Do kids today get outside as much as you did as a child? Research says, “no.”
Free play has also taken a backseat to organized activities, a focus on academic outcomes, increased screen-time, and a risk-adverse culture. Yet, Maria Brussoni, a professor at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital, points to the power of play in nature. Specifically, the importance of outdoor risky play for children’s healthy development.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara, a clinical counsellor and developmentalist, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and bestselling author, values true play because it’s where a child’s self can safely emerge, where problem solving networks are programmed, and where emotion can be expressed without repercussions.
These same goals are at the heart of Forest and Nature Schools.
What is Forest and Nature School?
It’s been around since the fifties, rooted in Denmark and Sweden. Newer to Canada, Forest and Nature School (FNS) is the term offered by Forest School Canada, an education initiative of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.
It can be full- or part-time learning and exploration in local parks, green spaces (forests and beaches), urban or rural, or an outdoor classroom. Some programs have their own land while others are adding time on farms, too. Programs run one to three days a week for ages three (preschool) to Grade 12 (B.C. Curriculum can be delivered outdoors).
The FNS formula relies on regular and repeated access to the same nature area throughout the seasons. Core values include play- and inquiry-based learning, experiential learning, risky play, and often child-centred or child-led activities. FNS aims to help children understand that we are not separate from the Earth or each other.
“A forest and nature school program uses nature as the teacher and the classroom” says Bonnie Davison, founder of the Victoria Nature School Society and Forest School Practitioner.
Some of the benefits of time in nature include:
• Increases positive environment attitudes later on in adult life.
• Provides kids with opportunities for self-reflection (for example, through ‘sit spots’) and connection
• Increases spiritual well-being through a sense of connectedness, a sense of purpose, a sense of awe, wonder and inspiration.
• Encourages gratitude rituals which can enhance our resilience and ability to face challenges.
• A place to embrace risky play.
• Decreases the occurrence and frequency of time off for ill health.
“Our forest friends are sick less due to breathing fresh air and moving their bodies through the transition of seasons,” says Jarrett Krentzel, founder and director of Hand-In-Hand Nature Education Inc. “They sleep and eat better because they are exceeding their body’s physical literacy needs.”
Maria Brussoni says being in nature encourages kids to know how the world and their bodies work, to develop self-confidence, and to build resilience, executive functioning and risk management skills.
What can parents expect at Forest Schools?
An increase in laundry!
Rituals and rythyms are valued as well as tide pool exploration, mud pie making and playing with loose parts. A child’s enjoyment, safety, and comfort can depend on good gear like waterproof, windproof and breathable layers. Waterproof mitts and insulated boots are key.
• Red provides the greatest contrast for kids in nature.
• Two-piece rain gear is preferable to one-piece for toileting.
• A comfortable backpack needs a chest strap and waterproof cover.
Ratios for three to five-year-olds may be 1:6 (Island Health regulations for preschools are 1:8). Victoria Nature School has three educators with a maximum of 16 students while EPIC Learning Centre (K-2) has two educators for 12 to15 students. Ask for a programs’ risk management plan, which includes policies and procedures to mitigate risks and hazards—from dog bite prevention to a lost child.
Note: Early Years Nature Programs that only operate outside cannot become licensed. Island Health only licensees indoor facilities and not the program itself. Unlicensed programs do not qualify for subsidy and support workers.
What can kids expect?
Rain, shine or snow, kids play outdoors. Preschool age may be outside three or more hours a day while school-aged (five and up), can expect a minimum of four hours. Wind warnings may bring nature schoolers inside, due to risks of falling trees and limbs.
Most programs have access to public washrooms. Others may carry a portable forest toilet and hand washing station. Leave no trace is practiced.
What makes a FNS educator?
Along with a love the outdoors and rain pants (!), and FNS educator may be trained in:
• Forest School Practitioners Training (childnature.ca/forest-school-canada)
• Child and Nature Alliance Practitioner’s Course
• Coyote Mentoring or 8-shield based mentoring (thrivingroots.org and/or Wilderness Awareness School, Washington State wildernessawareness.org/adult/)
• Workshops by Victoria Nature School (victorianatureschool.com), Fresh Air Learning, North Vancouver (freshairlearnig.org) or Soaring Eagle Nature School, North Vancouver (soaringeaglenatureschool.org/)
• Wilderness First Aid
How to find a FNS
• Visit childnature.ca/about-forest-and-nature-school/
• Search Google or Facebook.
• Check local community centres.
• Check programming at nature sanctuaries.
• Start your own (like I did!).
We all need to be affected by our world. Help children in your life develop the grounding they’ll need by finding rest and play in our natural world. Being in nature takes you out of yourself and can help stop our profound disconnection with the earth, oneself and one another.
Learn more about FNS in Canada at childnature.ca/wp-content/uploads/ 2017/10/FSC-Guide-1.pdf.