Facilitating learning through play in nature is what I do. I’m delighted daily by how well children play in the natural setting of Forest School. So, I’ve been reading around the subject to see why this may be.

When working as an Early Years teacher, play was a key component to my teaching (as it is for the majority of reception teachers). Tragically, the time for play in class time is already dramatically reduced by year 1. Yet, my year 1 groups at Forest School become engrossed in elaborate play that lasts for many sessions. The games vary widely; some children happily mix potions, some construct animal homes and others build jails out of sticks for cops and robbers. The important thing is that all these games are initiated and developed by children in a natural setting. What’s more, you can see the life lessons they are learning from these games.  Annie Wallin explored some of the research that looks at why this is so important to cognitive development.

Relating to Nature

Spontaneous, open-ended, play in nature offers children the opportunity to classify, observe, explore, and interpret the phenomena around them. These direct experiences with nature provide the challenges, and inspirations necessary for maturation and development in children. Nature is ever-changing across time and space, constantly requiring adaptation and challenging ideas and intuitions and giving learners opportunities for creative exploration. Children can relate to nature and natural objects due to its similarities to them, particularly animals. The similarity of animals reactions to stimuli enable children to recognize and attribute thoughts and feelings to the animal. This is particularly important  for cognitive and learning development as it prompts basic affective responses and attachment in children which helps them to receive and respond to information and ideas. I’m also convinced there is something about having an abundance of mud, leaves and sticks to play with, compared to competing over very specific limited toys/resources in other settings.

Through play in the varied and less structured venues of outdoor spaces, children encounter diverse opportunities for decision making that stimulate problem solving and creativity. This promotes executive functioning, required for lifelong success.

Discovering the world for themselves

Opportunities for creative use of loose parts and child-led investigation set the ground work for cognitive processes that support scientific and aesthetic thinking. Have you noticed how engaged children are with “science” when they notice a phenomenon themselves and then try and replicate it or explain it? Compare this to when you give them a hypothesis to test in the classroom. The wonder of discovering the world for yourself!

Nature and ADHD

Why do green spaces help children concentrate? Is it that it reminds us we are part of something bigger? Research has shown that time spent in nature reduces anxiety and stress in all of us.  Experiments  have been done where people walk for exactly the same time and distance in urban and green spaces. It’s the ones in green spaces who consistently record a dramatic improvement in well being. Experiments showed that even just looking out the window at green space can help children cope with stress. Another experiment showed that teachers had to redirect children back to a task far less often if they just spent a lesson outdoors.

Studies looking at children with ADHD show that time in green spaces and mitigate symptoms of attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders and increase concentration. Faber Taylor and Kuo (2011)  Furthermore,  their research showed the greener their everyday experiences, the more manageable their symptoms were.

Other research, reviewed by Chawla (2015), has shown that more access, proximity to, and time spent in outdoor and green spaces is positively associated with higher concentration, greater self-control, and increased memory and academic success. We’ve had numerous cases where children who struggle  in the classroom thrive at Forest School. Seeing the benefits these children gained from Forest School and Outdoor Learning led us to set up Woodventurers. Providing outdoor alternative provision for children who are unable to cope in mainstream school.

The role of adults

For the earliest learners, experiences in and with nature are guided by parents and guardians and help build values concerned with safety and sustenance in relation to direct and indirect experiences with nature.  It was heartening to read that programs/guided play led by adults lead to more independent, active, and spontaneous exploratory play than is found in unguided groups of young children. (Van Schijndel et al., 2010) The art of leading Forest School is facilitating children to lead their own play. Child led doesn’t mean that you just absent yourself and let them get on with it.


Frequent and positive contact with nature before age 11, especially in active and playful experiences, is likely to encourage people to appreciate, value and want to conserve nature throughout their lives. Direct contact with nature creates strong connections and affiliations between child and place. Think back to your child hood and which natural spaces were important to you. What was it that sparked your love for nature?