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Forest School Spaces: the advantages of outdoor learning

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.

So now if you go down to the woods today, you're really are in for a big surprise – not just the prospect of a teddy bear’s picnic, but something equally magical: a band of children turning over stones, whittling sticks or peeping 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 insects to be examined, dens to be made and other activities Bear Grylls would be proud of.

Only this month, the University of Colorado published findings that being outdoors aids concentration and well-being and made 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 woodland space, however small, where there’s lots going on, at home or in a nursery setting, can be as enchanting as a genuine forest. In the tiniest of leafy spaces, young children can make a bug hotel and watch out for guests or appreciate the simple moment of sitting quietly beneath a tree. From our own observations here at Orchidale Children’s Nursery, where we are lucky enough to have a beautiful, forest school area, left and below, 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 supervision of our qualified Forest School Leader, Gemma, Orchidale children have so many opportunities in our Forest School garden: this month, they’ve been exploring the concept of seasons and planted out radishes and carrots; they’ve been practising walking on a new slack line to improve their balancing skills and climbing a ladder to peer into a tree. They are soon going to be using peelers to strip a stick and working with secateurs and hammers! After all that hard work, there’s always a hot chocolate or another drink to enjoy while sitting on logs in the fire circle. Given time, and at the right age, Forest School can teach children life skills most parents don't even 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!



Here’s why:

  • Exposure to manageable risk – climbing, using tools – builds confidence and independence in children.

  • Calm observation of insects and their habitat promotes concentration, turn-taking and patience.

  • Forest School promotes inclusiveness, especially valuable for those who find socialising hard, for example children who have autism or who are shy. 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.

  • Forest School is a non-competitive space where everyone’s in awe of what they’re exploring and using, and no one’s better than anyone else.

  • Being outside has health benefits. It stimulates the senses, promotes better sleep, instils a sense of peace.

  • 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.

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