How Forest and Beach School activities can help to combat Nature-Deficit Disorder

As I write this article, my children are looking at how we should fill the last few days of their school summer holidays. Many of the local activities available include Forest School-type activities, or visiting local natural spaces to explore. I was reflecting upon how during my own childhood we didn’t pay others to enable us to play in the natural environment, we just went outside and played! However, nowadays there appears to be a whole generation of children who are unable to entertain themselves outdoors; could this be more evidence of ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’?


The term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’, popularised by Richard Louv, is now a metaphor that is readily used when thinking about children not spending enough time outside and in nature. Many settings underuse the outdoors and features of our natural landscape to support learning and development, yet, if you think about it, nature provides some wonderful free resources to use. So several early childhood settings have chosen to combat this by adopting ideas from Forest School education and, more recently, Beach School education.

Forest School education began in the UK when a team from Bridgwater & Taunton College visited Denmark and were impressed by the ‘open air culture’ and the way that outdoor learning underpinned all aspects of their play provision. They returned to the UK and created their own version of this ‘Forest School’ which was so successful that they began offering a Forest School qualification a few years later. Over twenty years on, this idea has blossomed into Forest School education as we see it today, with many schools and nurseries investing in training so that they have a named Forest School practitioner. In addition, although children in Scandinavian countries begin formal education at age six or seven, we can still take a leaf from their book and consider how this ethos might support us in our settings and embrace this open air culture.

Beach Schools have evolved out of the Forest School approach, when providers have made regular trips to the seashore instead of visiting local woodland.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association, said: “The seashore offers a really unique environment for discovery and learning all year round. Young children love to be out in the elements, playing in and learning in sand, pebbles and mud.” In addition, children can learn about building shelters, make campfires, experience all weathers and begin to understand the tides and the unique ecosystem that exists on a beach.

However, using the outdoors as a teaching resource is not a new idea as Margaret McMillan famously said: “The best classroom and the richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky.” She and her sister Rachel began the Open-Air Nursery School & Training Centre in London in 1914 and their whole ethos revolved around learning through first-hand experiences, active learning and outdoor play. For their time, these women were truly remarkable and were introducing concepts that, although popular and commonplace today, were revolutionary for the education system in the early 20th century.

According to the Forest School Association, there are six principles underpinning the ethos which were agreed by the UK Forest School community in 2011.

Principle 1:

Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit. Planning, adaptation, observations and reviewing are integral elements of Forest School.

Principle 2:

Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.

Principle 3:

Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.

Principle 4:

Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.

Principle 5:

Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.

Principle 6:

Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning.

It could be argued that there is a danger that Forest and Beach School education is becoming watered down by the many practitioners who are literally dipping their toes into the water that is Forest and Beach School education without the appropriate training. Forest School is an ethos underpinning qualified practice and we can’t take the children into the woods once a week and claim to ‘do Forest School’. However, although we may not be following all of the principles that underpin the Forest School ethos and thus should not call ourselves a Forest or Beach School, we can all use the natural environment more and introduce children to the many experiences that they may otherwise not have had. We must ensure that we are confident and competent in our role when taking children outside, either into woodland or to the coast and the children’s safety should always be paramount. In my view, encouraging more outdoor play will help to combat ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’.

There are many activities that you can engage in with your children which will offer them a taste of the Forest and Beach School ethos. Here are some top tips and ideas for outdoor activities:

  • If you do not own the land you are visiting, ensure that you have the landowner’s permission to be there (unless it’s a public right of way or access land).
  • Thoroughly risk assess the area that will be used and the activities that will be undertaken.
  • Do nothing that will damage or compromise the area used, ensuring that all litter is taken home.
  • Build a shelter using natural materials.
  • Create a stick man and retell the story using natural props.
  • Engage in some natural arts and crafts, making paint brushes with sticks and feathers or leaves and using organic paint.
  • Create leaf sun catchers, wreaths, leaf crowns or twig magic wands.
  • Show the children how to make a daisy chain or collect petals that have fallen from a flower for a collage.
  • Find a suitable tree for climbing or some logs to balance on.
  • Complete a nature treasure hunt, encouraging the children to see different shapes and colours.
  • Collect dry driftwood or sticks as kindling for a fire. If you decide to have a campfire, check that fires are allowed on site and follow guidance to keep everyone safe and ensure that it is safely extinguished, leaving only ashes behind.
  • Use some basic tools like a potato peeler to whittle a stick. This can be used as a toasting fork for cooking dough on the fire, or simply for threading different sized leaves.
  • Draw with charcoal or chalk on stones, tree stumps or large rocks.
  • Go on a nature walk noticing what you see, hear, touch and smell.
  • Talk to the children about outdoor safety and how to risk assess for themselves.
  • Find out about the insects, birds and mammals that coexist in the natural environment.
  • Encourage the children to make trails for each other to follow using twig arrows or chalk on trees.
  • You might want to invest in some gloves and litter pickers and encourage your children to fill a bag with any plastic or other litter they find.
  • Lastly, remember to ensure that all children wash their hands after playing in the woods or on the beach.

You can still engage in some of the above activities regardless of your level of access to woodland, beaches or other natural spaces. So take only photographs and leave only footprints and the memories your children make will linger for longer than their footprints remain.

For useful contacts and resources visit: bit.ly/tg-sept

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk


Expression of interest

Complete the form below if you are interested in joining our family. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This