So is this increase in captivity because the world outside our doors has become more dangerous for children than in previous generations? It is true there is significantly higher levels of traffic on the roads than in the 1970s, but as for ‘stranger danger’, there’s no statistical reason for parents to be more worried now than when they or their grandparents grew up.
One of the reasons for this increase in fear, is a reduction in social trust—whether people think that most other people are generally honest, reliable and safe. Social trust figures have been falling in the UK, particularly amongst the younger generations, which could be a reflection of the fact that young people interact less with their community now than in previous generations. Society’s fear that the world outside is harmful to children is causing harm to childhood itself by raising a generation of children who don’t play outdoors. And despite common arguments that today’s children only want to stay inside and play video games, UNICEF’s survey of childhood wellbeing found that when asked ‘what makes a good day?’, children overwhelmingly state time playing outdoors as one of the main factors.
Forest Schools and woodland play schemes are one way Britain is tackling this lack of outdoor play. Forest School is an opportunity for children to experience nature as a place to explore, play and learn, where they can freely choose what they do based on their own curiosity and motivations, and take appropriate risks, such as using tools or working with fire.
The Forest School movement in the UK has its roots in Scandinavia. The concept was brought back to the UK in the 1990s after a group of nursery staff visited Forest Kindergartens in Denmark and saw how independent, resilient and happy the children were, spending all day in the forest. There are now estimated to be over 12,000 trained forest school leaders in the UK, providing woodland experiences for everyone from babies to elders, with most of the work being done with nursery and primary school aged children. The recorded benefits are vast and wide ranging; research in Germany shows children who attend outdoor pre-schools have been found to enter school with higher than average levels of concentration, communication and social skills, they are better able to make constructive contributions and ask questions and they show more interest and motivation towards learning. In addition to this are the physical benefits; they experience fewer injuries because they are better able to asses risks and are stronger and have better balance and coordination, and are ill less often, having developed a stronger immune system than children who spend their pre-school years indoors. They also learn maths, reading and writing quicker because of their confident attitude, and because they are willing and ready to learn. And importantly, children who spend time in nature, generally turn out to be adults who have a meaningful and caring connection with the world around them, which is to be encouraged if our species is to continue.
Obviously the level of benefits differ significantly between children participating in a forest school session once a week, and those attending an outdoor nursery full time as the Danish forest kindergarten children do. Full time outdoor nurseries are starting to spring up throughout the UK, with the highest concentration in Scotland.
Although there is an adult present, the forest school leader’s role is to facilitate—to be ‘on tap’ rather than ‘on top’. I see forest school programmes as a stepping-stone towards the independent wild play in nature that previous generations enjoyed without adults watching over them. Trust between the leader and children is an important part of Forest School, as the children have high levels of responsibility for taking care of themselves, each other and their environment whilst engaging in activities that are potentially risky. It’s amazing to see how even very young children can rise to take on the responsibility when they are trusted to do so.