Reconnecting to Life

It is a one of the big questions of our times – how to live in a way that perpetuates a balanced and healthy earth system, whilst maintaining our modern lifestyles.
Our modern culture has become self-interested in such a way that we have prioritised our wants and desires at the expense of the living world. Our connection or relationship to nature is so removed that we no longer feel this fundamental and familial relationship with the non-human world.

It is somewhat bizarre to be asked why is it important to connect children (and humans) to nature? Clearly this question could only be asked of a modern human because to any of our ancestors it would be nonsensical.

Literally our senses are atrophied in such a way that we rarely feel this natural, living exchange that exists in life. But it is there. You can access this though understanding science (the rational way to knowledge via the mind), through the physical (via you immediate senses – your body e.g. touch, smell, temperature, sight, hearing), through your emotions (the subjective experience of your feelings) and through the spiritual (via experience linked to mystery, life & death).

The childhood stage of life has particular attributes. It is associated with rapid growth, and primarily the body. It is a time where the emotional pathways are developed and laid down that form really important attachments that enable a child to move from survival to thriving into adulthood. I always refer to the young animals to help remember what it is to be a child – look for example at how kittens, puppies play and explore the world. This is the most tried and tested way of learning – to play, explore, follow your interest – while the adults or grandparents watch and guide and step in where necessary. And so it is for the human child! The living world and its animals have developed within nature, our biology is set up to thrive and be at its most healthy in nature. For example, our stress hormone cortisol reduces in the outdoors. And we know that we learn best when we are at ease.

Our modern experience is no longer very relaxing – I don’t know anyone who, including the hundreds of children I meet through my work, who are ‘not busy’. We are racing ahead without a clear destination, not considering how we find health and happiness. What are the ingredients of a healthy and happy life?

Providing the opportunity for children to be in nature is essential for health and happiness. It offers a multi-sensory environment where play and exploration is possible, as long as the adult will let them be. This allows for the imaginary yet real world of children to flourish and develop, creating relationships across species, which in turn create neural pathways of learning and understanding that will last for life. Play is essential to healthy emotional development.

The outdoors supports greater space and for discovery, descriptive language, big questions and enquiries. The big spaces offer climbing, crouching, rolling, all movement and development opportunities. Young people can learn to manage their own risks, build their own resilience, experiment, cooperate with others and problem solve. The curriculum can be taught through learning by doing, using maths, science, English in the outdoors. There is an abundance in ways of teaching curriculum material that can be taught in the outdoors – our limit is our own creativity, confidence and support to get outdoors – while the children are moving, they are learning. Once their basic movement needs are met, they are ready to sit behind a desk and be still.

The statistics in relation to obesity, suicide, levels of poor mental health for our children are not good. In the UK alone, 74% of children are spending less than an hour outside a day; 9.8% of children aged 4 – 5 are obese (by 2050 the cost to NHS will be £50 billion); insufficient physical activity is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths and Type 2 diabetes up by 40%; 835,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (air related issues); ¼ million young people are receiving specialist health care for mental distress ranging from depression to eating disorders. There is a doubling of numbers of children contemplating suicide (Childline). This picture is the same in many of the industrial, ‘progressive and modern’, countries around the world. Add this with the loss of species and things will not be okay if we maintain business as usual.

We do now need our education system and the ‘system’ structures to reflect what we know are both healthy for our children and healthy for our planet.

At 18 years old, I studied environmental management (30 years ago), became a primary school teacher with geography specialism (environment wasn’t an option then), was involved in 1992 Rio Summit etc. In a nutshell, I realised that people would only ever care and be motivated if they experienced nature and were guided into a deeper relationship with the natural world. As a teacher and academic it seemed (and seems) pretty obvious that young people are vibrant, engaging and seek learning where they can – and that the educational model is outdated and was created for a different time and not based on all what we now know.

The Forest School movement – a way of working with young people in nature has grown and is now widely accepted as a powerful learning experience that both meets the needs of young people and builds a long-lasting relationship to nature. It is a model that can be used within any current educational system and provides tried and tested results that meet the whole person – providing the practitioners have been well trained! It is hard to criticise this model of learning in nature – quite the opposite – the governments would be well-advised to implement this across all schools. It would address so many of the real concerns that we face as a society. There are over 10,000 young people outside today in the UK in a Forest School!

About the author: 

Marina Robb is founder and Managing Director of Circle of Life Rediscovery CIC, a leading outdoor learning organisation. She is Trustee of SPARK, a network for young people's organisations in East Sussex. Marina has been the recipient of funding from Natural England, Mind and The National Lottery, amongst other grant makers for her outdoor work with teenagers, families and young people with mental health issues. 

Marina provides residential camps in Sussex woodlands, Forest School and nature-based training for adults, outdoor learning days and youth training programmes. A qualified teacher (PGCE), Marina has studied Environmental Education (MA), Environmental Management (BSc) and Social Research (MSc) since 1990. She is a leading Forest School trainer and practitioner (UK and International) and shares her knowledge and experience through training teachers and individuals who want to work outside the classroom.

Marina has spent her lifetime supporting young people and adults to find new and old ways of connecting people with nature and reap the benefits of facilitated outdoor experiences.

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