Friluftsliv, or ‘free air life’ is a concept originating in Scandinavia, though similar ideas have emerged in many cultures. It’s the idea that spending time immersed in nature is good for a person’s well being. Nature-derived wellness has long been explored by education reformers in England, such as the MacMillan sisters, and by the Italian education revolutionary, Maria Montessori. The development of the Forest School Programme, now internationally recognised, was inspired by Scandinavian outdoor education initiatives based in friluftsliv.
What we do at Forest School
Forest School at Rye gives participants time to immerse themselves in the unparalleled beauty of our wooded grounds. Regardless of what activities we do, the outdoors benefits us simply by our being out in it. Participants are encouraged to feel outside of themselves. I have heard pupils and staff say that they come away feeling calmer, more focused, healthier – a general ‘lightness of being’ associated with being out in the fresh air. Campfire cookouts, whittling, observing nature, den building, tracking, and other bush craft-style activities add a layer of goodness, providing a type of learning found nowhere else in the curriculum and the development of a set of skills many of our young people wouldn’t gain otherwise.
Be Well, Do Well – the mental health benefits
While Forest School benefits all, it may be especially helpful for those dealing with anxiety, depression, and for those with specific cognitive conditions, such as autism and ADHD. The difficulties inherent to modern educational settings for such individuals are well-documented. Artificial lighting, ‘busy’ environments and other factors can cause stress; these same individuals commonly find natural settings much more comfortable. The freedom to focus closely on something of interest, or on nothing at all, makes Forest School a welcome respite as it easily adapts to the needs of each individual. No two people experience Forest School in exactly the same way.
During a Forest School session this winter, one participant said with astonishment that the fire we had built was ‘Just the colour of a real fire!’ This gave me pause and a renewed appreciation for what we offer. At a time when young people are filling their time with artificial stimulation, for some to the point of addiction, it’s more important than ever that they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in real experiences that can give them both immediate and lifelong wellbeing. Forest School offers the chance to create resilience, self-esteem, perspective, observation, communication, peace, and the occasional toasted marshmallow. What’s not to love?