Forest Friends

Sarah Ivens, former Editor-in-Chief of US OK! magazine, is the author of Forest Therapy. Here, she explains the benefits of raising children with an outdoors mindset. Photography by Emma Tunbridge

My six-year-old son, William, has so much energy that if he’s not taken out for daily exercise he starts bouncing off the walls and yelping until my head shakes along with the floorboards. He’s like a puppy – excitable, loves to run – and the minute I decided to treat him as such, taking him outside for at least one hour every evening, my life got a lot easier. Prioritising parenting en plein air saved my vocal cords and brought harmony (and tidiness) back into our family home. This discovery was the beginning of my forest education – and I’ve been a convert to its remarkable powers ever since.

Getting outside for at least an hour a day (preferably longer) also made sure I limited my daughter Matilda’s screen time. At only four years old, she was already becoming a sneaky YouTube addict, deciphering the code to my Kindle to watch videos of girls dancing and singing along to pop songs. In the forest behind our house, as her brother runs laps around us, building dens and dams and forts, and offering us an occasional flower, Matilda – for lack of electronics – makes up her own routines and puts on theatrical performances for the squirrels.

The importance of getting children out into nature was probably the first lesson I learnt as a parent. I became a mother at the same time as a dear friend, a Norwegian girl living near me, who insisted that instead of spending those early foggy mornings of nursing in coffee shops, that we walked in local parks. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Solveig reminded me, if ever I texted her with predictions of rain.

As we walked, our babies snoozed in the fresh air, our spirits lifted by the boost of Vitamin D and cardiovascular exercise, and my stress levels dropped when faced with blossoming trees and chirping birds. I set myself the goal then: to always live as a parent with the outdoors as our biggest source of entertainment. If nothing else, it is so much cheaper than lugging offspring to those indoor play centres, and the chances of catching some ghastly bug or getting set on by a teething toddler much less.

In nature, you can make the rules of engagement – play games, sing songs; I even use the time to get my kids interested in meditation. Fresh air and unstructured play has built confidence in my two, and encouraged their imagination remarkably.

The benefits found in forest therapy are endless, common sense tells us – and scientists agree. A recent study of 18,500 people conducted by the University of Derby and The Wildlife Trust showed that there was a scientifically significant increase in people’s health and happiness when a connection to nature and active nature behaviours, such as feeding the birds and planting flowers for bees, was sustained over a period of months. The research showed that children exposed to the natural world had increased self-esteem, and the case-studied kids explained how these interactions had taught them to take risks, unleashed their creativity and given them a chance to exercise, play and discover. In some cases, nature can significantly improve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), providing a calming influence and helping with concentration.

And not only are there emotional and psychological advantages to playing outside, there are physical advantages, too. Obviously, if a child is playing outside, he/she will be way more physically fit than the child who stays indoors, sitting and gawping at a television or an iPad screen on a sofa.

But the great thing about this is that it can have long-lasting effects, a study in the International Journal of Obesity by an Australian team of nutritionists and academics proved. Years down the road, the child will still be more active and less likely to be overweight. If you think about this, it makes perfect sense; teach a child when they’re young to love moving around the outdoors and they will love it – and move – forever.

Nervous for the future but prompted by studies like this, the NHS has released new guidelines regarding children and activity, suggesting kids aged between five and 18 should get at least one hour of activity outside every day, giving a stern warning to parents that the sedentary, indoor lifestyle children are currently living can lead to serious problems later in life, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

But how do we, as busy and stressed – and let’s not forget exhausted – parents do this? How do we drag the kids outside when their screen addiction (and ours!) is making the house look inviting, or they stare skywards and moan about ominous clouds or needing snacks?

Bribes work. For Mother Nature, a mum can use some tricks. Mine include, but are not limited to, outdoor toys such as bubble mixture (never underestimate the power of bubble-blowing and popping), a kid-friendly magnifying glass for bug watching, a picnic hamper filled with favourite treats, and a book about rocks for some geeking out amongst pebbles and boulders.

Once they’re out, something magical happens. The natural urge we are all born with to explore, admire and build takes over. I then have to try to drag them in for bath time – happy, dirty, muscles used and brains buzzing – all thanks to the best free fun a family can enjoy.

Ways to Embrace Forest Free-Time

With a notebook and pencil, venture outside to search for homes of the cute and wild. Look in trees, up trees, under stones, in rivers and lakes, and in meadows. Nests, hives, burrows, webs and dreys; they all count. Check them out carefully and respectfully – safety first – looking at how each animal has made their home. Admire the hard work and time that went into each construction. If you’re lucky, you might find one in the middle of being built, so sit and watch for a while. Count how long the adult birds leave home for and what they bring back to their offspring. Make notes and drawings to take home, then research about it more when you get back to your own hard-earned home.

Gather fallen petals and mix them with water, pestling them in a bowl to make perfume. Take a good sniff and feel the change in texture. Play Pooh Sticks, where you throw fallen wood from a bridge and time how quickly it takes for the current to pull them under. Lie down on the ground and observe the clouds above, how fast they are moving and what differences in colour you can see, and discuss what this means for the weather forecast.

Why do we always assume Lego castles have to be built in bedrooms and living rooms when outside we can dig a moat to surround them? Why should dolls’ houses stay pristine and clean when outside they are majestically turned into a stately home with grand gardens? Plus any dirt means having to clean another fun activity for little hands. And just think how much more realistic your Sylvanian Family animals will look when they’re taken out of their plastic box and played with at the foot of a tree! Take toys outside to make magical new worlds.


Forest Therapy by Sarah Ivens, Piatkus, £12.99