You can hear the giggles and the squeals of excitement wafting from within the nearby forest.

Rather than be alarmed that there are small children traipsing through the undergrowth, lost in a wilderness of unknown risks, the nearby adults are calm, collected, smiling.

This is the world of forest school, a growing phenomenon around the world; a school that nurtures children in nature and encourages learning, developmental growth and mindfulness in a serene environment.

In recent years a renewed interest has been placed on the importance of environmental interaction, green living and the connection to wellbeing. When you consider what humanity has collectively experienced, it’s not surprising.

The world has emerged from a period of uncertainty unlike anything any living generation has experienced.

Education and routine disruption, social impacts – COVID-19 has certainly left its scars.

The impact on our children is not yet fully known, but researchers have already clearly confirmed what many parents fear: the Alpha generation may experience long-term psychological issues.

The Children’s Health Queensland COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children) study showed that more than a year into the pandemic, one in four young Australian children, aged one to five, were still experiencing higher than average levels of anxiety.

McCrindle research predicts that young children’s COVID-19 related trauma will be embedded in their psyche, with the period deemed to be a defining event for the next generation. The research showed that more than four in five adults – or 84 per cent – believe COVID-19 will play a significant role in shaping the children of today, while 65 per cent think the pandemic will have an ongoing negative impact on young people’s mental health.

Through COVID, our children were the innocent bystanders, forced to disconnect from those around them. In some ways the pandemic created resilience, but it also revealed gaps that some educators are now attempting to fill with nature-based therapy and experience.

Sunshine Coast mother of two and forest school educator Vicci Oliver is an advocate for providing children with the opportunity to connect with the great outdoors. And what better place to do so than here on the Sunshine Coast – home to lakes, streams, beaches, mountains and forest.

“Spending time in nature encourages the idea that we aren’t separate from nature, we are part of it,” she says. “If children don’t have that connection they can feel a wider disconnect with the world. We have gone through a period of uncertainty, and until then many children had never been given an opportunity in their everyday lives to go up against uncertainty.

Nicki Farrell, Vicci Oliver

Vicci explains: “In nature that happens all the time. If they [children] balance on something and fall off, it creates uncertainty. If it doesn’t work out how you want it to, you learn to use other strategies. If you are in a forest and there is a change in the weather, you are faced with the questions, ‘do you stay or do you not? Can you keep safe? Can you stay dry?’. There are so many decisions that need to be made and that level of uncertainty builds that resilience.

“Children these days don’t have the opportunity to do that. They get out of bed on to a level surface, they get into the car to go to school – it’s a levelled environment. We generally know what is going to happen.

“As soon as we take them out of that environment anything can happen. A lot of time it’s beautiful things that happen. Nature is such a sensory experience; you experience it with your whole body.”

Vicci and her friend, fellow university-educated teacher Nicki Farrell, are the founders and directors of Wildlings Forest School. The school, which has a base in Nambour and another in Brisbane, provides the opportunity to prioritise risky play experiences for children in natural, untouched wild spaces.

There are a range of sessions including a playgroup, kindy, school holiday program, homeschool and afterschool groups.

Students range from as young as one right up to the ages of 12 or 13, and include children of all abilities, including those with autism spectrum disorders, and children who require an alternative program to traditional schooling.

Children build rafts, learn how to cook around a fire, use hand tools, climb trees, splash in freshwater creeks, create bush crafts, tie knots and build cubbies. Participants also learn how to identify flora and fauna and learn about seasonal weather patterns, as well as sustainability and environmental science.

The forest school philosophy originates in Scandinavia, where play-based learning has led the way for many years. Here at home the Australian Forest School Association launched in January, but the industry has been growing for some time.

“Nicki and I met when I was running a nature playgroup for children,” Vicci says. “There was nothing around that suited what I thought my children needed. When Nicki and I connected, we came from similar backgrounds and shared similar ideas for what we wanted for our children.”

Vicci believes the move towards homeschool and online learning during 2020 was an eye-opener for many parents. For the first time, parents witnessed the limitations traditional school environments can place on children, and the pressure teachers face on a day-to-day basis.

She says this realisation has driven the growth and interest in alternative programs.

“I think COVID definitely made people look at the way children experience childhood and how important it is to be able to move bodies and be outside. They had a hard look at what was being experienced at school,” Vicci tells salt.

“Everything we do with Wildlings, at the core is the thought, ‘how do we help children thrive?’.

“We want them to experience freedom and autonomy in nature and in wild spaces, places that have uncertainty.

“The program is completely child led and child centred. The magical moments we have seen with children, it’s really hard to explain unless you watch the children and witness the flow, the state of play.”

Get wild

There are so many ways you can encourage your children to interact with nature.

  1. Grab a blanket and a basket of books and head outside. Reading under the trees will help infants and toddlers identify with nature’s sounds, smells and sights. For older children, being outdoors with a book in hand can help regulate and calm.
  2. Bush art – Sticks, twigs, leaves, rocks. You name it and you can use it. Grab some paper, some glue and a bag or basket to collect your art supplies. Let the kids be as creative as they like, touching and identifying each object before they attach it to their paper.
  3. Scavenger hunt – Make a list and send them on a fun search. Be as creative and descriptive as possible.
  4. Take a family walk. The Sunshine Coast is home to so many beautiful locations such as Kondalilla Falls, Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve and the Maroochy Regional Bushland Botanic Garden.
  5. Go fishing. Teach the kids how to set up and bait their own line, and hook a fish. They will feel the sand between their toes, the sunshine on their faces, and will get great joy out of catching a little fish. We recommend Pumicestone Passage at Golden Beach or the Maroochy River.