learning from nature: forest schools
If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. You won’t necessarily see a teddy bear’s picnic, but you might see a forest school busily learning. Without an interactive whiteboard, iPad or desk in sight, kids are using twigs, trees and logs to learn with instead. These outdoor classrooms are cropping up across the country like mushrooms on an autumn morning and, instead of sitting stiffly in scratchy new uniforms and shoes that rub, kids are bounding about in warm clothes and sneakers made to climb trees in.
Forest Schools and their ilk - basically outdoor schools - are springing up in response to the growing awareness that the next generation is abandoning nature for the lure of the screen. These days, instead of building dens from leaves, the kids are building cities out of pixels on Minecraft. We try to resist. But it's hard. Hands up who tried to instigate a tablet ban on holiday this summer and spent every hot evening in Greece regretting it?
We’re right to be concerned about the time our kids spend glued to a screen. In 2013, a survey conducted by the University of Essex for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, found that four out of five children in the UK are not adequately "connected to nature". And only this year a similar survey concluded that three-quarters of British children aged between 4 and 12 spend less than an hour outside a day. Even criminals in maximum security prisons are made to do an hour of outdoor exercise a day!
A breath of fresh air
Forest schools, then, are the antidote to our increasingly sedentary indoor lives. During term time, in a wood just off the frantically busy A10 out of London, you can find a bunch of enthusiastic 2-5 year old's busy making mudpies, building dens and role-playing with bugs, worms and birdies. “Into The Woods” in Highgate is only one of the many new Forest schools in Britain at the moment.
The idea is that adult interference is kept to a minimum. Children spend the whole day outside and are encouraged to get dirty and explore. They don't realise they are learning or how their confidence and self-esteem are being affected.
The Scandinavians - who else? - provided the model. For them, the outdoor life, or fruitsliv, is key to how they raise their children and is a central part of their education system. Not simply a way of giving them an airing, nature play connects kids with their environment, encourages imaginative games and nurtures those senses and skills that classroom-based lessons neglect and iPad play shuts down.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Primary-coloured, artificially stimulating environments with nursery teachers hovering can be passive and stifling. It's the same at home, where the demands of homework and managed 'activities' don't give free play a chance. And don't even mention Soft play centres and their "no risk, no rain, no ruined clothes" mantra. But in the classrooms that nature built, kids barrel about creating their own games, with stones as building blocks and trees as climbing frames. Initiative, invention and risk-awareness (as opposed to risk-aversion) blossom.
All work and no play
So forget sending them off for tuition at birth; research in Germany has shown that those children who had been to an outdoor school had a clear advantage – socially, cognitively and physically – over those who had attended indoor nurseries.
More important: girls gain a distinct advantage in terms of physical self confidence. Any opportunity to give our girls an advantage must be seized!
So don't look for excuses and certainly don’t blame the weather – the winters are hardly balmy in Denmark. As a wise Scandinavian once said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” If the kids are wearing the right waterproofs and footwear (washable, flexible Plae boots couldn’t be better suited to tree climbing in the British autumn!) they won't notice that it’s raining or how much they are learning
Sally Chatterton is a freelance journalist who has written for the Telegraph, Independent and Evening Standard
RSPB survey: here
For more info on “Into the Woods” nursery click here