Can taking lessons outdoors tackle the children’s mental health crisis?

Five-year-old Alfie* hadn’t spoken a word at school all year until he started forest school. Being in nature, he finally opened up about the reason for his silence: he was grieving the death of his mother.

“His mummy had died suddenly, at home in the summer holiday. He did not speak a word, for weeks. Then we started to go to forest school,” Sarah Lawfull, a former teacher and now a director at the Forest School Association, told The Telegraph. “One day, while he was stirring a pool of mud and leaves in an old tree trunk he responded to my question: ‘What are you cooking?’ with ‘Spaghetti Bolognaise’.” 

“When I sat down on the forest floor nearby he started to talk, to tell me that his mummy had died and did I want to know what had happened,” says Lawfull. “As the story unfolded, others in the group realised he was speaking and joined us around the tree trunk. We sat, children and adults together, some of us with tears rolling down our cheeks.” 

Forest schools are child-led learning sessions held outdoors, away from technology and test-driven lessons. Lawfull shared the event with Alfie’s granddad, who began to volunteer at the after-school sessions. At the end of the year, he said the sessions had been his haven, helping him grieve for his daughter through playing in the woods with his grandson.

Lighting fires, roasting marshmallows and getting dirty – extracurricular forest schools have been booming since the early 2000’s. They were introduced in the UK 25 years ago following our Scandinavian neighbour’s praise of them. In 2012, there were 10,000 teachers registered across the Kingdom.

They’ve been applauded for helping with children’s mental wellbeing and physical health, and now a campaign, Nature Premium, is calling on the Government to fund such sessions in nature, and embed it in the curriculum for all children. 

It comes after lockdown highlighted inequalities in accessing outdoor spaces, with 20 per cent of UK households living in flats – 130,000 families have only one bedroom. At the same time, polling by Public Health England found that over half of parents said the mental wellbeing of their children topped the list of their biggest worries following the nationwide lockdown.

The Nature Premium campaigners say introducing outdoor learning into the curriculum can help, along with tackling lockdown-induced obesity, and promoting respect for the environment.

Lawfull, who is working with a small group of volunteers on the campaign, said: “During lockdown families were berated for spending more time in the park, but if you didn’t have a garden you had nowhere to go. The children’s areas were closed, and often parks were too full so children had to leave.”

Forest school sessions teach children about caring for woodlands, habitat management, and identifying trees and flowers and bugs and beasts. Children learn practical skills, too, like lighting fires and using tools safely. Campaigners say the funding would be for schools and could be spent at the headteacher’s discretion. This means it could fund forest school sessions, but also activities like visiting conservation charities or going to a city farm.

Mandy Warwick, who runs The Hedgehog Club in Witney, Oxfordshire, stressed that the sessions are important for mental wellbeing, teaching independence and managing risk. 

“Forest schools are very child-led. I put an activity in front of the child, but if they want to go and dig in the mud or play with a leaf for two hours, they can,” Ms Warwick said. “You can’t do that in the classroom where you have targets and exams, especially now with catching up with what was missed in lockdown.”

The New Economics Foundation, a think tank, found that forest schools also build confidence, help develop social skills, and improve communication. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called on the Government to consider the campaign too, saying it would be a “valuable development”. He continued: “Outdoor play, exercise and access to nature are vital to healthy learning. Helping schools ensure outside activities continue will aid mental as well as physical health.”

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