Enabling Environments

Forest School for Babies

  • Forest School for Babies

Even your youngest children will benefit from the learning opportunities provided by a forest school programme, explains Judit Horvath…

The forest school ethos resonates with important themes in the history of Western European educational theory: Rousseau, Froebel, Montessori and McMillan, in different ways, have all advocated the benefits of learning in the natural environment and insisted that children need to play, to experience space and movement and sensory stimulation for healthy development. The forest school experience perfectly promotes sensory child-led outdoor play, encouraging and stimulating curiosity, exploration, understanding and self-reflection – and this is true for children of all ages…

Babies are sensory motor learners. When newly born, they have a well-developed sense of touch overall, but limited finger pad sensitivity and – due to nature’s programmed survival instinct – the majority of their senses are concentrated around certain areas on their bodies, for example, their lips. To aid babies’ development, adults need to provide a sensory-rich environment with many textures, temperatures, colours, smells and sounds. Consequently, the great outdoors is an ideal learning environment for even tiny infants, as here all of their senses are engaged. Their physical development is advanced to new levels in response to the many different sources of stimuli: varied environmental effects motivate them to move their bodies in many different ways, encouraging them to learn to pull themselves up, to reach, to grasp, to sit, to crawl and also to walk. Being outside also supports babies to begin to use their hands, as natural physical support (e.g. sitting between logs) helps them to concentrate on other activities, rather than the sitting itself.

The outdoor environment has a great impact on the development of vision, hearing and touch of babies, too. In the open air, their brains, motivated by the abundance of stimuli, build new neural pathways – the ‘wiring’ of the brain – in order to cope with the vast amount of new information they are processing. This increased brain activity supports all areas of development, as while receiving and learning to decode the new information, the developing brain also has to store, use and link it; it concentrates its activity not only on survival, but learning.

Sensory motor learning

In order to take advantage of the body’s ability to improve through sensory motor learning, the brain must be given ample opportunity to recognise and understand productive and counterproductive information, based on basic movements. Neurophysiologists have observed that conventional exercises, with their focus on muscular effort, force and speed, inhibit the brain’s ability to function properly on the body’s behalf, and it becomes impossible for the brain to make the clear sensory distinctions needed to improve the body’s organisation. However, when movements are slow and easy, they activate the brain’s movement centres and generate a flow of valuable information between the brain cells. In forest school, where time and space is given to allow slow and concentrated movements, the brain is allowed to be free to make important sensory distinctions.

Stimulating the senses

The magic of the forest school programme for those caring for babies is that all the activities that need careful planning and organisation indoors in order to offer a rich, nurturing and appropriately challenging environment for very young children, occur naturally in forest school. Here are some of the ways in which the natural environment can engage infants’ senses:

Hearing: Sound moves in a different way outside due to the lack of physical limits and the effects of natural forces; for example, it may change naturally with the wind or variations in air pressure. In the very early stages of their development, up until the age of six months, babies are able to differentiate sounds much more effectively than adults; therefore they’re significantly more receptive to air movement and animal sounds. Young babies are also naturally programmed to be curious and alert, and as a result they love being outdoors. Forest school environments, as opposed to conventional early years outdoor settings, offer a large variety of unusual sounds.

Vision: Light is more varied in natural environments. It sometimes changes very rapidly with the weather – even over the course of 15 minutes. It is filtered by trees and bushes and appears differently in different parts of a site. Natural puddles of light act as a great source of fascination for young babies. The changes in illumination stimulate their eyes to adapt, which in turn stimulates their brains.

Smell: Young children’s sense of smell is greatly stimulated outdoors, particularly in the diverse surroundings common to forest school. Scents (like grass, earth, flowers, rain, mud, tree bark, etc.) that babies are unlikely to encounter in a conventional outdoor setting encourage them to pull themselves up to standing and investigate the source of the smell. These sources occur naturally at different levels, so babies need to work out how to access them, for example, how to smell the grass without falling forwards.

Touch: At birth, babies move rapidly from the warm, soft, protective environment of the womb to a different world with many different sensations. All of a sudden they are able to feel the air, surfaces and clothes on their skin. These feelings take time to get used to and babies are learning about life with each touch – touch being the key sense when it comes to them exploring the world. Outdoors, they can lie on or sit in the grass; they can feel textural differences tickling their skin. Babies’ mouths and tongues are their most touch-sensitive areas, and once they are able to intentionally grasp objects – usually by three months of age – they will begin to mouth them. Whilst mouthing objects can cause particular health and safety issues in forest school, careful supervision can open up an environment that offers a sensory wonderland like no other.

Spatial awareness: Children appreciate liveliness and colours but not necessarily the stereotypical choices. Warmer, natural tones are more nurturing in general, whereas harsher colours can be emotionally frigid for a growing infant. Softer tones, rather than brash, bold colours, can help babies develop a sense of refined appreciation, and splashes of brighter tones can be found spotted in nature. Children are very sensitive to energy flow and the communication of external objects, which helps the growing brain to understand placement and integration in a larger sense – something the forest school environment naturally provides. Children like natural places as they are creative, active, reflective, emotional and social.

Planning sessions

Whilst the main principle of the forest school ethos – that the learning that takes place is based upon play and exploration, and is built upon week-on-week – does not change for babies, the young participants perceive the world around them differently. As such, the forest school programme needs to be adapted to their needs. Whilst a typical forest school session will run for one-and-a-half hours, for babies a mere 20 minutes can be very valuable, although this can be extended.

Sessions usually begin with the same routine: getting ready to go outside – dressing in appropriate clothing, wellies (or shoe covers) and waterproofs. Next, the group will gather at a seating circle of logs to catch up with what happened at the last session; babies will be shown objects and their attention will be drawn by pointing and being talked to. The weather is discussed and shown or demonstrated. Young participants in forest school are offered many activities, for example, bug hunting, mud painting, collecting and touching. Child-initiated activities are followed by the adults. The basics of building and tool use are introduced via the use of natural objects as building blocks and handling sticks. At the end of the session, the gathering is repeated.

Health & safety

One of the main worries that comes when planning forest school activities for babies is the issue of mouthing small objects; however, with appropriate ratios and adult attention this risk can be minimised. Risk assessments are required and the weather (especially sun, wind and frost) needs to be carefully assessed prior to and during the sessions, whilst drinks should be offered regularly.

Judit Horvath managed an ‘outstanding’ nursery in Essex. Now based in Hungary, she is an author and nursery management consultant.