TV presenter, author and bushcraft expert Ray Mears has given forest schools his seal of approval. Having observed a forest school group during a recent canoe trip he described how one boy “… was building his own legend, the person he was going to become. He’d become something more and that’s what it’s about. There’s a chance (in forest schools) for self-discovery and self-empowerment.”
Forest School is a thriving, growing movement worldwide which is getting children of all ages outdoors to learn at their own pace and embrace the natural world around them. As a forest school leader myself and long term follower of Ray’s work I felt really lucky to be able to join in a televised discussion on the merits of learning in the great outdoors.
Above: Ray Mears in his element. Photograph by Goh Iromoto
Ray Mears is a world-renowned champion of bushcraft and wilderness skills, having starred in numerous television series and written books on the subject, which have inspired millions.
During a recent television debate in the UK, the panel, including Ray, was posed the question; would they send their kids to a summer crammer where they could brush up on their academic skills and get ahead of the class, or would they pack their kids off to a forest school where they could learn skills like fire-lighting, den building and woodcraft.
Ray replied, “the child has got to want to be there, they might want to go to a crammer, I think there’s a place for both.” This, to me, underlies a key point that parents and teachers each have a responsibility to fire children’s passions and interests in whatever subject or activity it is that gets them excited about learning.
Ray explained how the forest school camp system works in Canada where this approach to learning is well-established, “…a child goes very young and gets to do activities and then they go back the next year, they’re a little older and get given more responsibility and eventually they’re doing 21 day trips on their own by canoe, boys or girls, through the wilderness and they’re capable.” What an amazing adventure for any young person that would be.
During the debate a recent study was quoted which states, “three quarters of kids who go to a summer crammer will end up at a top university, compared to half of those from similar backgrounds who don’t.” But on the flip side of that argument, “child psychologists say that outdoor exploits aren’t only great for physical health but for mental health as well. The same psychologists also have concerns about ‘tiger parents’ who want to hothouse their kids in some sort of obsessive bid to produce pint-sized prodigies, who could end up stressed, frazzled and burned out by their late-teens and who could actually end up with mental health problems.”
I hadn’t heard of tiger parents, so I looked it up. Tiger parenting is a term which refers to strict or demanding parents who push their children to be successful in education by attaining high levels of scholastic and academic achievement, to the detriment of the child’s social, physical, psychological and emotional well-being. It sounds a world away from the child-led approach of a typical forest school where kids learn resourcefulness, team-work and determination. I feel that forced study risks leading kids toward depression, anxiety and stress.
Above: Ray Mears has seen first hand the positive benefits of forest school teachings. Photograph by Goh Iromoto
Ray spoke about his recent trip to Canada where he got the chance to observe children who attended a forest school camp. “I gave a presentation at a festival and in the audience there were some kids from one of these summer camps. I was watching one of these youngsters because he was carrying a book around with him. The book was written by a naturalist I’m really fond of, Grey Owl, who lived in that area. This was a heavy tome for a youngster to read by today’s standards but I saw that he treasured that book.”
“The next day I’m out on a canoe trip and I could see that same party of youngsters (canoeing) on the other side of the lake. These were boys of about fifteen and they had passed the hardship point, because it’s a hard way to travel.” Seeing that same boy who the day before had been clutching his precious book Ray described the look on the child’s face, “you could actually see that with every paddle stroke he took he was building his own legend, the person he was going to become. He’d become something more and that’s what it’s about. There’s a chance for self-discovery, self-empowerment and it’s no surprise that the youngsters who go to these summer schools very often end up as leaders in that part of the world and it’s a great thing to see.”
The main thrust of the debate was a parent’s choice between a summer crammer or forest school for their kids and during the phone-in I got the chance to add my own observations to bolster Ray’s championing of forest school. “There’s no doubt that academia is important but what forest school does is give an opportunity for child-led learning away from the formal classroom setting. The kids who attend forest school are gaining a nature intelligence and an emotional intelligence, which in the long run, I believe, makes better rounded, more confident people. You give a child a sharp tool and it’s empowering, they get a fantastic experience from that.” Many children today have a disconnection between the natural world and the modern world we live in and forest school projects are providing an antidote for that.
Some cynics might say that today’s kids would rather be in front of their iPad than building dens outdoors, but I don’t think forest school is a hard sell to children. I believe it appeals to their sense of adventure and children should be allowed to have that experience and so much of that is getting lost now with the increasing time that kids spend on screens.
Ray added that, “There are a lot of British parents now sending their children to these camps in Canada and North America.” But for those wanting to keep their kids a bit closer to home you’ll be glad to know that forest school camps are growing in the UK too with providers offering everything from one day activity sessions to week-long wilderness experiences. I believe we will see more of these holiday clubs and camps in the future as more parents take action to combat the dangers of too much indoor screen time for their kids.
Above: Children immersed in nature and learning empowering new skills at one of our own forest school sessions.
Regarding the ongoing fight in many family households to get kids away from their screen and back to the outdoors, Ray saved his best advice to parents for last, “The secret is that the parents need to do these things (outdoor activities) for themselves, that’s the best way, it’s just the normal way of growing up. If you want children to take an interest in nature, don’t just send them somewhere, have an interest yourself and it will be the most natural thing in the world for them to follow on.”
If you want to know more about what exactly a forest school is, check out our short video, appropriately titled “What Is Forest School?” RIGHT HERE
If you’re a parent who wants to find out more about local forest school providers in your area, I’d advise googling it, you’ll soon be heading down a rabbit hole of amazing projects to inspire your kids.
You can watch the full television debate with Ray Mears HERE. Skip ahead to 01:24:44 to see ‘Forest School vs Summer Crammer” You’ll be able to hear me trying not to sound nervous whilst talking to Ray, one of my childhood heroes.