Archive for November 13th, 2013

November 13, 2013

Studying Forest Schools in Britain: More Proof That Being Outdoors Creates Kinder, Happier Kids

by Melissa Harding

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“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth”
– Walt Whitman

While many American children are lucky to have recess at all, a growing number of children in Britain are exploring the woods as part of their everyday education. British Forest Schools, based on the Scandinavian idea that children’s contact with nature is extremely important, began development in the mid-1990s and are defined within the country as ‘an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment’. The British Forestry Commission has been running multiple studies in recent years on the effects of participation in Forest School programming on overall well-being, three of which are profiled below. These studies not only show that education in natural settings is beneficial for children, but that any time spent outdoors can positively influence their mental and physical health.

The first study, conducted by the Forestry Commission in Wales, tracked a group of nine children that participated in weekly three-hour sessions of nature play for ten weeks. At the first session, children were given a variety of buckets, trowels, mud and water with which to play. These resources were reduced each week until the children started using what they found in the woods to play with instead. Each child was assessed three times during every session to analyze how they were interacting with their environment. Researcher found that as resources were reduced, the group of children started showing remarkable mediation skills. Children learned how to negotiate for what they wanted and how to deal with disappointment. Each week saw the children grow in confidence as well as their ability to resolve conflicts within the group. Additionally, school staff reported that participating children transferred those skills back to the nursery and showed an improvement in negotiating and problem-solving there as well.

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The second study, by the Forestry Commission in Scotland, looked at the effects of natural settings on the psychological well-being of young people ages 10-13. Specifically, the study looked at the restorative effects of nature, or the process of recovery from physiological, psychological or social stress. Mental health was explored in a range of children, categorized in three groups based on the severity of their behavioral problems. Researchers measured their mental health in two different settings, both before and after a day at a traditional school and a day at forest school. The results show that while the traditional school setting depressed moods and increased anger, the forest school setting increased mood and decreased anger. Those students in the mental disorder group experienced the most significant increase in mood and behavior; the more severe the mental state, the greater the benefits. This is important, as anger in young people is linked to reduced physical and mental health, depression and increased anti-social behavior. This study suggests that time spent in nature can help increase pro-social behavior in young people, opening a potential door to improved learning experiences and rehabilitation for those with mental disorders.

The third study, done by the Forest Commission in Wales, tracked 24 children for over eight months. Children were evaluated using storyboards, on-site behavior analysis and artwork done by the children. Researchers found that when children were given freedom to be independent, they developed an increase in confidence, as well as physical skills and stamina. They also found an increase in social skills, including awareness of consequences, language development and teamwork. Finally, all children had more motivation and concentration. Researchers also found that there was a certain ripple effect created by the children attending Forest School, which was that they took their knowledge home to their families, leading to some increases in family visits to the woodlands.

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What all of these studies have in common is that time spent in nature, whether for toddlers or pre-teens, is proven to help children regulate their emotions, develop self-discipline, and become independent, confident problem-solvers. These skills lead to more pro-social behavior, like fairness and kindness. Pro-social children are more well-liked by their peers, happier in school and more academically successful, and generally become more successful adults. Spending significant time in nature, especially with family or friends, has been proven time and again to reduce stress, increase physical and mental health, and increase academic performance.

The good thing about research like this is that is has the easiest recommendation ever: just go outside. No matter how old your child, spending time outside together with family, with friends, and alone is the best way to get the benefits described above. Sitting outside to read a book or do homework, walking the dog, hiking in the woods or playing in the yard are all great ways for your child to get a daily nature fix. Remember, it is important to model healthy behaviors at home, and this is no exception; go outside yourself! Many of the same benefits apply to both kids and adults – you will all feel better at school, at work and at home by indulging in a little outside time.

Here are some resources and ideas to help you make the most of your time outside:
Nature Rocks: Find local natural areas, get ideas for fun outdoor activities and connect to other nature lovers
Children and Nature Natural Families Network: Learn how to start a nature club for kids and connect to other parents Richard Louv’s Resource Supplement to Last Child in the Woods: Outdoor activities, book suggestions and helpful links Simple Kids: Simple activity ideas to help your child explore the natural world
Home Connections: Try some of our ideas to combine outdoor exploration with fun activities

To read more about the importance of pro-social behavior in children and how nature can influence empathy, check out this past blog post.

To learn more about British Forest Schools and read some of their research on the effects of nature on children, check out their great website. Find a link to each of the cited studies here, here and here.

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff.

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