I have always had a love of nature. As a child, I spent summers hunting insects with a butterfly net, often wading through long grass or through my local brook after stickleback with my sister. In school I loved learning about nature; geography and science were my favourite subjects. I went on to study Environmental Science at Manchester Uni then volunteered with the Wildlife Trust moving on to environmental consultancy, conducting habitat surveys and helping to protect species like bats and newts. I have worked as a teaching assistant and also did teacher training.
I discovered the concept of ‘Forest School’ while training in the Lake District. During my time assisting in these outdoor sessions, I saw very clearly the profound effect that exposure to nature had on the children. I knew from that moment I would pursue this ethos after witnessing the huge benefits that it could bring to children.
Using ideas I picked up along this journey, I created my ‘Forest School Dad’ web page which after only a short time is growing in popularity. My aim was to aid parents interested in nature and outdoor learning to have the confidence to carry out achievable activities with their children, keeping them fully engaged with nature. I give ideas and inspiration in a step approach from making a jam jar wormery to crafting natural paint brushes. Crucially all the current tips and activity ideas posted can be done at home and in the garden using easy to find materials.
I like to set stick raft building challenges and see what creative ideas children produce
The development of Forest School began in Britain in the mid-1990s and is based on a Scandinavian concept that considers children’s contact with nature to be extremely important. In the Forest Schools I have volunteered at, we go out in all weathers, often dressed for the part in wellies and waterproofs so if the heavens open it doesn’t matter, we don’t hide under trees we splash in the puddles and make mud pies! Challenges like climbing a hill or jumping over a stream are everywhere and such controlled risk-taking activities are vital skills children can develop and take into adult life. Research has shown that by accessing their natural environment, children can reap multiple benefits for health and wellbeing including improvements to physical health, improvements to psychological and social wellbeing including reductions in stress and anxiety, increased positive mood, self-esteem and resilience.
My Own Experience
I have been lucky enough to volunteer at a number of outdoor learning set ups over the last few years and have witnessed the transformative force that nature has on children. At my first session in a lake-district woodland, a number of children were initially uneasy in the alien woodland setting, some told me they had never ever been in a woodland. I found this staggering as there were masses of woodlands literally on their doorstep. Some children can initially, appear timid and can lack confidence in this new outdoor setting but slowly begin to find their feet and develop a real confidence.
According to a 2008 National Trust survey, one in three children surveyed could not identify a magpie and half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp. I was amazed that some children could not identify common creatures, such as a woodlouse or a spider, never mind common trees like an oak. Exposure to nature makes children more knowledgeable about the outdoors, turning them into animated outdoor explorers. I often hear stories of children teaching their parents what they have learnt, which can be a great source of engagement and shared learning. Teachers also inform me children often appear more relaxed, assertive and keen to learn in the classroom environment after attending the outdoor sessions even for a short time.
I have witnessed children who are quiet or less academic or those with additional needs come alive in the outdoors. Their confidence blossoms, the constraints that hold them back in a classroom environment often remain firmly at the classroom door. For some it could be the first time they have felt ‘top-of-the-class’ at something. The absolute sense of achievement children rightly get when they have conquered that hill, or caught the frog that has been eluding them all afternoon can far outweigh anything achieved in the classroom.
In nature, children are often given the freedom to explore, whereas at home children are simply unable to or not allowed to do this, some sadly may not know how to explore. This is especially beneficial for children who may be naturally active or have a desire to explore giving them an outlet for these aspects of their personalities.
In the natural world children can learn to be resilient, to have a go at something, they may never have thought possible. They may use hand tools including drills and saws, or safely light and maintain a fire for cooking on, skills that are not automatically picked up, that have to be worked at. I believe that resilience is the single most important lesson that we can teach children to take with them into adulthood. Life is hard and if we can teach them to pick themselves up if they trip over a branch or perhaps to keep persevering to light that fire, it will stand them in good stead for later life.
Making a mini fire using a magnifying glass
As a Father
I am a father of two children and I have tried to pass on my love of nature. I am proud that they enjoy exploring wild areas, especially climbing trees, many of which they can’t get down from! They have learnt new skills by being in nature, particularly that of heightened senses and keen observation. My eldest child is ridiculously good at spotting insects, birds or interesting flowers when we are out; much better than me at spotting interesting things!
We found these natural objects whilst out on a walk and made our own nest from it.
In a world dominated by screens and constant bombardment to our child’s brains, nature provides a bubble of quiet and of calm and of slower thought and less restriction. Outside, my children become more imaginative and animated in their play, finding sticks that look like swords and pretending they are pirates or knights… whereas at home they would be fighting over who has the computer tablet. Instead of asking me for the password to the computer they are more likely to ask what type of butterfly flew past or if earwigs really can crawl in your ear?
More interesting things we found on a walk
A bumble bee landed on my hand
Whilst on walks with the dog, any anxiety that my children have, drift away and the worries that hold them back are no longer there. My children can be fiercely independent, energetic and fearless. At home this leads to frequent ‘no’ and ‘stop that’ to ensure their safety and that of my furniture! In the outdoors I am able to allow them to indulge these desires and safely test their boundaries. As with me, nature seems to have a very calming influence on them. More than anything, these experiences create strong childhood memories that will persist and I hope it will help create strong relationships, trust and bonds between us all.
Here and Now
I would like children to remain fully engaged with nature even during the Covid lockdown. In these troubled times of deteriorating child mental health, perhaps children can find a sanctuary in a wild corner of their garden if they have one, or a local green space they may not have visited before, just round the corner. Maybe some of my ideas and inspiration will encourage both children and their parents to get out into the local wild areas and discover nature together… perhaps for the first time and enjoy the improved benefits to their wellbeing as a result which will hopefully continue long after the lockdown has been lifted.
Jonny is a stay at home dad and a Forest School Assistant. Find him on Facebook (Forest School Dad) and Instagram (forestschooldad).