Whether you’ve ever resorted to ‘taking a walk’ with your toddler around an air-conditioned mall or consider a trip to Ski Dubai as the only viable way to experience winter weather, it’s easy to fall into the trap of living life indoors in the UAE. But, while the long hot summers and plethora of man-made attractions can make it feel as if we’re lacking opportunities to connect with nature, there are actually plenty of ways we can experience the natural environment in our everyday lives. In many parts of the world, getting up close to nature is an important part of early years education and is formally built into the school system – and with good reason.

 “Forest schooling originated in Scandinavia in the 1950s and has gained popularity around the world including in North America, Australia and even Japan,” says Gillian Sykes, Senior Lecturer in Education (Early Years) at the University of Northampton (northampton.ac.uk) in the UK, which has its own forest school on campus. “It is essentially designed to help get children closer to nature in order to develop confidence, independence and self-esteem through hands-on learning in a woodland environment. The same principles can be applied through a ‘beach school’ or ‘bush school’, however, depending on the destination you’re living in and the nature that characterises it.”

Forest schooling is a multi-sensory experience, which is why it’s especially great for aiding learning and development in babies and small children.

“At our forest school on campus, children go out in all weathers to explore the woodland and we follow their lead,” says Gillian. “As well as helping children to understand how to care for the environment, forest schooling is great for building social skills and language and communication, as there is discussion about what we see, find and do. Plus, it aids concentration. In fact, we have seen a profound improvement in those who struggle to concentrate inside who commonly find it much easier to focus when outdoors. It also helps develop physical ability and strength due to moving around logs and sticks and other objects.”

The concept is especially popular among parents who feel like the modern way of living is having a negative impact on our lives. “As technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives, much of society no longer sees time spent in the natural world and independent, imaginary play as enriching. Technology is not, in itself, the enemy, but our lack of balance is lethal and the pandemic of inactivity is one result,” explains Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children and Nature Network and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Nature-deficit disorder, as defined in my book, is a metaphor to describe what many of us believe is the human cost of alienation from nature, namely: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity and Vitamin D deficiency.”

“Experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health and the ability to learn,” Richard continues. “Research strongly suggests that time spent in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves, reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), foster calm and aid focus. One of the most gratifying benefits of a nature-rich life is building stronger relationships within the family, among friends and in the community.”

 Making the most of our natural surroundings, even if seems wildly different to what you can find in your home country, is key to successfully implementing the forest school concept to the UAE. “We encourage nurseries and pre-schools to have a supply of water, an area to play with natural materials such as sand and soil and lots of items with different textures to discover, such as plants and flowers, pebbles, shells, sticks and bark,” says Gillian. Read on for some practical ways that you can adapt forest school principles for the UAE in ways that will aid your children’s development...

Nature at every stage

Fun activities to do with your little ones from babies to the toddler years

0-12 months

Watch and learn

“Lay your baby on a rug in the garden, park, or beach to experience the sights, sounds, smells and feel of different outdoor environments,” says Gillian Sykes, senior lecturer in education (early years) at the University of Northampton. Just be sure to be sun safe.

Make a nature discovery bottle

“Discovery bottles are a good idea for this age group,” says Rebecca Webber, who studied forest schooling in the UK and is now assistant head teacher at Home Grown Children’s Eco Nursery in Dubai. Simply place items you’ve collected from outside into a transparent bottle, then seal it. “The children get to experience the environment around them in a safer way. They can’t put small items in their mouths but can still view and shake them through the bottles.” 

Unplug

“Taking a baby away from electronic distractions creates an opportunity for what is called ‘affective sharing’ – ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ together over the sun shining through the leaves of a big tree, feeling a soft spring rain or a light winter snowfall on your face,” says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. “It can be a challenge when temperatures soar, but it’s still possible to get some ‘vitamin N’ (vitamin nature). Encourage your kids to find a ‘sit spot’ in the yard or nearby nature. Sit there with them quietly and let the senses return.”

Be mindful of your surroundings

Talk to your baby about the minutiae of your natural surroundings to help them appreciate and feel immersed in the outdoors. “It’s important to encourage our children to feel a part of nature in their earliest experiences, beginning in the back yard, just digging a hole, watching the leaves move in the trees, the sand shift in the wind and the life the wind brings,” adds Richard. 

Bring the outside in

Even in the heat of summer, bringing nature indoors can create a restorative environment in your home. “Make a wooden treasure basket to explore that’s filled with lots of natural materials such as a wooden pastry brush, leaves and dry fruit shells,” suggests Claire Jones, who trained in forest schooling and is now assistant head with responsibility for the Foundation Stage at Kings’ Dubai. “Cut a loofah sponge in half for something that has an interesting texture that changes when it’s dry or wet. There’s also lots of items you can pick up cheaply from places such as Daiso.”

1-2 Years

Create a natural treasure basket

“We encourage heuristic play with ‘treasure baskets’ – these are small wicker baskets we fill with sensory and natural items,” says Grown Nursery’s Rebecca. “The children are free to explore the basket when they wish and it’s at a level they can get completely involved in and pull everything out of.”

