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The importance of play, play in a Forest School

Play begins in a very early age, with constantly repetitive movements and acts (schemas) – clapping hands in time to music, playing games like pat-a-cake, and rhythmically move to sounds. It progresses into active play during the nursery years and into rough-and tumble play during the school years. All types of play, from physical play to role play, have a significant role in the children’s development. Children explore the world around them and the world of others, through their play. It is the main and primary activity that promotes all the life skills needed to be built on to learn new skills, throughout life. If experiencing lack of play, children will suffer immediate and future effects, from social and communication problems to learning difficulties. Through sufficient play environment children are provided with the best chance to achieve their highest potential, to become healthy, happy, active members of society. Scientists found that from very early age active play increases blood flow to the dentate gyrus, a site very important for the formation of new memories as well as feelings of happiness.

In today’s social and educational situation there are fewer opportunities for active play than in the past due to fewer urban play spaces, less school time devoted to play and sport, fewer opportunities and places at home to play. This contributes to the insufficient lifestyle of children and young people and leads to different problems, such as learning difficulties or obesity. The Forest School programme is the ideal place to prevent all of these problems and to promote active play that has its immediate and long-term benefits: general fitness, a healthy lifestyle, better physical, intellectual and social skills. In Forest Schools this physically active play develops body control and co-ordination, improves body strength, and may even promote fat reduction through body temperature regulation.


Play and brain development

In Forest schools, given the freedom, space and natural resources, children plan and promote their own physical development through play. Play is the effective teaching strategy of Forest Schools and it develops the brain. Human beings have a four year period, from conception until three years old, when the brain is developing. The brain then has a “use it or lose it” approach and unused brain pathways are reduced and those connections are lost. This highlights the importance of the wide variety of experiences in the Forest schools as they are literally building the brain.

The Forest School, due to its naturally ‘in-built’ resources promotes all different types of brain development in children include:

  • Visual and auditory development: the development of the sight and hearing senses. The Forests are natural environments full of a variety of sounds and inspiring noises, open-ended impulses.
  • Visual and auditory development: the development of the sight and hearing senses. The Forests are natural environments full of a variety of sounds and inspiring noises, open-ended impulses.
  • Language development – the development of language and speaking skills.
  • Physical and motor development – the development of control over the muscles to encourage large motor skills (mainly using the legs and arms) and fine motor skills (mainly using the hands/fingers and feet/toes). The development of coordination will also occur in this area. The unpredictable natural environments in Forests need the children to be able to assess risk and solve problems immediately.
  • Emotional and social development – the development of emotions and social skills. Forest Schools provide a warm, loving environment for their children so that they can develop emotions like love, trust and empathy, as well as provide their children with opportunities to be social so that they can develop skills such as sharing by leading by examples of those of the nature.


Play and development theorists believe that the human child is born with a huge neuronal over-capacity, which if not used will die. Through their play children develop the neurological foundations that will enable problem solving, language and creativity, they are also learning while they are playing. They are learning how to relate to others, how to use their muscles and bodies and how to think in abstract terms. Through their play children learn how to learn. The information processed through play is a general mind set towards solving problems that includes both abstraction and combinatorial flexibility where children string bits of behaviour together to form novel solutions to problems requiring the restructuring of thought or action’. (Sutton-Smith. 1997) ‘Play affords juveniles opportunities to learn and practice new skills. The more complex the organism and the corresponding skills to be learned, the longer the juvenile period is extended and the more important play seems to be’ (Pellegrini & Holmes 2006). Play also influences neurological development and determines how intricate neural circuits are wired. Among other research, positron-emission tomography scans of Romanian orphans with play deprivation indicate that play is as essential to human development as other basic needs. (S. Begley, 1997)
Playful children are happier, better behaved, more co-operative, and more popular with their peers than those who play less or do not play. Children play longer when a wide variety of materials are available. Children with access to a variety of things that represent the world around them are found to reach higher levels of intellectual achievement, regardless of the children’s sex, race, or social class. (Elardo and others. 1975).

Physical activity slows the age-related shrinkage of the frontal cortex in the brain, which is important for executive function. Activeness increases the number of capillaries in the brain, which should improve blood flow, and therefore the availability of energy, to neurons. It may also help the brain by improving cardiovascular health, preventing heart attacks and strokes that can cause brain damage. Physical activity causes the release of growth factors, proteins that increase the number of connections between neurons, and the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory. Any of these effects might improve cognitive performance, though it’s not known which ones are most important (Aamodt & Wang. 2007).

The brain development and schemas as promoted in Forest schools

Play is motivated by pleasure. It is instinctive and part of the maturational process. We cannot prevent children from selfinitiated play; they will engage in it whenever they can. What is important is balance and to appreciate individual differences. The Forest school approach was built on these principles. Its basic aim reflects on the primary pillars of brain development: the repetitive activity, the managed freedom of choices, space and open-ended resources.
A schema is a mode of reactions susceptible of reproducing themselves and susceptible above all of being generalised. Schemas are patterns of repeatable actions that lead to early categories and then to logical classifications. Recognition of child’s schemas appears to give the parent and teacher access to the child’s emotional experience in addition to her intellectual development. The Forest School environment creates perfect opportunities for the children to work in relation to their preferred schemas. This educational research and theory developed by Piaget in the 1960s indicates that children in their early years learn most effectively if they are given the chance to engage with activities that promote certain schemas. Key schemas can often be observed in Forest School (Arnold, 2010).

