Kya deLongchamps says a growing movement is bringing down the walls in creches and returning our children to the waters and the wild.
Children's advocate Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children and Nature Network and author of the influential book, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin 2008), identified what he called, nature deficit.
This is the important, increasingly proven link between children’s emotional and physical wellbeing and a lack of exposure to the natural outdoor environment.
Louv suggests that those youngsters allowed to regularly enjoy the transformative positives of the uncultivated outdoors are an “endangered species”.
In peer-reviewed research, nature deficit has been linked to conditions ranging from ADD to obesity and even depression. Louv is calling for a worldwide response of ‘No Child Left Inside’ across the world’s communities and schools — and he’s not alone.
Placing children in wholly natural spaces and guiding their personal response to those surroundings follows on the ethics of the Steiner School movement first tailored to a pre-school setting in 1909.
Using the outdoors as a stimulus-rich classroom fosters a joy of learning outside the parameters of academic specialisation and traditional subject timetables.
New Nature or forest schools cherish the physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual needs of the child in a healthy, holistic round of play and adventure.
They also deliver ‘stealth’ learning along the way. European kindergartens have for decades prescribed large chunks of their curriculum to such outdoor child-led activity.
Psychologist Karolina Jurasik, of MyMind (which has centres for mental wellbeing in Cork, Dublin, and Limerick) explains that children freed to outdoors experience multiple, cumulative benefits.
“Just simply being out and active in the fresh air strengthens a child’s psychomotor and manual development. Kids exposed to different weather conditions experience improvement in their immune system,” she says.
"Kids also get to be more expressive — they can be loud, sing, scream, just show their emotions without restraint.
"When kids play outside, adults are usually not observing them as closely and are not there to intervene at every misunderstanding and difficult situations — they learn to do that for themselves, testing their skills set, becoming more independent and resourceful.”
The Nature Kindergarten (Park Academy Childcare) opened in Killruddery, Co Wicklow, in 2015 to fanfare from the pre-school education community, parents, and the press. Quietly and determinedly, the outdoorsy way of guided learning is sounding softly on the fields, beaches, and woods around the rest of the country.
Marie Kelly’s daughter attends the Sligo Woodland School, run by Trisha McLaughlin. “I feel happy in my bones and my soul when I drop my daughter off,” says Marie. “Every voice is sought and heard. Children feel cherished. They have not had their given connection with nature broken when they entered pre-school. It has simply continued and it feels right.”
McLaughlin stepped boldly outside the conventions of a classroom pre-school setting to exuberant new possibilities. Her Forest School training was provided through Earth Force Education under Ciara Hinksmam, a pioneer for Forest School practice and development in Ireland.
“I was lecturing in social sciences at IT Sligo,” she explains.
“And while delivering the module Outdoor Play I took the opportunity to complete the Forest School leadership training. I started as a pre-school educational programme called Forest Friday Nature Play (continued now with Ina Guhmann).
McLaughlin echoes Karolina Jurasik in the place of breathing and relaxation and its influence on the mind and contribution to emotional resilience.
“If you think about what happens when you go for a walk in a natural space when you are feeling tense, most of us start to experience calmness. Our breathing changes and we can develop a better perspective on our problem.”
What do Trisha and her little troops do on a typical day in a woodland school? “Nature is alive and moving, its ever-changing visual canvas invited curiosity and discovery.
The forest school holiday camps and sessions always start with a safety talk and games to reinforce their awareness of safety boundaries.
Usually, on their first session, we will have a bug hunt or scavenger hunt to engage and investigate. I do a lot of free play and pursue the children’s own interests. I follow the ‘children and nature design principles.”
Activities include tool work (hand drills) animal tracking, map making, and treasure hunts, making mini beast motels, shelter building, nature-based obstacle course, and fire building.
Is playing weather dependent? “The only weather condition that would keep us indoors is high winds due to falling branches.
"When it rains or snows it adds a special dynamic to our adventures; more puddles to jump in, more snowmen and igloos to build.”
Parent Fiona Donegan says:
“Over the past year I’ve watched my shy, timid, and tentative little boy become self-assured, sure-footed, and so confident at mastering his place in the world around him.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, Algonquin Books, €13.20