Play is defined as a process that is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. Children determine the contents and the intent of their play by following their own ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons. Why do children play? Because they are hardwired to do so, our DNA from hundreds of thousands of years ago has been programmed to incorporate play as the most natural process of learning for children. Forest school is an ideal environment to encourage holistic development through free play and risk taking.
The forest provides loose parts such as sticks, stones, branches, feathers and leaves that encourage children to play with free choice, minimal intervention, and pure imagination. Holistic development encompasses mind, body, and spirit. Being in nature facilitates physical, emotional, and spiritual stimulation. Forest school is child led when the leaders are trained to follow minimal intervention which supports self-awareness, problem solving, and healthy risk taking. All of these attributes contribute to holistic development in children.
The benefit of free play for children is that it helps them build emotional intelligence by nurturing their confidence, social skills, language and communication, motivation, concentration, resourcefulness, and reciprocity. In the world we live in today, it is undeniably very important to have emotional intelligence so that we can create a more peaceful world within our global community. When children are given the opportunity to play freely with other children it helps them to develop their social skills, language, and communication.
As the group becomes a team, they learn how to become resourceful in whatever the common goal may be, for example crossing a small puddle or creek. The team makes an unannounced but mutually understood goal of crossing said body of water. They work together, cooperating, communication and finding the tools they may need to cross such as a branch, log, or stone. They find the best in the situation and discover the affordances of the natural loose parts in their environment. When working together they learn to reciprocate favors, helping one another, building communal relationships. All of which lays the foundation for a child’s confidence to expand to its greatest dimensions.
Additionally, risk taking is beneficial for children because it allows them to develop their vestibular senses, proprioception, reflexes, resilience, reflectiveness, and physical skills. We see many children needing the assistance of occupational therapists once entering school-age due to the lack of outdoor play which helps develop these natural parts of the child’s mind and body. Taking risks like climbing trees and swinging from branches help children develop their vestibular sense, proprioception, and reflexes all of which work in conjunction to help a child understand its physical awareness in the world.
Part of playing is falling and bumping, these situations happen all the time when playing outdoors and they help a child build their resilience and reflectiveness. Each time they make a mistake, it makes them stronger, and it also gives them the opportunity to reflect upon their decisions making skills and learn from their mistake helping them to learn how to make different choices in the future based on their experiences in the past. All the while, these climbing, jumping, bumping, and rolling experiences also increase their physical abilities and skills by promoting healthy activity and good muscle growth and coordination.
The future of our world needs our children to experience these physical, emotional, and spiritual scenarios so that they can learn how to function physically, emotionally, and spiritually within our communities. Forest school not only gives children the opportunity to expand these important attributes of human development, but it allows them to establish a deep connection to nature at a young age. We can only hope that by raising children who appreciate and respect our Mother Nature, that they will become respectful adults who will help keep our planet clean and beautiful for all of the creatures that inhabit it.