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.
“I am big into not teaching about nature but having as much fun as possible and they are learning under the radar most of the time.”
Hinksman believes it is a crucial time for Irish society to recognise how children are being deprived of the benefits of the outdoors, while there are still plenty of parents with fond memories of playing outdoors for hours on end – even if they don’t let their offspring do the same.
“If we have a generation that is disconnected from the outdoor experience then that means the next generation has no memory of it,” she points out. Like any cultural norm, if it skips one generation, parents and educators won’t know how to teach it – and they won’t much care about it either.”
There needs to be a shift away from the risk-averse mindset of parents, educators and bureaucrats. Hinksman wants the next generation to be resilient but a child who hasn’t had to deal with the challenges of the outdoor environment, is “soft” when they’re older, she suggests.
"They don't have any wisdom. I think kids are amazing communicators now but it's all so easy when it's not face to face. They have a level of confidence, which is fantastic, but it is extremely cerebral."
Having completed a teen wilderness training programme in the US this summer, she has applied for funding to run teen challenges with a number of local authorities here.
Teenagers have such bubble-wrapped lives, “they don’t get a chance to know who they are, what their limits are, or how to physically excel”, she says. “Just being outside for 24 hours really challenges the body.”
As the light fades, the forest school trainees decamp to the Mountain Ventures Hostel down the road, where Elizabeth Appleton, of Huatha in Essex, gives a presentation on the four Rs boosted by outdoor learning: resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity.
That all comes naturally to Norwegian-born Steffen Erikson, who learnt to put up tents and light fires with steel on flint from the age of three, while camping in the wild with his parents.
Having worked in early childhood education for a number of years – the last three in an outdoor kindergarten in Norway – he has recently been recruited by the Park Academy Childcare, which is developing a nature kindergarten in the forest at the Killruddery Estate in Bray, Co Wicklow.
By joining three Park Academy colleagues on this course, he is getting an insight from the group into how his experience and knowledge might be implemented within the preschool structures here.
Sally O'Donnell, founder of the pioneering Glen Outdoor Early Learning Centre in Barrack, Co Donegal, knows plenty about health-and-safety-proofing to the satisfaction of the Health Service Executive inspectors.
Although she has worked with toddlers outdoors for several years, the new ideas she is picking up on this nine-day course (the second half of which will take place next April) will bring activities at her centre “to a whole new level”, she says enthusiastically.
The ripple effect of this first course (with a new one also being planned for 2014) will, it is hoped, enable more children to go down to the woods – and even build their own debris shelter.
Helping them think outside the box
The forest school leadership training could not have come at a better time for Michelle Nolan, who is planning to convert her Montessori and playschool in Laragh, Co Wicklow, into an outdoor school, on family-owned land up the road in Glendalough village.
When she opened the Bam Bam preschool in the local community centre, she realised very quickly that not all children learn the same way and that different environments suit different children.
In researching outdoor learning, two key factors emerged which sold the idea to her: “When a child sees an open space to play in, their stress levels come down dramatically. Then there is the opportunity of play.”
Mountains of room
With the ideal setting on her doorstep, she is convinced it is the way to go. About one and a half years into the process of trying to secure planning permission, she is hopeful this may come through next month.
"Because of the preschool regulations, I have to put in a fixed structure – a building – which is a bit disappointing," she says.
Part of that will be a “boot room”, where children will store two types of the all-important appropriate clothing – a heavy-duty, outdoor outfit and alternative, light raingear.
Parents of her current group of 34 children are enthusiastic and supportive, so she expects to have similar numbers when operating outdoors from, all going well, next September. She envisages the children spending between 80 and 100 per cent of their time outdoors, depending on the season.
In constructing an outdoor environment for preschool children, it is all about calculated risk and she will have "a very thick policy book to satisfy the HSE that I have covered all the bases".
She is purposely opting for what are seen as “high risk” elements – such as running water and trees and rocks to climb.
There will be lots of loose parts too – planks of wood, bricks, stones, twigs, ropes, canvasses – so children can build their own forts.
She wants them to be able to use hammers and nails to build these properly.
"Like any environment, I will start low risk and as the children get used to the environment, I will up the ante and up the risk."
For Nolan, who is the mother of three children aged 10, eight and five, “it is going back to how children used to play”.
Children have very good judgment and will only do what they can do – they will only put themselves in circumstances they can get out of.
“We have to go back to trusting children,” she stresses. “I think we have taken that privilege away from children.
“We are over-mothering them and over-schooling them – I want a more open environment, where children can explore and develop their own thinking and their own risk assessment.”
Nolan grew up in Ballinclea Heights in Killiney, Co Dublin and happily recalls playing with friends in neighbouring woodlands, which have since been replaced by housing.
“I learnt so much from my childhood and it has carried me all the way through.
“I feel bad for kids who come into me and sometimes they don’t have the love of learning – it is because they are so restricted.”
In conventional preschool and primary school settings, as well as at home, young children are forever being told not to stand on tables, not to stand on chairs, don't climb onto that window ledge, use a quiet voice, she points out.
"Those are the boundaries we put on them indoors – when you get outside, you should scream at the top of your lungs, climb up that hill, get into that tree and see how far you can go, swing on that rope," she enthuses.
“That is really what I am trying to achieve – let children be children and let them play naturally.”