The factors affecting development

Maslow describes how after survival and emotional safety, children look for belonging (connectedness, empathy, acceptance) and autonomy (choice, mastery, self-efficacy). Belonging for children is connected to fun, and autonomy to self-fulfillment. First they need what the survival needs; warmth, shelter, food and drink; are at the root of all progress towards self actualization. If we are concerned or distracted by those needs, we cannot focus on our self-fulfillment or on having fun. Children, even quite small children want to look after their own basic needs, they need to know what resources are available, how to use them and have the confidence in adults to want to ask for them. The process of meeting those basic needs can be a vehicle for having fun and feeling proud of your achievements. When I put found a hole with a group of children there was lots of fun to be had, finding out what can live there, trying to recreate it, making pictures of it with pride and satisfaction when it is done.

Sexual and other physical maturation that occurs child development is a result of hormonal changes. As a child develops, a gland in the brain, called the pituitary gland, increases the secretion of a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone then causes additional effects. In girls, FSH activates the ovaries to start producing estrogen. In boys, FSH causes sperm to develop.
There are changes that occur gradually and over a period of time, rather than as a single event. While each male adolescent is different, there are average ages when puberty changes may occur and influence behaviour. Girls also experience puberty as a sequence of events, but their pubertal changes usually begin before boys of the same age. Each girl is different and may progress through these changes differently. The biggest benefit of Forest School environments is that they accommodate a wide variety of needs and nature with its open-ended resources allows individual to act in their own space and paste. In my experience it really assists boys’ achievement from very early age. They are able to concentrate, communicate, socialize and solve problems in Forest School environment significantly better regardless their typical learning style being visual, auditory or kinesthetic.
The social and family environment, the culture is another important factor that influences children’s learning ability and therefore development. Forest School is an environment that naturally offers the same starting and focal point to all ‘users’ and it also provides the possibility, the space and the time for each user to develop from their starting point in their own rhythm.

The importance of outdoor play – in the work of classic theorists

Many of the old classic theories underpin the importance of the Forest school ethos, from as early as the 18th century.

Rousseau (1712-1778), Pestalozzi(1746-1827) and the freedom

The two early thinker represented very modern aspect to education. In the 18th century. Rousseau believed in freedom which literally meant letting children run about even in bitter winter weather. His belief in the in the importance of freedom was supported by his argument that only if a person does not feel constrained can understand liberty. He believed that we are born essentially good and part of nature. Rousseau stated that nature made children to enjoy childhood as it naturally is and that nature automatically nurtures self-reliance. Pestalozzi, just like Rousseau believed that education must be ‘according to nature’, that children’s innate faculties should be developed according to nature and that children should only observe concrete objects. He also believed that all children have the potential and in a natural environment their physical and intellectual powers can develop naturally.

Froebel (1782-1852) and the play

Froebel had firm views on play and its place in child development, believing that free play fostered enjoyment, emotional well-being and was fundamental source of benefit. He is the originator of the word ‘kindergarten’ tha simply meant the ‘garden of children’ or ‘children’s garden’ – both meaning were used by Froebel and both reflect on his philosophy about young children. Play and outdoor environment were the most important aspects of his theory. Children between the age of one and seven were encouraged to enjoy nature and the outdoors in the Froebelian kindergartens. Nature walks were part of the provision as Froebel believed that space and light were the absolute necessities for learning. He was passionate about the interconnectedness of life, beauty and knowledge. These three ‘forms’ (he called them) were connected aspect in his provision and included sensory, first-hand experiences, nature and music. Froebel suggested that children should be encouraged to do and try something instead of being told or shown in the freedom of outdoor play and gardening. (Liebschner, 1992)

High Scope and the risk taker children

Dr. David Weikart’s Piaget inspired High Scope theory was based on forty years of research and it encourages children to become decision-makers and problem-solvers, assisting them to develop skills and traits that enable them to become successful as they grow older. Through active learning – having direct, immediate experiences and deriving meaning from them through the reflection – yong children learn how to make sense of their world. High Scope also states that in a natural environment children act based on their own natural desires. Just like in the Forest School approach, High Scope promotes a process to revisit the learning, when children plan, do and review their own activities. Through this process children develop a strong sense of self-control and self-discipline and they learn to take risk according to their own assesments. Understanding what is happening in the environment, realizing that others are interested in what we say or do and knowing that our efforts will lead to personal success, is the control that helps to achieve personal satisfaction and motivates productivity.

Paulo Freire

Freire’s theory was about transformation. Its main aim was to change existing practices, rules, traditions and understandings. In his theory education had to seek to make individuals intellectually and politically engaged activists so theory values can be transformed (Freire, 1996). As a change theorist, Freire wanted children to be able to critically analyze their daily lives. Although this aim of his is often classified as being too mystical but I did put his idea of putting into practice by putting the children in charge of their own thinking process.

John Dewey

The aspects of Dewey’s theory which I found very interesting and relevant to my own views were that he believed that children learn by doing, education should be based on real-life situations and experiment and independent thinking should be fostered (Dewey, 1997). He saw the children as having the same curiosity as scientists. When constructing the basis of the daily work I used Dewey’s theory in my practice: when having fun simultaneously children need to develop their own interest working on ways that match their age and stage of development and engaging in activities that contribute to the knowledge and understanding of the world around them. His project approach is often criticized as leading to trivialization. In my point of view, the liberty applies to allowing the children to be trivial but by evaluating the learning with the children a usual theme chosen by the them can be turned into exciting learning curves (with for example leading questions, introducing new, related resources etc.)


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