The lion in the forest

The concept and history of Forest School originates in Scandinavia; its ethos having been firmly established in the eighteenth century by western European educational theorists such as Rousseau, Froebel, Montessori and McMillan. In Scandinavia, children are not formally educated until they are seven and until then they learn through play. The forests are accessible to all and nature is part of everyday experience. Pedagogy in Scandinavia regards formal education as being only part of the experience of a developing child in the context of his/her ecosystem. They regard the environment as a teacher, and play as the child’s natural medium for expression.

In Reggio Emilia, the environment is recognised for its potential to inspire children, where every material is considered for its purpose and every corner evolves to encourage children to delve deeper into their interests, constructing their own learning. For this reason, the environment is regarded as being the “third teacher”. The first teacher is the parent and the second teacher is the child’s educator. The outdoors is regarded as an extension of the learning environment in the classroom and, where the nature of the architecture allows, children at preschools in Reggio Emilia have the ability to move freely between the indoor and outdoor areas.

By contrast, in the UK, the findings of a report, “Natural Childhood”, commissioned by the National Trust and written by Stephen Moss, a British natural historian, set out compelling evidence that we as a nation, and especially our children, are exhibiting the symptoms of a modern phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. Although not a medical condition, the concept of ‘Nation Deficit Disorder’ describes “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses” (“Last Child in the Woods” written by Richard Louv).

Before we address the benefits recognised by the pedagogical philosophies adopted in Scandinavia and Reggio Emilia, what does Stephen Moss believe to be causing this ‘alienation from nature’?

Stephen Moss asserts that the growth of virtual, as opposed to reality-based, play is, not surprisingly, having a profound effect on children’s lives; indeed, it has been called ‘the extinction of experience’ (Robert Pyle (2003) “Nature Matrix: reconnecting people and nature”). However, we should not forget that modernity and the technology we have worked so hard to create bringing many advantages to children, not least the ability to access information about the natural world.

Some of the obstacles children face when encountering nature are cultural or institutional; growing litigation, educational trends that marginalise direct experience in nature; some are structural – the way cities are shaped. Other barriers are more personal or familial – including time pressures, fear (‘stranger danger’) and an adult’s growing aversion to risk.

On a positive note, the publication of the Natural Childhood report has led to the creation of “The Wild Network”, a unique collaboration between families, communities and companies working together to grow “wild time” and to “re-wild childhood”. Through this partnership, children are being urged to “get up and get out”, to play and roam free.

To see how to get involved, visit:

So why should we “get up and get out”?


The principle of the environment as the third teacher can, and arguably and should, be applied just as readily outside as inside by placing value on aesthetics, organisation, thoughtfulness, provocation, communication and interaction. Why? you might ask… The care and attention we pay to organising space outdoors stimulates children’s imagination, creativity, exploration, discovery, engagement and sense of wonder.

Professor Robin Moore, an expert in the design of play and learning environments, considers “natural spaces and materials [to] serve as a medium of inventiveness and creativity” with studies having shown more creative play (incorporating fantasy and make believe) in green spaces than playgrounds. One explanation for this ‘interrupted play’ in playgrounds is the greater degree of social hierarchy which exists outside green spaces due to the exertion of physical competence by children. By contrast, language skills are finely tuned in natural play areas.

Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) believes nature need not be the sole domain of the arts, it can explain science and even politics through pattern and connections. Agreeing with Robin Moore that through primary experience children begin to understand the realities of natural systems, evolution and regenerative processes.

“Nature is imperfectly perfect…the sublime, the harsh, the beautiful…filled with loose parts and possibilities…it can be the realm of the poet, artist, philosopher …a place of scientific inquiry.” (Richard Louv)


In 1983 Howard Gardner, a Professor of Education at Harvard University, devised the theory of multiple intelligences (7 types) which, according to neurophysiology research, represent the human potential in children and adults. Professor Gardner later went on to add an eighth intelligence, naturalist intelligence (nature smart), linked to a person’s ability to recognise plants, animals and other parts of the natural environment, someone with keen sensory skills.

