If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise – not a teddy bear’s picnic exactly (although it could be) – but something equally magical: a gathering of small folk turning over stones, whittling sticks or peeking out from a shelter made of branches. Britain’s favourite classroom is fast becoming an outdoor space, based on Forest School principals, where there are trees, insects to be examined, and activities Bear Grylls would be proud of.
So why here, right now? Well, the Forest School concept was initiated in the 1980s in Denmark where the open-air culture ('frulitsliv') is a way of life.
It first came to Britain in the early 1990s when a group of nursery nurses and lecturers from Bridgewater College in Somerset visited Scandinavia and saw how children became more creative and increased their self-esteem in an outdoor, wooded environment.
Just this month, the University of Colorado has published findings that being outdoors aids concentration and well-being, making a link between the pollutants in our homes (emitted from furniture, in the chemicals we use, the high concentration of CO2 humans create) and sluggish minds.
Of course, we are not talking about living in a swamp, or forest life in a non-washing kind of way! This is all about observing the environment around us, learning to appreciate and look after it. If there are acres and acres of untamed woodland at a child’s disposal, that’s wonderful, but for most, creating a small woodland space, where there’s lots going on, in a nursery or at home can be as enchanting as a genuine forest. In a very tiny, leafy space, young children can make clay from mud and water and sculpt animals to live there or appreciate the simple moment of sitting quietly beneath a tree. From our own observations here at Toddlers Inn, where we are lucky enough to have a beautiful, forest school garden, children seem relaxed and happy when they are looking at, touching and working with the natural world. The plus-point of education in a woodland space is that through play, children are learning to value nature, and are developing a sense of guardianship towards the environment. They are being encouraged to care if species survive, and ultimately whether their air is clean, our seas plastic-free.
Under the guidance of our qualified Forest School Leader, Lauren, Toddlers Inn children have so many opportunities in our Forest School garden...
They built a bug hotel, left, and keep an eye on the guests; they could make self-portraits from petals, twigs and leaves; they can create a bird-feeder from a fir cone, seeds and some fat; or simply sit on logs round a fire. Given time, Forest School can teach young children life skills most parents won’t have! Who can say they can gather fresh water from a tree, light a fire without matches, build a shelter using knots, saws and hammers? In the right space, pre-schoolers can.
We love our Forest School garden!
School promotes inclusiveness, especially valuable for those who find socialising hard, for example children who are very shy or who have autism. Sitting quietly round a camp fire, with a hot drink, sharing food, instils a feeling of togetherness that does not require talking or being aware of anyone’s tone of voice or body language.
Exposure to manageable risk builds confidence and independence in children.
Being outside has health benefits. It instils a sense of peace, stimulates the senses, promotes better sleep.
The quiet observation of insects and their habitat promotes concentration, turn-taking and patience.
Forest school is a non-competitive space where everyone’s in awe of what they’re observing and using, and no one’s better than anyone else.
In a world where the pressures on our children are great, especially as they get older – homework, revision, exams, social pressure, much of it based on screen time alone in their room – forest school introduces young children to the flip-side (the outdoors) which could be a comforting balance to stress when they need it.
Take a look at Toddlers Inn’s fantastic Forest School garden at...
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