The great outdoors can mend our broken society

Published: 19 August 2011 at 15:56

Forest School can help marginalised teenagers, says Anglia Ruskin academic

An Anglia Ruskin University academic believes that the Forest School movement can play a crucial role in addressing issues highlighted by the recent inner-city riots.

Sara Knight, in her new book Forest School for All (Sage Publications), reveals how sustained contact with woodland and the outdoors can improve the behaviour and attitudes of children and young people.

Knight, Senior Lecturer in Early Years at Anglia Ruskin, said:

“While David Cameron promises to turn around troubled families following the recent riots, and DEFRA’s Independent Panel on Forestry is meeting to advise on the future direction of Forestry and Woodland policy in England, I am wondering when the joined up thinking will start.” 

Robust outdoor play in wooded spaces has been proven to help preschool children and the early primary age-group to develop strong motivation, self-esteem, concentration skills, social skills, and language; and more recent work has shown that it can also help tackle emotional and behavioural problems amongst older children and young adults.

“It takes longer to change behaviour than it does to get it right in the first place,”

said Knight. 

“My colleagues from Somerset and Worcestershire, who have well-established programmes for excluded and marginalised teenagers, talk about spending more than a year of weekly sessions before changes can be established as a permanent part of the young person’s way of being. 

“This can make them appear expensive, unless you set against them the costs of mopping up the damage done by disaffected youth, whether rampaging in riots or self-destructing on drugs. 

“However, there are opportunities to equip these young people with qualifications as a result of their time in the woods, where they are apprenticed to a skilled wood worker or forest ranger.  And their developing personal skills can be recognised, too, giving them the vital “bits of paper” for the next stage of their journey back into society.

“Woods don’t cost much money to maintain, although the work can be labour-intensive.  Finding the right people to run these Forest School schemes is harder, but they are out there. 

“Forest School can make a big difference to the future for troubled teenagers and young adults.  It is time-consuming – we need to work with them once a week for as long as it takes, which may well be years.  This makes the people-costs high.  It also makes the outcomes more certain and longer-lasting. 

“We are changing their brains.  So it has a better outcome than locking them up, which will cost more and achieve less, or nothing.  And we will not be making them feel alienated, and we will not be making their parents feel guilty, ashamed or angry.

“So instead of trying to sell off the woods and forests of the UK, why not use them as a big green blanket to wrap round these unwanted behaviours and attitudes?”