|Children at Into the Woods nursery and Ark Franklin Primary Academy/Credit: Caroline Irby|
“Nature breeds curiosity; it helps grow explorers rather than robots.” Ben Palmer-Fry, outdoor learning teacher, Ark Franklin Primary Academy.
Children in the UK spend less time outside than high-security prisoners, according to a recent report. While their grandparents roamed unsupervised outdoors, our children spend their days cooped up inside, glued to a screen. We have displaced nature from their lives: selling off their outdoors spaces, feeding them technology, keeping them inside with our fears and lack of time.
A few years ago, the National Trust published a report on the phenomenon of "nature deficit disorder", a term coined in 2005 by the American author Richard Louv, who argued that the human cost of "alienation from nature" was measured in "diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses".
Nature deficit disorder is not generally regarded as a medical condition. Yet, in the UK as in many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly since the 1970s.
What if we could ‘rewild’ their childhood - bring back nature into their lives? Could it produce healthier and happier young people?
Many people believe so, and a growing number of schools across the country (and elsewhere) are trying to do just that: they are re-introducing nature into children’s lives. It is seen as a new trend, but the UK has a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back at least to the 19th century with Wordsworth, Ruskin, Baden and many others.
Some schools are following the Forest School philosophy, drawing on the Scandinavian model of Nature Kindergartens, while others are developing their own outdoor learning organically, adapting it into their curriculum. Many community programmes, projects and social enterprises are also trying to reconnect young people with nature.
And the results are amazing. A solid body of research show the significant health, social and emotional benefits of outdoor learning. Forest School teachers say their children are healthier, more independent, confident, creative, socially minded and caring for the environment than other children. Yet, outdoor learning is likely to remain on the margins of education until the benefits are recognised by policymakers and reflected in policies.
Photographer Caroline Irby and I have visited two London schools, which represent two different approaches to outdoor learning. Into the Woods, a nursery where children spend their entire days in the woods, rain or shine, and Ark Franklin Primary Academy, which has transformed a piece of urban derelict land into a green oasis with a storytelling grove, a bug hotel, a vegetable garden and more. The outdoors lessons include sciences, literacy and maths, but also “weaving and knot-tying and everything we think will be useful,” says headteacher Janine Ryan.
“Education is increasingly dominated by academic targets and a narrow curriculum,” says Emma Shaw, founder and manager of Into the Woods, London’s first Forest School nursery. “The concept of play is lost along the way. ‘Let’s do the Maths earlier’: everything is measured. We all live our lives on screen all the time… Here, the children can be themselves. They have space and time to explore, learn and do their own things.”
You can read our story “Learning Outdoors: Growing Explorers, not Robots” published in Positive News.