Encouraging our children to wander off the beaten path is not always an easy thing to do. Giving them a level of freedom, which we may feel uncomfortable with as they veer away from our protective parenting umbrella, may make us uneasy. This only highlights our own uncertainties and not their inability, because let us assure you, our children are very capable. The rise of puddle parents, especially under the arm of mother nature, gives children the freedom to explore, be curious, make mistakes, and learn while jumping straight in.
Reconnecting with nature is important for adults and children, though it’s especially beneficial for kids who love to explore. Jessica O’Rourke set up Mud Bugs in 2018 to provide courses and workshops for children and families to connect with nature and support their physical and mental wellbeing. She brings her experiences and knowledge from training as a Forest School Leader, as well as her degree in early childhood care and education, in creating classes and courses to encourage outdoor play for all the family. “My aim for Mud Bugs is to get children outside again,” says O’Rourke. “We all remember our adventures in the garden, the fields or the beach. I want Mud Bugs to reignite that spark for children by providing opportunities for them to use their creativity, imagination and skills to build their self-esteem, self-confidence and enthusiasm for the great outdoors. I want children and adults to jump in puddles and explore the world with all their senses.”
For O’Rourke, bringing kids back to nature can encourage a creativity that comes from being bored. “I see a world where everyone is so busy,” she says. “I want children to experience the calm of nature, the freedom you feel when the wind blows through you at the top of a mountain or the exhilaration of running to shelter when the skies open and the rain crashes down around us. I strongly feel that by spending more unstructured time in nature, children begin to explore, discover and create in ways they can’t when they are tied to schedules or the indoors.”
The idea of exploring nature has blossomed over the past decade with educators and parents looking to involve children in the biggest and brightest classroom of all – nature. Joan Whelan, chairwoman of the Irish Forest School Association, describes Forest Schools as a grassroots social movement. "An emergent approach in the Irish context," says Whelan, "Forest School was first introduced into one Dublin primary school in 2012 and, at the same time, some community based, and early years sessions began to emerge. Since then, while it remains niche, interest in Forest School grows apace and we have about 150 trained leaders here in Ireland. Forest School pedagogy can help to promote a deeper understanding of human nature and of the relationship between the human world and the natural world, a relationship increasingly regarded as fundamental to sustainability on our planet."
Forest Schools across the country connect small groups of children and adults with a natural setting. “Its emergence has been driven by people seeking a more progressive, inclusive way for children and adults to learn together in nature,” says Whelan. “Cities are very important places for Forest School to happen – a space in a public park or on private land or even part of school grounds can make a perfect setting. Importantly, it is about the leaders taking a backseat to let the children lead the learning. That can be a difficult thing for adults to do, so training for Forest School leaders is very important. A high adult/child ratio is vital so when a child asks a question or needs support an adult is available to them. And of course, attention to risk assessment and the proper outdoor gear is essential for everyone! Forest Schools also abide by the ‘Leave No Trace’ philosophy – we leave the forest as we find it.”
‘A blank canvas’
Not only is nature a valuable teacher but it also has a calming effect on our bodies and minds. The therapeutic benefits are countless, including physical exercise, positive mood, better sleep, increased self-esteem, and lower stress and anxiety.
“The best benefit of spending time in nature for children is the freedom to create,” says O’Rourke. “In nature, there is a blank canvas for children to play and learn from. There are no toys, no walls, there are no letters or numbers or seating plans. Nature is a space for children to be creative, imaginative, to explore and discover things they may never have seen before. They can take part in risky play, messy play, sensory play, develop their fine and gross motor skills, their linguistic skills, their social skills and so much more.”
Whelan says the ethos behind Forest School can be brought home. We can take our children into the forests, explore the sand dunes, and wander the fields to connect with nature in a mindful way. And remember the back garden. “While Forest School is a long-term approach, with trained leaders, there are activities that are used during our sessions that are very easy to try and can be adapted to use,” says Whelan. “If you want to try to get into the forest school idea, once you have found a spot you enjoy being in, try getting outside to the same space every day, around the same time. Try and spend a little longer there each day. Follow the child’s lead and get down and dirty! Tell stories, share gratitude, adopt a tree, make tree spirits, bring along some water to mix with the forest clay, sing together, whittle sticks, write a diary and be in the moment.”
O’Rourke believes simplicity is key. “Strip it all back,” she says. “Take moments to observe nature. These little moments and activities may seem too small to make a difference, but these pockets of time add up to a bigger picture. Seeing a familiar space throughout the seasons is one of the best ways for a child to observe and learn from nature.
“Jump in puddles, run in the rain, climb trees, plant seeds, dig holes, make a line with some sticks, paint a stick, dig a water trench in the garden, look for worms, compost your kitchen scraps. The list is endless. Most of all, take your time, observe and acknowledge what nature is doing and how it changes throughout the year.”
Irish Forest School Association irishforestschoolassociation.ie posts updates about Forests Schools all over the country.
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