How Forest School Nurtures Brain Development

by | Dec 27, 2022

“When we help a child to feel secure, feel appreciated, feel that “somebody is deeply, truly interested in me,” by the way we just look, the way we just listen, we influence that child’s whole personality, the way that child sees life.”  – Magda Gerber

It is the never-ending debate; what is more significant to the developing human, nature or nurture? We tend to think we are born as we are and that’s that. But what if our environment, and the people in it, could shape who we become just as significantly as our genetic make up? In the book From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, edited by Jack P. Shonkoffand Deborah A. Phillips, the coactivity between nature and nurture is explored. As the book states, “Nature is inseparable from nurture, and the two should be understood in tandem. Moreover, by contrast with a traditional view that heredity imposes limitations and environments induce change in developmental pathways, research in developmental psychobiology shows that the coactivity of nature and nurture accounts for both stability and malleability in growth.”

An example of how nature and nurture work together to shape the people we become has been demonstrated by studies comparing adopted children with both their adoptive parents and their biological parents. The genetic component is there – children born to biological parents with personality disorders are described as having more difficult temperaments, and difficulty with emotional self-regulation, but perhaps more interestingly, “parents and children in these adoptive families influenced each other. Children with greater hostility tended to evoke more severe disciplinary responses, but harsh discipline also tended to exacerbate children’s antisocial behavior.” Conversely, when caregivers demonstrate patience and understanding it elicits calmer behavior in children. This is so important because it means that environmental influences, and the people in children’s lives, can actually serve as moderators for genetic predispositions. In addition to this, our experiences can literally shape our developing brain.

There are two different types of experience mechanisms that affect the developing brain. Experience-expectant mechanisms and experience-dependent mechanisms: Experience-expectant mechanisms refer to those experiences the brain expects every member of a species to have. These are experiences we must have in order for the brain to develop properly. For example, the brain expects exposure to light and must have that input in order to correctly develop. The same is true for all forms of sensory input. Without these types of experiences, our nervous system is unable to organize properly and this can lead to permanent behavioral dysfunction. Spending time in nature is the easiest way to ensure these sensory demands are being met. The sunshine, wind, rain water, mud, crunching leaves, animal calls and varying temperatures provide learners with an abundance of sensory input to nurture developing brains. 

rope bridge forest school

In addition to nurturing the five most well known senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch), Aishling Forest School offers our learners unique opportunities to nurture the two lesser known senses; vestibular and proprioception. The vestibular system is the perception of our body in relation to gravity, movement, and balance. The fallen trees in the forest are our built in balance beams to nurture this sense. Our sensory swings, rope bridges, climbing walls and hammocks also help learners regulate their vestibular systems. Proprioception lets us know where we are positioned in space, and how to plan our movements. Proprioception also tells us how much force we need to complete a certain task. The learners are able to nurture this sense through tree climbing, cutting wood, and figuring out how much pressure is needed when using a steel striker to make fire.

The second type of experience mechanism that helps shape our developing brains is called experience-dependent. These are the unique experiences each individual has. Our brains develop and adapt to whatever experience-dependent input we are exposed to. This includes the unique environments we are put in, as well as the unique relationships we each have. What a profound and wonderful responsibility we have to have children in our care, knowing that the environment we provide for them and the relationships we develop can actually shape their physiological brain development!

At Aishling Forest School, we strive to create an environment that can help nurture each individual learner, and meet them where they are. Being a child-led program enables the learners to follow one of our three main principles of forest school, “taking care of yourself,” even when that looks very different for each individual. When the learner’s nature is to be highly energetic, forest school nurtures that by allowing for lots of movement and activity. When the learner’s nature predisposes them to sensory overload, the forest nurtures them with an abundance of quiet space to retreat to and regroup in.

As mentors, we try to compliment what nature provides by maintaining a small mentor: learner ratio, and individualizing plans for each unique learner. We value connection before correction, and let the learners come to their own conclusions based on natural consequences, rather than punitive measures. For example, the learners are encouraged to carry their own gear, and they may choose to leave it behind when we enter the woods. If they end up thirsty, the natural consequence for that choice is that they have to walk back to get their water. Instead of engaging in power struggles, we can lovingly walk back with them to retrieve it when they come to that conclusion on their own. When there is a dispute we use our “peace ceremonies” to make sure each involved party feels heard and is validated. In lieu of adult directed solutions, we patiently mediate until the learners come up with their own solutions. Again, we are able to avoid punitive measures. The intentional cultivation of these peaceful and caring relationships and settings are essential to proper brain development and overall behavioral health. In the words of Amanda Robbins, MSW, PhD, “When we look into someone’s eyes, we can feel loved, or hated, dismissed or understood.” We are always striving for love and understanding.

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