Why children need to go into the woods today
Risk-averse parents and educators deprive youngsters of the benefits of outdoor learning - but it’s a trend forest schools are trying to reverse
Getting into the swing of it: Let them have as much fun as possible and they are “learning under the radar most of the time”. Photographs: Getty Images
Connecting with nature (from left to right) Maximos Gayed, Sophie Healy, Lilia Cassoni, Anja Bister, Grace McBrearty and Alexandra Murphy from the Park Academy Childcare having fun in the leaves near the Park Academy’s Scandinavian-inspired, nature kindergarten, which is currently being developed on the Killruddery Estate in Bray, Co Wicklow.
There are whoops of delight as seven grown adults pile into the “debris shelter” they have built from scratch in russet woodland in Co Wicklow. In the distance, the first snow of winter is sprinkled like icing sugar onto Lugnaquilla, lit by the low-angle sun in the clear blue, winter sky.
They were given 45 minutes to complete the task, starting with the picking of a suitable tree with a “V” on which to prop a sturdy “spine” that would, in turn, support a “rib cage” of branches. Armfuls of brush were gathered to fill in the gaps and then covered with forest floor mulch to waterproof the structure.
Mission accomplished, group members stand around and admire their handiwork. Okay, they are not going to have to sleep in it tonight but that doesn’t stop them clambering in to get a feel of it – the leaf-covered, earthy base and the scratchy, twig walls of the dim interior.
It’s the stuff of childhood – at least it should be. But within the space of one generation, a gulf has opened between children and nature as their freedom to roam and play outdoors has been drastically curtailed.
Instead they turn to television and the internet for entertainment while, in the words of Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv, they are kept under “well-meaning, protective house arrest”.
By depriving children of the chance to negotiate outdoor challenges independently, we’re in danger of raising a generation of physically inept, risk-averse softies, with no wish to get their hands dirty.
Of sense and sensibility
The adults hard at play last week among the trees on Castleruddery Organic Farm, near Donard, are among the vanguard trying to reverse this trend.
They are participating in the first Forest School Leadership (level three) course to be staged in the Republic, led by two trainers from the UK.
Inspired by the Scandinavian model of outdoor learning, forest schools started in the UK in 1995 and have become a rapidly mushrooming phenomenon.
The idea is to take children out of their classrooms once a week, to the same patch of woodland in all weathers and across the seasons. It not only helps them build a rapport with the natural environment, it also presents a highly effective setting for learning.
All the senses are engaged, points out trainer Marina Robb of Circle of Life Rediscovery in Sussex, stimulating the brain and providing ideal conditions for the creation of new neural pathways in young children. Stress levels drop outside too, so there is less chance of the stress hormone cortisol hampering their thinking.
Evaluation of forest schools in Scotland has shown that the benefits include better motivation and concentration; improved language, communication and social skills; enhanced physical skills (more stamina, improved balance, co-ordination and fine motor skills); appreciation of natural surroundings; and new confidence and self-esteem.
A more child-led approach than that used in the classroom also gives teachers a new perspective on pupils and their learning styles.
And a resulting impact on family life has been documented, with children’s newfound enthusiasm for the outdoors making them more likely to go for walks at the weekends.
“Nature isn’t a magic pill but we need some sort of moderation to the intensive, technological lifestyle that children are being groomed in,” says Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education, who helped to bring the course to Co Wicklow but is also one of the 19 trainees.
As a nature connection mentor, she works in schools around the country and is amazed that children often don’t know what, say, a dandelion is. She shows them how they can eat the leaves – like a sour sweet.