There has been a real upsurge in interest in children spending time outdoors and interacting with nature in the last few years. A quick Google of ‘forest schools’ will yield around three and a half million results. On the whole I think this is a great thing – I grew up spending time playing in woodlands and on moors and dales in the UK, and my teaching degree was in Outdoor Education. However part of me has baulked at the way forest schooling has become fashionable, partly because I tend to baulk at fashion (as anyone who has seen me would testify!) and partly because I think an educator should build their pedagogy from a principled and considered base – not just copy what others are doing. I believe there should be strong understanding behind the choices that are made for our children. I have no objection at all to progress and change, but I hope it is from a position of understanding, not mimicking.
Adults will see nature very differently to children. Close your eyes now and imagine nature – what do you see? It was probably a scene, a view. Perhaps you saw mountains or rolling fields, maybe a beach or coastal vista? Would a child say this?
I don’t know. When I asked my children one of them said ‘outside’ and the other ‘predators’ – possibly just a reflection of current interests I suppose!
What we see as nature is often separated from our everyday existence, the contrast between the man-made environment and a natural one is sharp – we are either in one or the other. We also talk about nature in that way – have you ever talked of going to a nature reserve, walk a nature trail or even had a nature table in a classroom? It all seems very normal, but what message might that be giving to the child? Is nature something that we exist in, or something that can be driven to and looked around? If you walk off the nature trail, are you no longer in nature? What about the parts of nature you cannot fit on a table, such as the feeling of openness, the smells (although I am sure you could find a way!) the whole body sensations of temperature, wind, and moving within a space?
Montessori wrote that a child should live ‘in nature’ – what does that mean to you?
I would say that it means living experiences of the natural environment, but also with an understanding of how that can exist within and alongside man-made areas. It would require us as adults to try to look at the world through the child’s eyes – we may see roads and pavements, buildings and pylons where the child sees grasses and moss, bugs and birds. Acknowledging that the man made environment can support natural life can open our own eyes to look again and explore it further. The child will not think of their discoveries any less just because there is not a beautiful (from the adult perspective) view to accompany it.
I do still think that ‘big’ nature is still an essential experience for children if it is at all possible. The openness of an open space cannot be replicated through any image or description, and it is something that I am certain does affect the human spirit.
It is beyond doubt that children’s behaviours differ when they are outside compared to indoors. Whether that is due to a physiological response to openness or a spiritual response to a connection to the planet could in some ways be immaterial – the response is good for the soul and should be enabled whenever possible.
What we could offer in childcare settings and schools to allow this? Free-flow between indoors and out would be ideal, but due to the nature of the buildings used this is not always possible. The next best thing? Just go outside! Walks out don’t have to have a destination, just go and see what you can see. Like a scavenger hunt without a list, explore and discover. To keep with Montessori’s idea of living in nature, don’t present a trip out, or even being able to use the garden as a special event – treat it as you would any other area of learning, or space in the classroom. If the experiences become normalised for the child then they will have a better chance of seeing themselves as in nature as opposed to an outsider who can visit nature. An immersive experience will help it to become not a part of their life, but an over-arching feature of it.
Want to learn more? You can hear Jeremy speak about how nature can bring a whole new dimension to a child’s development, at Childcare Expo, on 3rd March at London Olympia.
Free tickets are available now! Click here to get yours.