In “Last Child in the Woods”, Robert Louv recalls a study undertaken by Robert Pyle, a lepidopterist with a doctorate from Yale of ecology and environmental studies. Robert introduced children to butterflies by placing one on a child’s nose so the butterfly becomes the teacher. He explains “noses seem to make perfectly good perches…almost everyone is delighted by this: the light tickle, the close up colours…But somewhere beyond delight lies enlightenment.”

Robert Louv suggests that perhaps the eighth intelligence is the intelligence within nature, “the lessons waiting to be delivered if anyone shows up.”

Building memories

Climbing trees, building dens and making campfires are memories from childhood we all treasure. But they are memories many children are missing out on. According to research by the RSPB, only 1 in 5 children have a ‘connection to nature’. Time spent playing outdoors has halved in just one generation and created a disconnection from nature.

Sensory stimulation

Contact with images, sounds and smells can stimulate children’s curiosity, deepen their knowledge and provide new inspiration. Natural settings also integrate informal play with formal learning.

Well being

Robert Louv warns of the risk of “a rise in cultural autism, the symptoms being tunnelled senses, feelings of isolation and containment” in the most nature deprived corners of the world.

Time outdoors provides unique experiences and opportunities, time to develop emotional resilience and self-confidence which complement classroom learning and facilitate connecting knowledge to real life.

Physical skills

Direct experiences in the fields, woods, yard, tools shed are gradually being replaced by indirect learning through machines.

The exploration of natural materials and loose parts (those with open ended properties) preserves the craft work and traditional skills, exposing children to the mastery of previous generations. Unlike playgrounds created by a human designer, natural environments also allow children to play in far more varied and imaginative ways using space, strength and movement.


Children need to learn to assess risk, take on challenges and accept responsibility. Child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron considers time outside to be vital: “the less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults… Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open” (quoted in Hillsdon, M. (2009) “Getting Kids Back to Nature”, Tourism Insights).

A potential impact is that children who do not take risks become adults who do not take risks. In the current global economy this, too, is a price we cannot afford to pay, as pointed out by Lord Digby Jones, former chairman of the CBI: “if we never took a risk our children would not learn to walk, climb stairs, ride a bicycle or swim; business would not develop innovative new products… scientists would not experiment and discover, we would not have great art, literature, music and architecture” (quoted in “Cotton Wool Kids” – Issues Paper 7. Releasing the potential for children to take risks and innovate).


Albert Einstein once said “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”.

Just as when a child who gazes at cloud formations in the sky, sees dinosaurs or mythical beasts, a child who encounters misshapen branches or upturned trees in a forest might see the open jaws of a lion. The storying which unfolds from these encounters might only be possible once the child has been given the freedom to explore the natural wonders of our world.

Nature provides a child with freedom, fantasy, privacy: a place distant from the adult world.

Awareness of the world

If a child is unaware of the environmental issues facing our planet (such as climate change or a species at risk of extinction) and the potential threats to our ecosystem, the next generation cannot begin a practice of protecting their environment on an individual, organisational or governmental level, for the benefit of all mankind.

In a speech to the “Communicate conference” in November 2010, Sir David Attenborough expressed his very real concerns: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.

Reversing the trend

The Wild Network encourages us to “get up and get out”, to let children get back their ‘wild time’, reversing the trend of children losing touch with the natural world and playing outdoors. However, perhaps in order bring meaningful change and to connect with nature, it is not enough to simply step outdoors, as Richard Louv contends, there are “lessons waiting to be delivered if anyone shows up.” We need to be present in a physical sense but also be open to the imperfectly perfect, what nature can offer us; offering itself as the realm of the poet, the artist, the philosopher and the scientist; home to the harsh, the beautiful; a place filled with loose parts and possibilities.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s