One of the many reasons Forest Schools have become so popular since they were first introduced to the UK 23 years ago is they allow children to engage with the outside world. Modern technology has made it easy for kids to spend their evenings in front of a TV or tablet, but in doing so they never learn the lessons that nature teaches so readily. The outdoor learning opportunities Forest Schools provide have been shown to help develop a child’s confidence and self-esteem, as well as improve their ability to make decisions and assess risks. However, encouraging children to spend time and play outdoors can also achieve much more.
Improved Sensory Development
Computing devices and TVs stimulate the eyes and ears, but being out in nature stimulates all the senses. It is impossible for young children to spend time outdoors and not encounter new smells, tactile sensations, and the sound. Not only does being outside broaden a child’s sensory perception and encourage its continuous development, it also teaches children how their senses work together to paint a bigger, more vibrant picture of the world around them.
Increases Physical Fitness
With the rate of childhood obesity on the rise, it is more important than ever for children to engage in regular activity in order to maintain and improve their fitness levels. Running around natural landscapes is different from doing so on paved surfaces, as the uneven forest floor presents an extra challenge and promotes greater focus and spatial awareness. It is also more likely for active children to partake in organised sports and continue doing so as they get older. This will make it more likely for them to remain healthy in later life.
Research has shown that children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop myopia, also known as short-sightedness. Being away from screens (which are generally sat nearer to a person’s face) contributes to this positive effect, but optometrists say the true benefit comes from exposure to natural light. Two hours a day or more would be ideal, though even as little as 60 minutes spent outside can dramatically reduce the chances of a child developing short-sightedness.
Boosts Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D can be found in several foods - including fish, eggs and mushrooms - however, UVB rays from sunlight are actually the human body’s main source of Vitamin D. Used by the body to help absorb minerals such as calcium, Vitamin D is essential for the development of strong bones and also helps to maintain high energy levels and mental acuity. A child will get his or her daily dose of Vitamin D from around 10 to 20 minutes of outdoor play.
Reinforces The Immune System
Children who play outside are naturally exposed to various strains of bacteria found in dirt and soil. Encountering bacteria regularly helps a child’s immune system to build up a resistance to them, making it more difficult for harmful bacteria to invade the body and make them sick. Moreover, studies have shown that children raised in environments that are too clean are at a higher risk of developing allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases.
Encourages Interpersonal Interactions
Children attending Forest Schools carry out what is known as unstructured play. Rather than having adults direct their actions and influence their behaviour, unstructured play facilitates children and encourages them to negotiate with one another. In doing so, they learn important social skills and organically pick up how they can relate to and interact with other people.
Develops Individual Agency
As well as teaching children how to get along with others, unstructured play also teaches them how to get along by themselves. There is no wrong or right way to play outdoors, and allowing children to decide how they want to interact with the world around them will promote independence and imaginative expression.