Time to Rewild the Child?
Have our children become disconnected from the natural world? Has an outdoor play, nature-filled life been traded for one that is dominated by electronics and indoor activities? Would a life without nature damage our children’s holistic development?
The UK has one of Europe’s earliest school-starting ages, with compulsory schooling beginning at five, although most children are in full-time school by the age of four. There were even calls for yet an earlier starting age of just two and three-years-old, to counter what was described as “weak parenting, low educational attainment of parents, poor diet, poor housing and so on.”
Such extreme and judgemental suggestions were by cited from a report by Ofsted quoting former advisor to Tony Blair, Lady Sally Morgan. She stated: “Those children have low-level social skills, especially reading and communication. They’re not ready to learn at school.” Lady Morgan later had her position as Head of Schools Inspectorate axed.
Lady Morgan was applying this theory to mere babes-out-of-the-crib. Of course some of these children are not ready to learn. Many of these doll-like infants appear at the beginning of a new school term in a reception class, looking wholly out-out-place; like they’re in fancy dress for the day, pretending to be an older child. Some of these little ones even struggle to get to the toilet on time. Why on earth would all children, at four years of age, be expected to switch into automaton learning mode because that is what society has decreed them to need?
Switch over to Finland: a typical child of four is still ensconced in a play-based environment, with no compulsory schooling beginning until they turn seven. At this point, the child enters formal schooling termed Basic Education with an emphasis on “growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society”. Education has no tuition fees, whatever level of study is undertaken.
Yet Finland remains one of the highest standards of societies for education, as seen in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). They were placed in the top three countries in the world levels for literacy, outranked only by east Asian countries like China and Singapore. What then, are the secrets to fostering these levels of excellence within students?
Perhaps the Finnish appetite for the continuous, dreary testing and grading of children is not as insatiable as the UK’s? Their focus for young people appears to be focused on “joyful play”; enhancing a child’s creative and emotional thinking, rather than adopting the one-size-fits-all archaic approach of yesteryear.
Countering the previous calls for earlier formal education for children in the UK, was developmental cognitive psychologist, Dr David Whitebread. In his Too Much, Too Soon paper, he cautioned against rash changes in educational policies that could dent young children’s psycho-social development and appealed for an extension of the play-based pre-school provision: “In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously.”
This of course, would probably fall onto deaf ears within Westminster, as they appear content to give serious decision-making jobs to unqualified ministers who seem mostly oblivious to such in-depth thought and professional research (think of the turgid recording of autocue-reading Minister Nicky Morgan in her attempts at telling teachers to stop whining about continuous primary school assessment criteria).
Prominent writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot was quoted as saying: “A week in the countryside is worth three months in a classroom.” Monbiot spent two days at the seaside with groups of ten-year-old children who came from inner-city communities. This was facilitated by the charity Wide Horizons. Together, they experienced days exploring beaches and woodland, dipping in and out of rock pools and investigating new outdoor experiences. Monbiot witnessed that the children’s sense of observation and interest was increased and they showed a great enjoyment of activities they’d never before experienced.
One common theme of children educated in Scandinavian countries is that they all enjoy outdoor experiences and education from an early age. Whatever the weather, children are bundled into thermal outdoor clothes for playtime and even for daytime naps. Nurseries organise their charges’ daytime sleeps outdoors in often freezing air, with one pre-school in Stockholm having a regular practice of letting all children up to the age of three, nap outdoors in temperatures well below zero.
In 2005, author Richard Louv published the acclaimed Last Child in the Woods: a book discussing American children’s “increasing divide” with the natural world, which Louv said has created a nature-deficit disorder. Also applicable to the UK’s children, considerable research documents children without access to nature has serious effects upon the emotional stability and development of the child. German psychologist and philosopher, Erich Fromm spoke of the biophilia hypothesis, suggesting that there is an instinctive bond between nature and humans. This close link transfers into learning opportunities as children are able to appreciate their natural surroundings on an everyday level, boosting concentration and emotional development.
Can we not deduce from this that it would be beneficial for children to regularly experience free play in the great outdoors – exploring woodland, forests, open spaces, without it being categorised as a “learning objective”? Minus any boxes to tick or reports to certify children have achieved government-designed levels and goals? Certainly less time being educated in different settings would have positive benefits for all school children.
Forest Schools are an increasingly popular route for parents for their children to be educated in an alternative setting. Becoming more widespread across the UK, the original idea of Forest School education is not new. Grown from Scandinavian roots, I Ur och Skur (translated as Rain or Shine Schools) were introduced by Denmark in the 1950s using outdoor schooling as part of the curriculum for young children. The movement spread across Europe and the rest of the world reaching the UK in the 1990s.
What learning benefits does an alternative education setting such as a Forest School provide for children? There is a strong collection of research to substantiate the belief that children who receive sessions of outdoor education and free play have better emotional and social development, with lower stress levels. A Swedish study of forest schools revealed a great deal of understanding about children’s experiences and emotions within nature. Patrick Grahn, a senior lecturer at the University of Sweden said: “When it comes to concentration capacity, the children within I Ur och Skur pre-schools are more than twice as focused as children within a normal pre-school. Their motor skills are better, they are less frustrated, restless and sick.”
Clementine Hopcroft, a mother of two home-educated children who also attend a Forest School, near Manchester spoke to Scisco Media about the advantages that her children experience by learning within a natural setting.
Pictured: Louis Hopcroft, aged 10.
“Forest School allows my children freedom: freedom to explore, freedom to engage as they choose and freedom to play! They can learn at their own pace and based on their own interests. It allows them simply to interact with their friends on their own terms. It provides an environment that my children love. The knowledge they gain from wild life and nature is unquantifiable. The children have a respect for living things around them.
“They regularly cook on an open fire, make pesto from wild garlic and even learn to build and sculpt with wood. I believe outdoor schooling offers a certain grounding: it allows the children to unplug and interact in an environment which is rarely offered to children within mainstream schooling. Personally, I don’t believe a traditional schooling environment can offer any of these experiences.
“After a term at Forest School, we noticed that our eldest son, Louis, became really comfortable being outdoors. That summer we spent a lot of time walking in the countryside and he could easily name birds and flowers and was able to explain how to make things out of plants we saw.
“Our ethos has always been to home-educate our children and they have never attended mainstream schooling. We believe that learning done when following a genuine interest is deeper, better remembered and stays with a person. We also feel that the pressure on teachers and pupils within schools is becoming ridiculous, causing failings in an already flawed system.
“We don’t believe childhood years are best spent in a classroom, with the same group of people day in, day out. How can we expect these children to develop into adults to integrate into life when most of the time we have removed them from society?”
Whilst educating children within a forest school setting might seem too tree-hugging and ‘alternative’ for some, the comprehensive benefits of children spending a greater amount of time engaged in unique free play and hands-on activities in a nature setting can not be disputed.
The UK’s Department of Education would do well to consider that all children should have regular access to nature-based play and activities that are free from tests and “learning objectives”. The critical point being that our children’s emotional, physical and sociological wellbeing could depend on it.