Here in the UK, the government and health boards tell us we need to get our ‘5 a Day’ of fruit and veg into our diet. So, what about nature time? I say we should introduce a minimum ‘1 hour a Day.’ After all don’t we get essential vitamins from sunlight too?
By Lea Wakeman.
I have always wanted to work with children in a therapeutic way and never more than now! After running over eighty Forest School sessions with my partner James, I am really seeing first hand the therapeutic benefits of natural play.
Let me take you back 7 years… I first noticed the beneficial effects of nature and the outdoor environment when I worked in a primary school. My role was specifically supporting children who had challenging behaviour or were classed as vulnerable. I found it was instinctual for me to remove a child who was displaying extreme stress and take them outside. Why?
Well, firstly, it removed any possible danger to the rest of the class, as chairs would sometimes be thrown. But what I found was that the child in question responded positively to the open space by eventually calming down. If the child stayed indoors it took relatively longer to calm them, there was so much stimulus inside the building and nowhere they could be alone.
I learnt to keep my running shoes by the school entrance so I could quickly change into them when a child left the building, it was usually a state of anger that led them to go outside without permission in the first place.
Sometimes, they seemed to stay angry for a long time but this was different to them being angry inside the school where children (or adults) could be hurt. Indoors, there seemed no escape for them from their emotions, it just escalated until they became too tired to carry on being angry.
Outside it was different, the open space seemed to clear their busy minds, the flood of emotions and rage was given breathing space somehow, it had somewhere to go and there was a sense of freedom, a release from being trapped.
There is a common way of thinking which takes the stance that outside the confines of the school walls lay danger, children could be taken, in bad weather there was the risk of them falling on ice, getting wet or sun burnt. This apprehension has been compounded by the media as well as valid concerns about fast traffic and playing near roads. Yet I saw the children were always drawn to the the playing field and school grounds.
While working in the school there were times when I could take the kids out into the garden and let them plant flowers and dig in the soil but the busy curriculum never allowed much time for this, it was seen as a treat rather than the norm. Teachers needed to be creative in their lesson planning to incorporate nature and the outdoors into everyday school life and that only really happened with teachers who already had a passion for the outdoors.
Once or twice a year the class would get to go for a walk in the countryside or visit the local woodland, in fact, this is where I had my first experience of Forest School and it completely fired my imagination. The activities were so simple yet so much pleasure was had, there was no completion of a task to be ‘marked off’ and graded, no child was put into a group based on their ability, all kids were equally able to contribute something to the activities, in fact differences were seen as creativity in action. Yet days like this were few and far between, the national curriculum just doesn’t allow for much time away from the classroom.
Now, I don’t want to make that particular school sound bad in any way at all, it was a wonderful and nurturing place with a dynamic and forward thinking Head and staff, I learned so much there. There are also some great examples of in-school projects where teachers are incorporating nature into their lessons. But since I’ve been running regular Forest School sessions myself I can reflect back on the way the general schools system can compound the growing disconnection of children from nature. I still hear from angry parents about kids being kept in at play times because of snow, so things have not changed all that much.
But the good news is, we’re getting there. Over the last few years there has been a huge push towards outdoor education, but this is still only in addition to the current education system, we would still do very well to look towards Scandinavia and their model of education where being outdoors is integrated throughout school.
So what can we all do to help? It isn’t just our schools that need to adopt a different attitude to this subject but every person, whether a parent or not. We need to follow our instinct, that gut feeling we all know to be true, and start shouting about the great outdoors as the place where healing occurs and as the place to go in order to prevent emotional and physical imbalance in ourselves and our children, whatever form that may take.