A message to all those promoting outdoor learning.
Written by Tim Gill
This weekend saw the launch of a new national body for those working in UK Forest School settings. I have agreed to be the patron of this new body. Sadly I was not able to be at the event in person. At the Association’s invitation, I passed on a message of support, which I thought may be of wider interest:
I am very honoured to be asked to be the patron of the first national association for those working to take forward the Forest School movement. I first heard about Forest School back in the early 2000s, and have been a big fan ever since.
Not that I needed much persuading. As someone who in the 1970s, I roamed freely throughout the large village and countryside where I grew up. So I have vivid memories of the times I spent with my friends in the woods and fields. We scoured rotting tree stumps searching for devil’s coach horse beetles and toads. We gathered horse chestnuts for playground conker tournaments. We picked rosehips and squirted out the insides to rub into each others’ backs as itching powder (though it never seemed very itchy to me).
I am sure many of you have similar memories. I do not doubt that – like me – many of you do what you do because you believe that children today deserve experiences that share some of the magical qualities of everyday adventures like these.
But just what are those magical qualities, and why are such experiences so universal, and so resonant? In my view, there are two reasons. First, they speak of the richness and boundless fascination of the natural world. No matter how humdrum or familiar it may seem to adult eyes, almost any green outdoor space holds mystery and wonder, and invites exploration and investigation, when experienced through children’s fresher, less stultified senses.
The second reason is our lifelong appetite for experience and autonomy. From the earliest age, we human beings have a deep hunger to get to grips with the world around us; to feel a sense of our own agency, of our competences, and of our ability to control our fate.
Thanks to Richard Louv and others, there is growing awareness of the fact that nature is disappearing from children’s lives, and indeed it is the focus for a thriving global movement. The fact that autonomy, freedom and a sense of responsibility are also disappearing from children’s lives is far less well recognized. To see this, just look at the tortuous health and safety tangles that many schools get into in the playground and on school trips.
For me, the potential of Forest School is built on two vital foundation stones: the intrinsic qualities of natural places, and the intrinsic motivations and learning impulses of children. If Forest School is to leave a lasting impression on the lives of the children and young people who experience it, these two need equal emphasis.
This is why I would like to make one plea to everyone here. When your new association gets locked into the minutiae of debates about definitions, and principles, and accreditation, and awards – as it inevitably will – do not forget to revisit those childhood memories. Remember the places you played when you were young, and the things you did there. Remind yourself that at its heart, what Forest School is about is allowing children the space and time to experience the everyday wonders of nature, and to feel what it means to be human.
I look forward to following and cheering on the work of the Association, and I am happy to do whatever I can to help take the organisation forward.
Note: the Association is yet to decide its name. I will amend this post once the decision is made.
Tim Gill is one of the UK’s leading thinkers on childhood, and an effective advocate for positive change in children’s everyday lives. For over 15 years his writing, research, consultancy projects and other work has focused on the changing nature of childhood, children’s play and free time, and their evolving relationships with the people and places around them.