UK and from there around the world.
Even the World Health Organisation is arguing that young children need even more opportunities to play outdoors in order to grow up healthy. But despite the clear benefits, Forest School is still somewhat misconceived and is not recognised for fully for the value it provides. At Little Gems we are now proudly commencing our fourth successful year of Forest Schooling. From our experiences, I'd like to share some deeper insight into the concept of Forest School and what it really is and what it has to offer to the children based on what we see and experience each week.
A Forest School Day is no different than a day in the classroom when it comes to teaching and learning. Forest School is basically an education delivery model in which the children visit natural spaces to learn personal, social and technical skills. It has been defined as ‘an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in woodland environments’. The key phrase here is ‘hands-on experiences’. Hands-on experience means the knowledge or skills someone gets/gains from doing something rather than just reading about it or seeing it being done.
This of course happens to come hand in hand with the Montessori philosophy as Maria Montessori stressed how the hand is the instrument of the mind. The importance of the hand is at the heart of Montessori education as the use of the hands helps the children construct themselves. Maria Montessori felt strongly that the hand and brain must develop together in harmony -- the hand reports to the brain; the brain guides the hand; the cycle continues, resulting in the development of the intellect. With this in mind, Forest school, similar to the Montessori classroom, offers the children opportunities to engage in concrete, multi-sensory exploration, deepening the children’s learning experience even further. Forest School can easily be considered an extension to the Montessori classroom.
"Why Do We Have Trees?"
During Forest School, the children are provided with opportunities to explore the natural environment, experience a variety of risks and challenges, and direct their own learning. Forest School stimulates imaginative play through hands-on engagement with the natural environment. Forest School uses the natural wilderness as a means to build independence and self-esteem in children. During our walks, several stimuli spark discussions that enhance our knowledge and understanding of the world. For example "why do we have trees?" No really, why do we have trees!? How does the ecosystem depend on the wilderness and how are the different plants and animals differentiated? Forest School allows us to observe environmental changes as we go every week, and the children witness the changes in the forest all year through. All these experiences bring further discussions into the classroom where the gap of outdoors and indoors can be bridged.
Early Years Development + Forest School = A Happy Marriage
A typical Forest school day consists of hiking, exploring, stopping for food/refreshments etc. and then more hiking and exploring. Even more so than in the classroom, the children are encouraged to refine their observational skills by independently discover, explore, observe and question what they find in the wilderness. As we travel there every week and treat the forest as our eternal classroom, over time the children feel responsible for the forest, themselves and the group they are in. With continuous exposure to nature, emotional development takes place as well as a growing attachment to their environment. The children experience the forest in all aspects. They learn to love and care for the trees, plants, flowers and all its habitants. They make shelters, explore the tracks, lay trails, create art using natural objects, play, climb, experience the properties of earth, wood water and stone, find ‘wildlife’, make stories and songs and the list goes on. The awareness of the interdependence of life on our planet becomes an element of each child that they carry with them as they start to feel beyond themselves and empathise with the creatures that surround them. Suddenly their steps are more considerate, their holes are planned more carefully, and their gathering takes into account what impact it has.
In addition, the personal skills gained during Forest School such as teamwork and problem solving are extraordinary. Consider our morning walk: it starts to rain. The children will gather together and try and find a solution. The solution is not given to the children by the teachers straight away, but rather the teachers facilitate the mental space to guide the children towards their chosen solution, come up with a plan and materialise it. What, where, why, when and how questions fill the air and the children start to bring the solution to life. We then delegate responsibilities, using simple everyday tools each child has a task to carry out in order to fulfil the plan. One will fetch the sticks the other will fetch the leaves and so on. Later we check our supplies in our backpacks and see how we can put these two together.
Winter Clouds Have Silver Linings Too
Now all of this sounds dreamy until our Winter months come around. In Winter many of us retreat inside and stay there until the temperatures rise. The issue we face here is that when we are indoors for a long period of time with no proper ventilation the air in our environment becomes stale and we are breathing-in recycled air. This is a major factor in why colds spread so much in the winter.
Therefore the obvious benefits of being outside (even in the cold!) suddenly become more evident. Here at Little Gems our motto is 'there is no bad weather, only bad clothing’. Whatever the weather, whatever the season -- we go outside. Being outdoors even when cold or rainy, means we can breathe fresh air. Fresh air is known to help us feel more energised and sleep better at night. Cold? Dress warm. Rain? Dress dry. There is always a solution!
In addition to this, by building an attitude towards going outside despite the weather, we are building healthy habits for their later life. We are developing positivity as we always find the good in the challenging. ‘Encouraging a child to go outside in all-weather builds resilience, but more importantly it saves them from spending their life merely tolerating the ‘bad’ days, in favour of a handful of ‘good’ ones – a life of endless expectations and conditions where happiness hinges on sunshine’ Nicolette Sowder
Further Benefits Include:
Sunshine: Just like anything on earth we need sun. Sun exposure is important to allow us to make vitamin D. Vitamin D is important to build our immune system. Stronger immune system means less illnesses.
Executive function: These are the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate and multitask. In order to master these skills children need unstructured play time, to make up their own games and use these crucial life skills with their peers.
Taking risks: By wanting our children to be ‘safe’ we may be taking away from them the opportunities for risky play. By keeping them all bubbled up we are depriving them from developing their confidence and risk taking. The experience of climbing a tree is greater than the fear of falling of one. If we never try we will never learn. This in turns may be depriving out children from taking further risks in life.
Appreciating nature and our place on Earth: If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in the soil, building castles in the sand, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, or staring at the endless horizon, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. The future of our planet depends on our children; let's show them how to appreciate it!
With all of this in mind, Forest Schools eradicate classroom walls and place children in real-world settings and offer them enthusiasm and respect for nature. By placing the children in the outdoors means you are opening up the window for loving nature, developing a lasting willingness to protect and preserve it at all costs. This seems of utmost importance when educating children in a time of climate change threats, plastic pollution and a need for sustainable relationships between people and the environment is more evident than ever.
“Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to fully occur” (Maria Montessori).