I used this quote in my subtitle because it spoke volumes to me. When some children were being interviewed about where they best liked to play, one answered, ‘I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are…’
This statement saddened me beyond belief because it is reflective of how many young children currently live their lives.
When I was a child, even living in a very cold climate, we were always out in the open air. Summers would be spent exploring the rivers and streams. With shoes off we’d tackle the rocks in the shallows, often falling in and getting wet. We didn’t care.
We would guddle for minnows (catching them in our hands,) or collect frog spawn which we’d take to school and over the weeks, observe the magical transformation of spawn, into a tadpole, into a frog.
Sometimes we’d be stung by insects, but we knew where to find docken leaves and how to apply them.
There is no better learning!
And in winters, we’d ‘skate’ to school, finding the frozen ice beneath the snow, with little regard to the abuse of our school shoes.
And at night, in winter, beneath a magical star-studded sky, we would take our sleds and have the best fun.
Did our parents worry? An unequivocal no, to that!
Did we get hurt? Sometimes, but there was always a lesson to be gained. I don’t recall any of us being badly hurt.
The outdoors was where we did our best learning.
Were there rules? Implicitly-speaking, yes, so that the older children took care of the younger, trust that was thrust on, rather than earned. Yes, we did abide by these rules, and we thrived.
The thing about living in a cold climate was you just had to put up with the freeze. If you didn’t, there was very little else to do…discounting reading and playing board games, that is.
I look back on my formative years with incredible nostalgia. These were delicious days for me. There was magic in the freedom we enjoyed. My dad made it even more magical by taking us for long weekend walks in the woods, and teaching us about the wildlife in and around. Such was our nature school.
We were bound, joined at the hip to the natural world around us.
Some may think that such freedom beggars belief, but what they are missing is that, in our times in nature, we were creating, and dreaming and making believe. We never, ever declared ourselves to be bored, and believe it or not, doing it within the constraints of what was right.
And now I find out that what we did all along, that is, using the natural environment to learn and grow, and form relationships with all things natural, was already well and truly in vogue, in parts of Europe.
They’re called forest schools (nature schools). These outdoor learning institutions have been a popular and upcoming form of early childhood education in parts of Europe, since the 1950s.
The use of the natural world in which we live is at the core of this form of education, where students learn to explore and share, give and take, to show and tell, to climb and test, to garden, and light fire, and to whittle.
We were already doing all of this, at the forefront of what is now growing in popularity, but nobody told us!
Although it looked all those years ago, as something akin to neglect, we learned things that few children know today. We respected the river and the currents therein. We paid homage to the vagaries of the climate. Intuitively we knew what the time was, and were back in time for dinner. We were in tune with nature, and we had taught ourselves, to some extent, how to try and test, without getting hurt.
Should we protect our children from danger, or should we instead, allow them to embrace and manage challenges?
When my own child was being cared for by a friend, a nurse, she beautifully managed to facilitate the use of things perceived to be dangerous. No child ever had an accident.
Today many parents resist letting their children run free, and yet, that is every child’s urge. Climbing trees, jumping from branches, swinging from one branch to another, imagining, and pretending is how children naturally learn.
Believe me, I can recall the first time I miscalculated a jump. I had a feeling the height was too great, but I did it anyway. I can still recall the pain that shot through my spine, and so the next time I was much more circumspect. I better understood my limitations. I had learned.
Many parents struggle with seeing their children taking risks, climbing high up in the trees, moving from branch to branch, testing, waiting, and deciding. These are the hallmarks of developing maturity, and the message for parents is to stand back and trust.
Some parents struggle even more with the idea of their children being exposed to anything sharp, or dangerous. It’s not necessarily their fault. It’s how we have developed as parents. We cosset. We teach our children to be afraid. We tell them no, instead of opening the doors of learning or showing them, teaching about sharpness and the need to be careful, rather than fearful.
But this kind of parenting is a relatively recent phenomenon. Parents haven’t always been this cautious. But now they are and some are realizing the limitations of their being so careful. Instead, they are now flouting the status quo.
These days, and originating in Denmark, many parents prefer to send their preschool children to outdoor education.
Forest schools are becoming hugely popular, a back-to-the-future following of parents intent on enabling optimal physical development, and nature-inquisitive learning, for their children.
Are we now teaching children to be wild?
Quite the reverse, in fact.
Far from being wild, undisciplined children, these students are found to have better concentration, and creativity, improved social skills, and generally speaking, are so much happier than children confined to a classroom.
‘This type of schooling, which has now spread to beyond Scandinavia, is based on the Nordic philosophy of ‘friluftsliv’ (literally ‘outdoors’ in Danish) which embodies the idea that returning to nature is returning to home. For the Danish in the 1950s, Ella Flatau formed a “walking kindergarten” where daily hiking was part of the curriculum. Mothers began sending their children from Copenhagen’s busy neighborhoods to the countryside for these forest schools. In the 1970s, there was another boom in nature-based preschools. The forest school approach has also existed since the 1950s in Sweden. Goesta Frohm who created the idea of ‘Skogsmulle’ (in Swedish ‘Skog; means forest and ‘Mulle’ is a character who lives in the forest) to bridge the gap he felt younger children had to nature. His methods include hand sensory experiences, regular visits to the forest, and reconnecting to nature. He executed this process though an imaginary character called Skogsmulle.’
Imagine the fun! Permission to use sharp tools, or sticks, climbing, swinging, and discovering…will there be injuries? Of course, but that’s life. Besides, there are not nearly as many as you might think.
Children thrive in forest schools. And evidence points to these children being rounded and more able students, better equipped for more formal learning when entering traditional schools.
Best of all, there is a better chance that they will grow up to be protective of the world in which they live.
In his book ‘Last Child In The Woods’, Richard Louv, states that: ‘We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.’
The thing is, it’s difficult to cut loose with our children these days. We live in a litigious society and we’re afraid.
There are agencies out there who make big money out of mishaps. Every outing is codified into legal structures so that our youth is spending less and less time in the open air, such that their construct of natural is blunted.
Louv refers to this as Nature Deficit Disorder.
Given that our mental and spiritual well being is intrinsically linked to, and dependent on our relationship and interaction with nature, we have to find an answer.
Nature is nutrition for the soul. Nature helps us all find answers.
If we are relying on the younger generations to turn our environmental issues around in the future, how will they be able to?
‘Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.’
Louv believes that:
‘The future will belong to the nature-smart, those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.’
So if we see time spent in nature is healthy for all of us, especially for our children, and if we do so, and if we begin to connect the dots, both good and bad, might we also find enough outrage and determination to move away from a technically-bound world, and instead choose to heal a world that is crying out for relief and inclusion?
The question on my lips is: So who’s afraid afraid of the big, bad woods?
Or, might we see see the woods as our inspiration?