It has been known for some time now that children need to have opportunities to take measured risk- not only does this help them to understand their physical limits, but it also helps them to analyse situations and understand and avoid those which could be dangerous. The skill to assess the risks posed by their immediate environment is a vital and could help children to be more competent when navigating issues posed by daily life.
However, anybody who has worked in a childcare or educational environment will recognise the difficulty in allowing children to take risks. Though risk-taking is woven through the early years and primary curriculum, the mountain of paperwork that comes hand in hand with it is off-putting; increased risk assessments, accident and incident forms and logs, parental sign offs etc, though necessary, have helped to instil a cotton wool culture.
Less Cotton Wool, More Dirt
Things are changing though, especially when it comes to outdoor provision. It started with mud-kitchens- a staple now prevalent in most early years and primary settings: Let’s let our children get dirty- get some mud under the nails, pick up worms, make mud pies out of materials regarded as dirty and germy. We’ve embraced that, and it’s given kids a great opportunity to take control of their own learning, but the next step is much bigger and much, much wilder: Introducing forest schooling.
Adopted in the UK as early as the 1900s, forest schooling gives children the opportunity to learn without the constraints of a classroom. Independent exploring is encouraged, as is using and making tools, setting campfires and staying out in all weathers. Risks are managed, but present; the expectation being that children learn to asses risks independently, rather than relying solely on boundaries placed by an adult. The idea has many a parent and practitioner recoiling in horror, but in reality, forest schooling has a multitude of benefits.
Forest schooling has been proven to help children attain higher levels of physical ability; climbing trees, navigating uneven, slippery and wet surfaces all contribute to better balance, coordination and greater gross motor control. Children who play in an outdoor environment are also less-likely to pick up common illnesses than their indoor-taught counterparts.
Aside from the physical benefits, a number of social, psychological and cognitive benefits have been discovered in children who attend forest school settings. Children in an outdoor learning environment are encouraged to play to their strengths. They are empowered by finding methods of learning that suit them and allow them to take on more information than they would be able to in a traditional classroom. This leads to an increase in confidence and the child having a better grasp on their ability to learn independently.
Children who struggle in areas such as mathematics may find the outdoors beneficial due to the many opportunities for “hidden learning” they contain. For example, children can pick out the various shapes they find in a woodland. They can add and take away the amount of leaves they have collected. They can measure the circumference of a nest they have found or made without realising they are doing maths at all. The opportunities are abundant and a far cry from the “boring” worksheets we see in the traditional classroom.
Outdoor play can also help children to form friendships. This is thought to be an implication of the unstructured play that the outdoors lends itself so well to: children are trusted to navigate the societal structure of their peer group, as the area naturally stimulates discussion. Taking charge of their own learning means children are more likely to talk about their ideas to their peers. Concentration and focus are positively affected too; during outdoor play children increase the flow of blood to the brain. This blood contains oxygen and glucose which encourages mental alertness.
Embrace the Outdoors
The final implication of forest schooling is that children will learn to respect our outdoor environments. They will grow up with a much better understanding of nature and its place in our world and hopefully introduce future generations to it. Hopefully it will encourage children to step away from the screen and, where possible, head out into the garden or the local park to play.
Not only this, but they will be equipped with the ability to look after our environment and will understand that we are accountable for our own actions when it comes to issues such as littering, recycling and conserving our woodlands.
Let’s go get our wellies on!
Forest schooling might not be for everyone- like adults there will always be some children who can’t stand the cold, or dislike getting wet or dirty. But for those that embrace the outdoors, a day spent in the woodland can bring a multitude of benefits, especially for children who struggle in traditional classroom.
Giving children the power to learn, explore and develop their own fascinations is something that forest schooling can provide, and that certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Opportunities for future generations to be taught, in a fun and effective way, how to look after this little planet we call home, is the final draw for us. Can we go get our wellies now?