Let them fall over 

“Children are born to explore and having a natural, eco experience available to them helps development in a range of different ways,” says Rebecca. “We often discourage children from rolling down hills or climbing trees these days due to liability or fear of injury, but this is exactly what our children need to experience. We see more children tripping over their feet or struggling to balance while sitting on chairs because they haven’t developed their balance and coordination in a natural way.” 

Make muddy puddles

“Hot weather offers kids and adults a great excuse to get wet,” says Richard. “Encourage your toddlers to paint with water, stomp on a watery surface, or you can punch holes in an old hose to create a sprinkler.” Kings’ assistant head, Claire Jones, agrees.“Kids don’t get access to things like mud and worms in Dubai but there are so many other things to explore and it’s important that they do so. We often create our own puddles at school, so the children can go puddle jumping. The younger you start, the better.”

Ditch the shoes

“At Home Grown, we encourage our children to walk barefoot over our wooden logs, and when we build forts and dens in our outdoor areas,” says Rebecca. “Through outdoor play, we are enabling children to develop their sensory processing naturally.”  

Count pinecones

“Our maths lessons include ‘number nature hunts’ and counting pinecones and leaves,” adds Rebecca.  “We love reading stories while sitting in the sunshine. We even have an outdoor classroom space so teaching can continue outside as required.” Claire Jones agrees: “When children first come to Kings’, we do a lot of outdoor activities such as picking up sticks and binding them with string to teach them how to tie a knot. It’s amazing how excited children can get about finding something under a tree and the many ways they can use something simple like a stick as a wand or a pen, for instance. It inspires them to use their imagination.”

2-3 Years 

Investigate insects

“Children this age enjoy a more ‘hands-on approach,” says Home Grown’s Rebecca. “They love to walk through nature and talk about what they see. We have recently been studying minibeasts and butterflies and, after a quick read of a book, we picked up our magnifying glasses and buckets and went off to explore our beautiful garden. We found grubs, ants and sticks and a butterfly resting on a leaf. The children associated it with the one they had seen in the book and remembered to stay very quiet and still so they could view it for as long as possible.”

Do natural science experiments

“On a sunny day, place a sealable bag over a leafy part of a plant and zip it as far closed as possible,” says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods.  “Wait 20 minutes and come back to see the respiration moisture that’s accumulated inside the bag. Help your kids experiment with different kinds of plants to detect any difference. This simple activity will provide your kid with visual proof that plants are producing the oxygen we need to survive.”

Get growing

Even if you have a gardener, encourage kids to get their hands dirty by digging up weeds or planting seeds and watching them grow. “Activities such as this will educate them about food and where it comes from,” suggests Claire Jones, assistant head with responsibility for the Foundation Stage at Kings’ Dubai. “Plus, they are much more likely to try certain fruit and vegetables if they’ve grown them.”

Go on a shoebox safari

“Recently, with our older children, we each painted the inside of a cardboard shoe box, then gathered our buckets and headed out into the garden to collect as many twigs, leaves and fallen petals as we could find,” says Rebecca of Homegrown Nursery. “We spent time explaining to our peers what we had collected and then we stuck it inside our shoebox, making little ‘nature windows’ to hang inside the classroom and bring nature inside. This develops the child’s confidence and communication and language skills, to talk in front of their peers and to listen to each other. It also aids physical development as walking through different terrain strengthens their gross motor skills, while painting the cardboard shoeboxes develops fine motor skills. Collecting nature objects enhances their care and concern for the surrounding natural world and this falls into the ‘understanding of the world’ section of the Early Years Foundations Stages.”

3-4 Years

Expand their horizons

“When you think back to your happiest memories as a child, you’ll commonly link to experiences you’ve had outdoors,” says Claire Jones from Kings Dubai. “Children get a sense of calmness from being in an environment with no physical boundaries where they can breathe in the fresh air.” Let children run around without you hovering too nearby. “We may not have woodland here in Dubai but we have the desert and the beach. We can find shells and starfish and do some imaginative play with sand.” 

Go camping

“At Kings’, we teach children about fire safety and how to start a campfire,” says Claire. “They are fascinated! We teach them how to act responsibly outdoors, like how they should hand matches to a grown-up if they find them. We make popcorn over the campfire, which teaches them about the process of what happens when corn gets hot.”

Encourage the architect inside

“Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee for the yard and leave it up all winter,” says Richard Louv. “Encourage them to build a tree house, fort or hut. You can provide the raw materials, including sticks, boards, blankets, boxes and ropes, for instance, but it’s best if kids are the architects and builders. The older the kids, the more complex the construction can be.”

Try sledding in the desert

“Drive out into the sand dunes, where your kids can experiment with sandboarding,” says Richard. “Alternatively, use a big piece of cardboard to sled down a grassy hill, or do as East Timor children do and slide down a grassy hill or dune on a large palm frond.” 

Turn nature into art

“Let children collect stones and leaves to turn into art,” says Gillian. Try painting pebbles or make a leaf rubbing with crayons. 

Photos by Shutterstock and Istock