Forest schools and the importance of Wild play

Forest Schools and the opportunity for Wild Play

Why Wild Play is essential for children’s development and our survival as a species!

playing at being squirrels - it's wild play

Forest school is often seen as a way to take the National Curriculum outdoors and 1000’s of children now spend time in contact with the natural world this way each week. Many forest school leaders know that forest school sessions offer some of the only time children spend outdoors in a natural environment each week.

Being outdoors and more specifically in nature is incredibly important to the health and happiness of our children as a recent report, Natural Childhood, by Stephen Moss and the National Trust highlights. Within the report there is also mention of ‘nature deficit disorder’ (a non-medical term!). Children are at risk from busy lives, a lack of countryside available to play and now being kept on a tighter leash and wrapped in cotton wool, as the natural caring tendencies of their parents are being dangerously heightened by media generated fear.

There is good news. Nature connection is happening. For example, at a head teacher’s conference in Gatwick I was at recently I found out that many of the primary schools in Sussex are adopting the Forest School model.

Phew! I think to myself, our children are getting what they need to become healthy, happy adults. Not so. It seems that ‘nature time’ only part of the story. Play is also essential to survival.

In his book Evolutionary Playwork (2011), Hughes emphasises “that the growing body of scientific evidence confirming a direct relationship between play, evolution and brain growth, demonstrated that play should never have been viewed either as comprehensive support for deep biological processes—expressed through mechanisms like adaptation, flexibility, calibration and the different play types—that enabled the human organism to withstand the pressures of extinction.”

A recent article in Psychology Today (Bekoff, 25 Feb 2012) has also highlighted the need for the young of humans and non-humans to have times of adult free, wild play. In his piece titled Animal Emotions Marc Bekoff proposes that “play functions to increase the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations.”

One day a week during term time I run an outdoor play and nature connection afterschool club. After several years of calling it “Bushcraft club” and “forest school club” we changed the name to reflect the needs of the children to have some un-prescribed activities, in a woodland setting. Sometimes we organise activity. Sometimes the children play and we interfere as little as possible! The fact that it is always oversubscribed tells me that the children are getting something they want and need from it.

The combination of time alone, time playing with friends and time with adults in nature provides a vital developmental link to our ancestors and our future. Biologically we are all animals and we are all part of the land we live in. We learn to respect ourselves and those things around us; – the elements, the flora and fauna – by becoming aware and making connections. In a forest school setting what starts as making mud pies and ‘bits of nature soup’ can easily develop into making actual nettle soup or wild garlic risotto – essential basic living skills for when children get older. While making nests, dens and homes children work together while collecting and building. At the same time, they will discover that they may be moving, destroying or creating homes for other creatures in that environment. They may even come to understand the needs of other flora and fauna to survive and develop empathy and a caring attitude to the places, plants and mini-beasts they play in and with. Ok, boys and girls can’t help be destructive and want to bash and stomp sometimes – but they will also want to nurture and care for real or imaginary playmates. It’s natural and nature does as much teaching as children do playing. Given the opportunity, children will play a lot of the time.

There is always something to learn and I am of the opinion that learning through self discovery is most meaningful. Wild play time offers the opportunity for that self-discovery often in the right time at the right place for the right person – a meaningful syncronistic combination of content and context can be like magic. I remember coming upon a wood mouse’s spoil heap while playing brambly hedge mice with my 4 year old son one day. He was so excited and interested by the discovery. He looked around to find which trees the nuts and seeds had come from and we immediately had to go to all the lime, beech and hazel trees to collect new stores. It was a moment of many connections for him and happiness for me!

In summary then, Forest school settings provide essential time outdoors and also offers a vital opportunity for children to have some Wild play time. As always a balance needs to be founds between adult led and adult free play. Wild play time seems to be rather important to our survival, not only to give a bit of child free time for sane parents, but also as time to gain essential survival skills for our children.


The Need for “Wild” Play: Let Children Be the Animals They Need to Be

Published on February 25, 2012 by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. in Animal Emotions

Evolutionary Playwork, Bob Hughes, 2011, Routledge.

Chris Holland is a nature connection and outdoor play professional based in Devon, but working nationwide. His playful blend of bushcraft, environmental art, foraging, forest school, nature awareness, outdoor play and storytelling is something unique that people of all ages enjoy. He started his company Wholeland in 2000.

He is also the author of the playful nature connection guidebook I love my world. “This book is a must” – Michael Morpurgo. “Should be on every parent’s bookshelf” – Woodland Dave, Forest School Leader

I love my world is available through and through rrp £15.95

Free Photos! click this link to see a whole heap of lovely photos of nature and folks out in it… from chris’s book I love my world