Forest Schools: an idea whose time has come

12 Mar 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 12 Mar 2021

Fun in the forest. Pic: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Children have suffered more than most in lockdown. As they start returning to school it is time to bring back their childhood again.

This does not just mean reversing the restrictions that have seen them confined to their homes but also pushing back at the culture of fear that has eroded their freedoms and set back the emotional and physical development of so many young people.

The great news is that this process is already underway thanks to the Forest Schools movement which has seen incredible growth both before and during the pandemic.

Brian Poots who runs the Northern Ireland Forest Schools Association (NIFSA) said: “We have seen such strong growth that a main priority for us at the moment is coping with demand. The pandemic has been truly hateful, but hopefully good things will emerge as more and more people truly understand the benefits of being outside and learning outside.”

Building the movement in Northern Ireland has been a long slog – Brian set it up in 2008 and initially got little interest, getting involvement from just two to three schools per year for the first ten years. But since 2018 the movement has really taken off and has accelerated still further during the pandemic which saw an extra 150 getting in touch.

Now there are around 500 primary schools and nurseries involved with more than 400 teachers currently involved in forest school Zoom classes.

NIFSA is expanding in other ways too – currently it has a base at Clandeboye, in April a second is to open at the People’s Park in Ballymena with a third at Moira Desmesne is scheduled to open in September.

This extraordinary growth opens up the prospect of the movement becoming self-funding within three to four years – as revenues from after school events at the three centres fund support provided for schools.

It might have taken a decade for Brian to get the forest school movement in Northern Ireland to this point yet the benefits of children spending time in direct contact with nature have been recognised as playing an important part of human physical, emotional, intellectual and even moral development for decades.

Back in 1968 the children’s rights campaigner Lady Allen wrote: “‘It is too often forgotten that small children, like older children of school age, need a place where they can develop self-reliance, where they can test their limbs, their senses and their brain, so that brain, limbs and senses gradually become obedient to their will. If, during these early years, a child is deprived of the opportunity to educate himself by trial and error, by taking risks and by making friends, he may, in the end, lose confidence in himself and lose their desire to become self-reliant. Instead of learning security, he becomes fearful and withdrawn.”

However despite the evidence, there has been a steady decline in the time youngsters spend outdoors. Natural England, which advises the British government on the environment ascribes this to a culture of fear both amongst parents and educators: “fuelled by the media, which is underlain with fear about danger and safety, traffic, other physical hazards, litigation and negative images.”

This creates a tendency amongst parents to confine children to home where TV, video games, social media and other electronic pastimes replace the great outdoors. 

Natural England backed its conclusions by citing authoritative research. One example was that whilst in 1971  a typical 7-year-old was permitted to cross a road unaccompanied, this is no longer generally allowed until children reach the age of about nine and half.

Brian’s personal experiences of the restrictions placed on children was one of the reasons why he was determined to make a difference: “I first became aware of forest schools around  2006 when my kids were at primary school. The school was brilliant in other respects but the children had little exposure to the outdoors – and even in the playground they were not allowed to run.”

The elimination of risk for children comes at a high price. Physical activity is important for young people and the more they spend outside the more they get.

And the benefits are well established: motor skills are developed, balance and co-ordination are improved and the risk of becoming overweight  decreased. Give the sharp increase in obesity amongst children it is important to stress again and again that part of the answer is on our doorsteps, playing outside.

Mental health is also affected by the length of time children spend in nature. The best known example of this is what is known as the “Attention Restoration Theory” which is supported by more than 100 studies. There is clear evidence that outdoor exercise in nature helps children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) with studies showing a threefold improvement over those who exercise indoors. Similarly it has been shown to decrease stress in young people.

Perhaps even more worryingly is the broader impact that lack of engagement with the natural environment has on children. American writer Richard Louv calls this “nature deficit disorder”. He argues that it has been replaced by the one-way experience of electronic media causing “cultural autism” and feelings of loneliness.

The forest schools movement sets out to address this disconnect. The NIFS movement recommends that all children should have at least one hour per week in every season of the year learning in the great outdoors.

Teachers are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the benefits. This, for example is Emma Quinn, principal Rathcoole Primary School: “In 5 to 10 years I see our school forest genuinely as a forest, I see a huge portion of lesson being outdoors because they enhance the learning and teaching, I see the children being more independent risk-takers in life in general and become great team players and communicators.”

“ In fact, I think that this is really what the Northern Ireland Skills based curriculum is all about. Our role now is to share that with the Education Inspectorate, Department of Education, parents, other schools and leaders, learning communities so that children do not simply become a number in the box or the data in the report – they grow to become who they are born to be.”

Brian said: “Teachers are starting to realise that the outdoors is  a perfect environment  for teaching the curriculum – all the resources are there – all of nature is outside.”

So how can forest schools take off so strongly in a region which is the second most deforested in Europe?

Brian said: “That’s always one of the first questions I’m asked.  You don’t need a 500 acre forest. A couple of trees in the school ground is all you need.”

He said that schools had always been able to find somewhere within five or so minutes from their gates: local parks, and even corners of fields that local farmers have let them use.

Crucial to the growth of the movement is the training up of teachers – there are around 200 qualified in Northern Ireland to date – and each one can then mentor others from their school as they go through the programme.

And then there’s building their confidence in teaching outside and helping them to feel more confident in encouraging children to take acceptable risks.

Brian said: “Teachers are used to saying don’t do this,  don’t do that. Instead we encourage them to give kids a chance to show that they can do things safely.”

“Safety is, of course paramount, we carry out risk assessments for everything – and in all the time we have been doing this we have had nettle stings and grazes, but never an accident as such.”

An example is fires. Brian said: “As in anything if a kid is told not to do things all the time they will want to do it. But if you teach a kid what a fire is for – heating and lighting and cooking - and show them how to light it and put it out and go through everything they need to know and understand about safety then  they will understand its importance and also its danger and understand the consequences of their actions. All the research supports this.”

Just as important as anything else perhaps is that youngsters who learn to love the natural world at a very young age are given a gift that they will benefit from for life.

The NIFSA is currently funded by local authorities and the Public Health Agency. Brian is committed for it to be self-financing in the future and says, that in some respects  he is pleased it has no support from central government. “We’re driven by the passion of the teachers – and I think it’s powerful that this work gets done because teachers want to, rather than have to do it.”

Further information about training and resources for schools, nurseries and teachers is available here.




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