Outdoor-learning schemes make kids happier and fitter. Why aren’t there more of them?
t’s that anxious time of the year again, when frantic working parents glance at the Kitchen Chart of Doom and recoil in horror as they realise it’s almost summer. Other — better — parents have already snapped up all the decent holiday activities for their kids.Six weeks of chaos and childcare confusion lie ahead.
So why is it still such a long break? The summer vacation is a hangover from Victorian times, when offspring were needed to help in the fields. Now they struggle to stay occupied while parents are out earning a wage. And if you have teenagers, all this happens under the fretful cloud of revision and exams.
I found what seemed like the perfect answer to our holiday conundrum this week: a German scheme called Waldkindergärten. This is a nationwide programme based around outdoor activities in forests and woodlands. Toys are banned in nature’s classrooms, where kids instead learn to build fires, carve wood and make dens. They even pee outside like baby Bear Grylls cubs. Then I noticed it only applies to three- to six-year-olds (my kids range from six to 14).
- 74% of children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates (Persil 2016)
A great deal of research into the cognitive and behavioural advantages of putting preschool children in outdoor surroundings has been applied to the scheme, which promises to cure what has been labelled “nature deficit disorder”. Indeed, a survey of graduates showed those who had been to Waldkindergärten got better results than those who had not. It is also credited with tackling childhood obesity, while encouraging team building and breaking down barriers that often lead to bullying in more enclosed spaces such as classrooms. Controversially, the children are allowed to use small knives and often return home covered in mud.
Waldkindergärten was originally a Scandinavian idea. Now similar schemes are popping up all over the western world. It sounds like a great alternative to nursery, so why aren’t similar schemes available for older children?
In Britain, we have a generation of preteens and teens who are increasingly housebound, overweight and stressed out. Even teachers feel too much emphasis is placed on a rigid, one-dimensional curriculum where exam success is prioritised over children’s happiness. Outdoor learning has been proven to engage and encourage kids — especially those that are less confident — and make them better indoor students too. And if it doesn’t fit into the term timetable, why not offer it during the school holidays, with teachers staffing it on rotation? If I were more organised, I’d set one up immediately. Instead it looks like my kids will have to settle for trips to the park again this summer.