Carley Sefton explains how forest bathing can support emotional development, and why you don’t always need a forest…
Forest bathing is becoming a well-known term in the UK, but its origins are less understood.
In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku (shinrin meaning “forest”, and yoku meaning “bath” in Japanese) is a long-held tradition of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. In 1982, the Japanese government even encouraged shinrin-yoku to be prescribed to improve citizens’ health and wellbeing.
Ever since, there have been hundreds of academic studies carried out on the benefits of forest bathing, and there is now scientific agreement on its positive impact.
But as forest bathing becomes increasingly popular around the world, including in the UK, how can we make sure the youngest members of our society are growing up understanding and accessing its emotional benefits?
Teaching children to become aware of their senses and emotions is key to their learning how to control them, and using forest bathing and mindfulness techniques has been proven to support children’s emotional development in a number of ways.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, says:
“Specifically, the research strongly suggests time in nature can help children learn to build confidence, teach them to calm themselves, improve focus, decrease symptoms of ADD (ADHD), improve creativity, and reduce stress.”
We’ve seen this first-hand in a recent Learning through Landscapes project: TIP (Train, Inspire, Protect), which is working with partners including the Maltese government to research best practice in early years outdoors education.
A pre-school child involved in the project was in the early stages of an autism diagnosis. He became stressed by transitions and changes to routine, and would often struggle unless sufficient preparation was built in by the staff. But the introduction of an outdoor learning approach for just one day a week saw him thrive.
When he was also allowed to run in the woods, roll down hills and have outside space for reflection, he didn’t come into as much conflict with his peers but still maintained an essential sense of order and routine.
So how can you get this impact in your own settings? Of course, not everyone has access to a forest.
I am very aware how many school settings have a lack of outdoor space in general, so it’s important to explore how we can bring the benefits of forest bathing into our practice using local parks, green spaces, and our own settings where possible.
Firstly, make sure that activities are held on a regular basis. This not only allows you to plan the session in advance, but will allow the children to begin to understand the routine. Each session will enable them to develop their techniques and better their emotional understanding of their senses.
Allow the group to discuss their experience together, not only when you are outside but when you return to the classroom. Just talking to others about the experience can help a child who is struggling to control their emotions.
You can even gently remind them of how they felt when they were forest bathing: “Do you remember when we were under the trees and we felt our breathing – do you think you could try that now?”
When an activity doesn’t specifically address an issue like emotional development or behaviour, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how it can have such an impact. But we know
that science backs up the importance of time spent outdoors. It’s been shown that even looking at a photo of trees can make you feel calmer and improve brain function, while actually being in a forest
can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, all of which allows you to manage your emotions better. So, when you are encouraging the children to practise forest bathing mindfulness, make sure you are feeling the benefits, too!
Forest bathing is an activity with no activities. It’s simply spending time in and with nature, letting it invade all of our senses.
The below activity encompasses a range of curricular areas:
Just yourself and a forest. If there’s no forest available, a park, natural area or other greenspace is just fine.
First, find the best spot for you and the children. Anywhere with a few trees is ideal.
Where safe, allow the children to find space to explore.
Suggest places to pause, and encourage children to breathe in the smells, the sounds and the atmosphere of the environment. Remember: forest bathing is about using all of the five senses.
Encourage close examination of a leaf, log or flower on the forest floor.
Try not to talk while exploring. This is more difficult with small children, so introduce it as a game. Maybe have a little space between each of you to encourage silent reflection.
Encourage children to focus on how they are responding to the forest. Are their shoulders relaxed? Asking a child to put their hand on their tummy to notice their calm breath can really help them understand how their body works.
Afterwards, gather and share your experiences.
Once you have finished, spend a short time reflecting. How do you feel now? Does being in this space make you feel happy, sad, excited?
For more ideas on how to engage your early years children with outdoor learning, visit ltl.org.uk/outdoor-learning-training.