Published on 16th December 2017


Forest schools can have benefits beyond getting the kids outdoors, writes Catherine Morgan

Spending a full day cooped up indoors with two energetic boys can be hard work, to say the least. They need to be exercised. They need fresh air. They need to let off steam. And they’re not the only ones — especially on days when my patience and stamina have been tested.

It’s not surprising, then, that the boys spend quite a lot of time running about in local parks, collecting ‘treasures’ from nearby woods, having adventures in the garden, or riding their bikes or scooters — all with mummy in tow, of course.

But as much as I appreciate this precious time spent outdoors playing, I am very aware of the challenges I face as the boys get older. The lure of screen-based entertainment will surely get stronger, and there will be other priorities to eat into our time — school, friends, homework… And then there’s the fear; the parental fear that comes with allowing more independence in an environment that we often believe to be fraught with dangers. (I already have a hard time silencing the sometimes overly-protective warnings: “slow down”, “be careful”, “stop climbing”, “not too high”.)

Yet research tells us that if we don’t encourage our children to connect with nature, and to explore it without constant direction from adults, then we are doing them a real disservice. A 2012 report from The National Trust warned that we, as a nation, and especially our children, are exhibiting the symptoms of a modern phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’;1 a term, coined by author and journalist Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which describes the physical, mental and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their developing years.

The report added that, in addition to more obvious benefits such as better physical fitness, reduced risk of obesity, and improved mental wellbeing, there were educational benefits to learning outdoors, too. 

And it is for this reason that a rather different approach to education is being championed, using the great outdoors as the classroom.

This ‘forest school’ concept, a ‘90s import from Scandinavia, is defined as “an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees”.2 Children learn through outside play, all year round, whatever the weather — all they need is season-appropriate clothing and their imaginations.

“It provides a space where classroom hierarchies do not exist,” says Selina Hogarth, a forest school leader. “I have witnessed children who usually struggle in the classroom suddenly discover that they are naturally good at tying knots. The sense of achievement they feel is evident in their faces.

“Those same children will then delight in helping other children who are finding working with their hands difficult. It’s a real shift in power.”

It also encourages team work and social interaction, says Hogarth. “I witnessed a group of seven- to eight-year-olds working together to build a complicated pulley system with ropes strung over tree branches.

“They brain-stormed, negotiated teams, tried lifting with and without gloves and experimented with lifting different sized logs.”

It kept them captivated for over an hour. I was delighted to be told by one boy ‘This has been the best day ever as we’ve not done any work at all’. If only they knew!”

There is some positive research, too. A small study carried out by researchers from the University of Loughborough revealed that engaging in forest schools can contribute to the development of collaborative learning skills, by encouraging children to work with others on challenging outdoor activities.

“The findings show the important role that play and outdoor learning might have for children’s development,” says Dr Helena Pimlott-Wilson, a researcher on the project. “Particularly in terms of providing children with experiences and opportunities which take them out of the routine and pressures of the classroom; and give them the freedom to explore new and challenging environments.”

There are many ways to bring nature’s benefits into your child’s life: nature trails, animal spotting, den building, scavenger hunts, mud painting/pies, mini-beast hunting (admittedly my least favourite activity and one which is to get a whole lot worse now the boys have magnifying glasses — Father Christmas, what were you thinking?)… the list goes on.

The Woodland Trust’s website
( has an excellent activity section that’s searchable by age range, key stage, activity type, topic and season. Making a simple bird feeder was a truly joint effort in our home: that is, I did all the work whilst Child One focused on spreading the peanut butter on his tongue instead of the intended loo roll inner. Still, I like to think he was being creative.

I want my boys to enjoy being outside, in an ever-changing playground dictated by the four seasons, to become immersed in their own adventures rather than those presented on a screen. For my part, this means taking a small step back (for now). The protective warnings will be there, of course — but hopefully not quite so loud, nor quite so frequent.



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