William Ogilvie-Jones is Assistant Head Pupil Support at Merchiston

ACCORDING to research from Forest Schools Association, the demand for Forest Schools has surged in recent years, with an increased awareness of the mental health benefits cited as a key factor. Merchiston Castle School, is responding to this growing need in the post-pandemic era with plans afoot to open a new Forest School in 2024.

From a reduction in stress and anxiety to improved self-esteem, and enhanced cognitive performance, research highlights the manifold benefits of forest learning on childhood development and wellbeing. It is no wonder that outdoor education is on the rise.

For a generation born during and raised against a restricted backdrop, the value of spending time outdoors cannot be underestimated. Research into the effects of Covid-19 reveals the harmful impact of the past couple of years and subsequent lockdowns on children’s mental health, with an unprecedented increase in demand for child mental health services. Unicef warns that young children will feel the impact of this for many years to come.

Prior to 2020, it was thought that one in six children in the UK had a probable mental health condition. However, new research suggests this figure is on the rise; anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders are on the rise. Improving children’s health and wellbeing has never been more important.

Of course, outdoor learning should not be considered a substitute for medical treatment when it comes to mental health disorders. Nonetheless, it has a part to play in the healthy development of young people. Studies have suggested attending a Forest School improves a child’s confidence, social and communication skills, motivation, and concentration levels. Moreover, a review of research into outdoor learning highlighted the positive impact on childhood relationships, interpersonal skills, improved self-esteem and coping strategies.

Outdoor education encourages children to use all their senses, learning from the natural environment and taking part in child-led exercises, such as nature treasure hunts, that promote independent thinking, teamwork, and creativity. With a focus on developing the potential of the individual, children take part in explorative, imaginative play, devoid of screens and smart tech. By providing children with hands-on experiences, they will learn how to successfully overcome challenges, cooperate with others, and embrace a more curious, innovative mindset. Such qualities are invaluable for managing life’s many obstacles, be it in academic, professional, or personal life.

Giving children the tools to cope with difficult emotions, build positive relationships and cultivate self-esteem must be a priority in all school settings. It certainly is for parents – as is demonstrated by the increasing applications for Forest Schools across the UK.

After years of being cooped up inside, taking the classroom outdoors is an opportunity to reverse the impact of lockdowns on young children and set them up to be healthier, happier members of society.

Families are invited to register their interest by contacting the admissions team at TheForest@merchiston.co.uk