Forest School: benefits of learning in nature

Standing in a green, hushed forest, carpeted in cushy pine needles, or a golden, rustling wood in autumn…imagine the fresh smell, the sounds, and the rich view. Our children really respond to all of this wonderful sensory input. Kids and nature really go together!  Kids, nature, and language learning -- now that's an even better combination. 

Forest Schools have become popular throughout Scandinavia and Great Britain, and the trend is spreading globally. In these schools, children spend part or most of their day in natural settings (sometimes a forest, sometimes a garden setting). Their popularity spread on personal accounts of children enjoying and benefiting from this connection to the outdoors. 

In Scandinavia, educational professionals and society at large value the importance of children having extensive contact with nature from a young age (Grahn, 1996; Dietrich et al., 2007). This seems to go hand-in-hand with a deep-seated, sensory need that we humans appear to have for nature. The first forest schools were developed in Sweden and Denmark in the 1950's, and spread to other European countries. In the 1990's, forest schools became quite popular in the United Kingdom.

Research on children in Wales and England (O’Brien & Murray, 2007) shows multiple benefits for kids, including the following:

1. Increased language and communication (we love this, right?!)

2. Improvements in social skills (okay, yes, we love this too!)

3. Increased confidence (these are all great benefits…)

4. Better motivation and concentration

5. Learned knowledge, and

6. Better physical skills.

Multiple studies over the years have shown these same types of benefits. 

In the U.S., studies show that children who play in natural environments engage in more imaginative, diverse and creative play, and are more willing to take risks (Sobel, 1993; Grahn, 1996; Taylor et al., 1998; Derr, 2001; Kellert, 2002; Fjortoft, 2004). 

Honestly, there’s nothing more needed by our language-impaired kids than increasing imaginative play skills, which leads to increased use of more complex language, since play develops skills in representational meaning. As in language, where words represent concepts, in play, toys and play-acting represent real-life concepts as well. Thus, the idea is, if you increase imaginative play skills, then language improves as well. 

Children’s experiences in nature are linked to constructivist, Waldorf, and Reggio-Emilia learning styles, which emphasize that children learn best from having direct experiences instead of just being “taught.” 

At Spark Speech, we are all about using direct experiences to teach language and speech to our kids. We fully believe that working on speech in the context of real-life experiences helps a child to remember and use the information in multi-modal, multi-sensory, and multi-context ways that have more personal meaning…and generalize into real-life much more easily. 

We most often combine these language-rich, language-teaching, real experiences with some “drill-like” skill practice and, of course, direct teaching of new concepts until mastered. This range of experiences and approaches happen in each session, from the very beginning, to work on generalizing skills from the get-go.

It’s well-documented that if a therapist leaves the generalized use of a skill until the very end, after months of therapy working on discreet, isolated skills, then it’s often difficult to generalize the skill to real-life situations. Especially with our kids who are on the Autism Spectrum, learning skills in many contexts is highly useful, since our kids can have issues with rigidity and transferring knowledge from one context to another. This is the dreaded “they-can-do-it-but-only-in-the-therapy-room” syndrome. Which we want to avoid at all costs!

So, nature-related learning is one of our absolute favorite modalities! It’s such a truism, but it’s really true: Most kids just don’t get enough time with nature these days. This makes it even more exciting and meaningful to do nature-related activities. 

We use natural materials in describing and storytelling activities, and to make crafts. We use a variety of materials, like dried and fresh flowers (describing how they look, feel, smell), branches, leaves, pine cones, moss, stones, shells, etc. 

We visit Formosa Park (see our magazine article about this), which is right around the block from our studio. We go on scavenger hunts (read about it here), which allows us to find things based on semantic categories, or on describing characteristics. 

These are all meaningful, motivating, engaging activities that can help enrich our kids’ language. 

Now, for you at home: Getting into the woods, on the beach, in desert canyons, or some other natural setting, talking about what you see, hear, smell, or feel with your child and encouraging them, giving them ample time to explain and comment on their experiences (with visual or auditory cues/supports as needed) with natural language…this makes for excellent, quality time spent together, with the bonus of improved skills. And magical, priceless memories!

We highly recommend that you DO TRY THIS AT HOME!!

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