Learning outdoors is now widely accepted to be an exciting and stimulating way for children to learn in many ways. Without a doubt it brings theory to life, turning the learning objectives set out in the national curriculum from bland 2D to surround sound. There is no comparison between learning the parts of a flower from a black and white diagram in a book to being surrounded by a bloom of bright yellow daffodils that one can smell and feel, and see bees and butterflies buzzing around. However, learning outdoors is a generic term for a range of learning approaches, all of which actually have a different overall aim but yet overlap in many ways too.
Environmental education is a mainstream and formal drive towards creating environmentally aware citizens, and is in the same vein as Education for Sustainable Development and Development Education. Environmental Education originated as far back as the 18th century, starting more akin to ‘nature study’. Now, Environmental education is linked closely with National school curriculum, often designed to directly meet the learning objectives it contains across several subjects including geography, science and maths, but can also apply to art and English. Environmental education is characterised by one off visits to specialised providers to cover specific learning objectives.
Environmental education at secondary level can be far more involved however, sometimes including project work such as Local Environmental Action plans created by young people and carried out by young people in their schools and community. When supported correctly, Environmental education can eventually lead young people to engage with national environmental policy, and even international conferences such as COY (Conference of Youth based on climate action). Environmental education is viewed by many as a major way to encourage young people to become more energy conscious and less consumerist adults, the paving stones of a sustainable future, with both UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific & Cultural Organisation) and UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) pushing it forward internationally. It is promoted on a national and local level in several countries, including the UK, by the ECO schools programme, and provided by organisations such as the Wilderness Foundation on an outreach or on-site basis.
According to the Institute of Outdoor Learning (UK), Outdoor Learning has a broad definition that includes ‘..an active, experiential approach to learning, open to all, that involves being outdoors as a central part of the experience… develops personal, social and environmental understanding and skills. It fosters a range of positive attitudes and actions towards risk, health, community and sustainability… developing cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills…encourages empathy, understanding, cooperation and collaboration.’
Much of this is very similar to the benefits of Forest school. The action behind Outdoor Learning however is self-explanatory, it incorporates any kind of learning that takes place outdoors, but not necessarily about the outdoors. For example, maths lessons moved to the playground could be considered Outdoor Learning.
Forest school has become a popular choice for many schools and families as a way of engaging children in the natural environment in a meaningful way. Forest school promotes time spent in the local environment, ideally one site in particular, to create a lasting connection to the natural world and in doing so develop the child holistically across a range of traits such as problem solving and confidence. Learning about the environment will happen naturally over time rather than within an agenda.
Certain elements not necessarily present in other forms of outdoor activity apply to Forest school delivery, including having a fire, using tools and having a qualified FS leader alongside a high adult: child ratio to accommodate the risk associated with such activities. Forest school delivery in Essex is becoming very popular, with organisations such as the Wilderness Foundation, Essex Wildlife Trust and Essex Outdoors running Forest school programmes, while many primary schools now have teachers trained in Forest school delivery to enable them to deliver sessions in house.
The benefits of Forest School to a child are many; skills are learnt not directed, so there is ample opportunity for trial and error, building resilience and perseverance, and lots of opportunities for that self-esteem building sense of achievement that comes with mastering a task. Building, such as dens and bridges, develops gross motor skills, strength and balance, as well as an understanding of risk and how to mitigate risk, an important life skill. Rope play, crafts and whittling all work on a child’s fine motor skills – essential for writing.
Children participating in Forest school are not subject to outcomes or learning objectives, yet their knowledge of their own woodland is detailed, where they will experience and understand first hand seasonal changes, environmental changes such as flooding and how to care for the environment and enjoy it in a way that is shared with its wild inhabitants. Their knowledge of their wild space drives their confidence, and their connection to the natural woodland is calming and securing. The same way children can feel safe and comfortable to play in their school gym, so Forest schoolers feel the same security in this wild space. Not least of all, the potential for imaginary play is unlimited and wildly supported!
The ultimate goal of engaging young people in environmental learning however is to give them the connection to nature that is slipping away in this modern world. Children are now far more ‘indoor children’ than ever before, losing the mental and emotional benefits of time spent outdoors. And looking to the future, no one will want to conserve the natural environment if no-one cares about it, so to protect our precious, life giving environment in the future we need the next generation of conservationists, those who understand that without the environment that provides our air and water we are lost. Learning outdoors, and about the outdoors, is not only worth doing, it is crucial.