If you think today’s children spend too much time indoors, you’re not alone. Children today are probably more disconnected from the natural world than any previous generation, but a growing trend for forest schools in the UK is bringing children back to nature, says Lydia Gard.
The art of parenting comes down to a series of balancing acts. Balancing independence with safety, freedom with nurture, and stimulation with space. So as the mother of two physical and energetic boys, I spent a lot of time choosing the right playschool.
At each setting I visited, children milled around small classrooms and lofty village halls, knee-deep in toys and books, pictures and easels, and often cooped up together for an entire morning save for a quick bolt around the yard. However colourful and friendly the places were, the enforced claustrophobia was a breeding ground for bickering, and at pickup, a gaggle of wired children would tumble out of the classrooms wild-eyed. I just couldn’t drum up the necessary enthusiasm to fill in the enrolment forms. Until I found Wildflowers Kindergartens.
Run by Swedish-born Helena Nilsson, in Brockwood, Hampshire, Wildflowers is based on the Scandinavian Forest School model for early childhood education, where children learn through exploration, movement, relationships, activities and play primarily in nature. In reality, that means outdoor toilets, tools, mud and dens and lots of climbing fallen trees in the rain and snow.
Wildflowers’ core philosophy is simply stated on the website. ‘Wildflowers provides young children with experiences and environments which inspire exploration and expression, with the support of adults who sensitively nurture their attentive, creative and inquisitive minds. The development of confidence, resilience, co-operation and empathy, and an appreciation for the silence, wonder and beauty of nature.’
One look at the photo gallery confirmed that it works in practice.
Natural England conducted a survey in 2009 about our changing relationship with nature across generations. The results revealed that woodlands, countryside and parks have become ‘out of bounds’ to a generation of cottonwool kids, with fewer than 10 per cent playing in such places. Yet it also showed that young children enjoy nature-based activities (such as pond dipping and tree climbing) and 81 per cent want more freedom to play outdoors.
Now, it is conservatively estimated that more than 100,000 children are escaping into forest classrooms once a week, to improve their health, social skills and confidence. The Forest School Association charity has helped more than 12,000 teachers and other professionals undertake forest school training, and the numbers continue to rise.
It certainly requires creative and energetic teachers. The children practice numeracy counting snails, learn the alphabet by drawing on tree stumps with chalk and practice making shapes by arranging twigs on the ground. Given that this system offers such rich experience and foundation for learning, what is it that continues to keep Wildflowers and other forest schools as the exception rather than the rule?
According to Helena the main thing that holds parents back from choosing Wildflowers is the misconception of increased risk: “Children have to learn risk-assessment for themselves in order to make good judgements throughout their lives. If you eradicate all risk from children, they won’t get anything out of the experience.”
This theory is backed up by a recent conference held by Forestry Commission Scotland, Forest Education Initiative, Living Classrooms and the European Network of Forest Pedagogy. Speaker David Howat, Deputy Director of Forestry Commission Scotland said:
“Over the past few years there has been a seismic shift in how education is approached in Scottish schools. Taking children into the great outdoors is a key component of this. Working with pupils out into the woods is not without its problems, but there are huge rewards. Understanding risks and being able to assess risks are all fundamental life skills and yet young people are often constrained or lack the freedom to explore the natural world on their doorstep.”
Ofsted considers Wildflowers to be ‘outstanding’ in every area, and reported that:
“Children are learning about keeping safe exceptionally well. They are developing an excellent awareness of healthy lifestyles… Parents recognise positive changes to their children’s mood and see an immense increase in their confidence and self-esteem.” My eldest spent three years at Wildflowers. His increased confidence was immediately palpable, as was his sense of independence and huge enthusiasm for nature; “Shhh Mummy, listen, can you hear the birds?”
There’s no doubt that this is a much more physically demanding route than traditional nursery. A Scottish study recently found activity levels 2.2 times higher in a forest school day than during a school day that included PE lessons.
Plus the children are outside in every weather, come rain, shine, sleet and sheet ice. Of course, some forest schools (including Wildflowers) have warm, homely bases where the children return to for a healthy home cooked lunch and rest, on sheepskins. They also have a chance to learn how to hold a pencil, use a knife and fork and learn important social skills. In really adverse conditions the outdoor time is shortened to what is comfortable, but it is never, ever forgone. As the adage says, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.’
I worried at first that being outside in the cold all winter would increase the regularity of colds and coughs. But in fact, as children aren’t cooped up in a room sharing germs day-in, day-out, my son seemed to suffer far less illnesses than his London cousins who went to a standard nursery.
And besides the obvious physical benefits, there’s a strong argument that the more we reconnect children with nature, the more likely they will come to cherish, value and protect the natural environment as adults. Perhaps the only notable contradiction is the amount of laundry generated by a string of toddlers rolling down hills and making mud pies in the rain. But I washed on 30 degrees and cut my losses, and I would encourage any parent to do the same.
Wildflowers Kindergartens take children from aged 2.Lydia Gard is Editor of Mr Fox. She has two boys aged 2 and 6. Her New Year’s resolution is to drink more water, read more books and spend more time outdoors. Lydia tweets @mrfoxmag.
Do your children attend a forest school? Do you think it makes a difference to their development? Let us know in the comments below.