So we’ve recently built a roundhouse at our kid’s school. From logs, old tyres and strawbales, mostly. It is going to be used as part of our new Forest School programme, to give our children more opportunities to get outside of the classroom and learn in the great outdoors.
It’s taught me two things:
Firstly, building in community is fun.
We didn’t have the budget to employ a great big team of builders to come in and do it professionally for us, so we applied for a couple of grants and ran it as a community project. Come give your time to build this lovely new facility for the local school, and learn some great sustainable building methods to boot. We had a team of between 10-15 people most days of the main 2-week build, and it was great. Ex-pupils. Parents. Grandparents. People who’d just moved into the area. People looking to learn new skills. Like-minded people with similar interests and even complimentary businesses who lived and worked locally but who’d never met. Connections were made and friendships were forged. Some days were testing and tiring, but the sense of achievement we all felt when the building was finished and full of kids was amazing.
Secondly, you can’t underestimate the importance of teaching children about the environment in the environment.
Of course we all know that children need to be outside, it makes sense. It was how the majority of us spent our own childhoods. Roaming the fields or streets around where we grew up, unencumbered by mobile technology or the fear of abduction. But for some reason, whatever reason – blame computer screens or an ever-decreasing amount of green space in our towns and cities and increasingly even, our countryside – it seems somehow harder these days. Our children live in an ever-more safety-conscious, sanitised world, ruled by Health and Safety and Risk Assessments. Perhaps it’s safer – maybe, I’m not sure – but it’s definitely not healthier.
I listened to a guy from the Eden Project talk once about how children need to be outside. To learn to interact with the natural environment. To feel the mud between their toes.
He talked about how our brains learn to calibrate our behaviour. He basically explained it like this: If I run into a brick wall at full pelt, it hurts. And my brain learns – don’t do that, it hurts. And next time, when I run towards the brick wall, I slow down. I put my arms out. I stop before I hit it and hurt myself again. My brain has calibrated my behaviour. I have learnt from my mistake. It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates a point. His argument was that children are being denied this important learning opportunity by not being allowed to play outdoors and take risks. To play outside in wild, free spaces that haven’t been designed by well-meaning adults to be safe and sanitised and risk-free. To climb trees and build dens and hurt themselves and learn how not to hurt themselves. And if they don’t learn this calibration, he continued, they didn’t learn how to calibrate other types of more serious, adult-type behaviours as they grew up. Behaviours with much more serious consequences. Like not drink-driving, or hurting someone or putting themselves in a risky situation with some-one that might hurt them.
How to work with and play in and care for the natural environment isn’t something academic that can be taught in a classroom. It needs to be felt. Touched. Experienced. And that’s one of the things that forest school does. It takes children outside and let’s them feel their learning. It let’s them connect with it in a way that is impossible to do when sitting in a chair in front of a whiteboard. The same with our growing program; when you’re holding a spade and feeling the weight of the metal in your hands,when you’re digging the earth with the breath of your own effort, you feel and experience it differently. When you plant a seed with your own bare hands and tend it and water it and watch it bear fruit, you understand the miracle of new life differently. More fully. You understand intrinsically the need to nurture this planet we live on, to protect it and tend it. You have become part of it. Nature. It’s a miracle really, not a theory. Only when children see and feel that miracle will they understand it and feel ownership of it.
And then there’s hope for all our futures.