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Episode 51: The physical and emotional benefits of nature on children

Forest Bathing, Stinging Beasts, and more. In this episode, Andy and Adam are joined by The School of School Producer, Robin, to discuss the benefits of exploring the outdoors and being amongst nature. Should field trips have fewer restrictions and tasks for pupils? What can inner-city schools do to explore nature? Plus, find out how to boost your creativity by 50%.

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Profile of Andy Psarianos expert educational podcaster.

Andy Psarianos

@andy_psarianos

Andy was one of the first to bring maths mastery to the UK as the founder and CEO of the independent publisher: Maths — No Problem! Since then, he’s continued to create innovative education products as Chairman of Fig Leaf Group. He’s won more than a few awards, helped schools all over the world raise attainment levels, and continues to build an inclusive, supportive education community.
Profile of Emily Guille-Marrett expert educational podcaster.

Emily Guille-Marrett

@EmilyEatsBooks

With nearly 20 years of education experience, Emily has a knack for creating wildly successful learning content. Her past work includes publishers like Oxford University Press, Pearson and Collins Education. Currently, you’ll find her dreaming and scheming in her role as Head of Publishing at Fig Leaf Group.
Profile of Adam Gifford expert educational podcaster.

Adam Gifford

In a past life, Adam was a headteacher, and the first Primary Maths Specialist Leader in Education in the UK. He led the NW1 Maths Hub’s delivery of NCETM’s Professional Development Lead Support Programme before taking on his current role of Maths Subject Specialist at Maths — No Problem!

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Profile of Robin Potter expert educational podcaster.

Robin Potter

Robin comes to the podcast with a global perspective on parenting and children’s education. She’s lived in ten different countries and her children attended school in six of them. She has been a guest speaker at international conferences, sharing her graduate research on the community benefits of using forests for wellness. Currently, you’ll find Robin collaborating with colleagues and customers in her role as Client Experience Manager at Fig Leaf Group, parent company of Maths — No Problem!

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Podcast Transcription

Andy Psarianos

Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.

Emily Guille-Marrett

Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.

Adam Gifford

Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.

Andy Psarianos

This is the School of School Podcast.

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Adam Gifford

Welcome back to another episode of the School of School Podcast. I'm here, Adam. Andy's here. Hi, Andy.

Andy Psarianos

Hello everyone.

Adam Gifford

And we've got a special guest. Robin, how are you this morning?

Robin Potter

I'm great, Adam. Thanks for having me on and I am the lurker of the show, aren't I? I'm here all the time, you just don't hear me.

Adam Gifford

Well, no, I love it that you're talking and that you're on this podcast because often we have sort of chats off air and there's loads of things that get talked about that I think could be magic for the listeners to hear, and one of the things that I know we've sort of discussed ... you can hear the dog in the background. Honestly, she's shameless. She's just letting herself know that she's around. I was at a dinner the other night, a family dinner and children on phones and those sorts of things, and that's a topic that we've discussed lots. One thing that doesn't get discussed though, is what are the benefits of not being on the phone and getting outside and getting in amongst the outdoors? Something that, I don't know, my generation, I'm sure generations before mine would've said that is a really essential part of just growing up. Certainly in New Zealand, that was the case. So I don't know if you guys have any thoughts on that, just not phones are bad and indoors bad, but actually what the benefits are.

Robin Potter

Well, I would love to comment on that because I am, I do work at Maths No Problem. I am a parent, but I, in a past life, did a lot of research and I also worked as a health wellness coach, and my research was on using forest for wellness. So this is right up my alley. I'm glad you bringing it up.

Adam Gifford

Brilliant.

Robin Potter

So, yes, I mean, I think first of all, all three of us could share our own experience being outdoors and it's, luckily I have a dog, so it's a good excuse for me to get outside every day and into nature, but aside from that, and I think during the pandemic, we could all agree that any outdoor time, especially if it involved going for a walk somewhere other than the concrete world we live in, did a world of good and still does do a world of good for all of us, and the Japanese took it one step further. I don't know if you've heard of Forest Bathing, they call it shinrin-yoku?

Andy Psarianos

Yeah, I have. What is it that? Why don't you tell us about that?

Robin Potter

So really all it is, is going for a very slow walk through the forest and engaging all five senses. So really taking in the forest, taking in everything, your sounds, the feel, the sight, the touch, and what they've discovered was there were actual health benefits from it. So it reduces your cortisol, so it improves your mood, calms your mind, actually brings down your anxiety. I don't know if you ever feel this. Andy, you take your dogs out all the time, but sometimes you don't want to take them for a walk, you're busy, you've got a lot of things going on, but you get them out, you go outside, you're in the woods for 20, 30 minutes and you come out and you feel so much better.

Andy Psarianos

Absolutely, and so just right now, Anne's away. So Anne's my partner and she's very selfishly off teaching courses in theatre school in London and left me here by myself in Vancouver with the dogs and children and whatever. Well, one child now, because all the other ones are grown up and all the responsibility of all that, and it's broken my routine because my routine typically for, at least for the last long time, has been get up, start working exhaustion, stop working, do it again, right? That's become my life for the last while because this is a tremendous amount of work to do and that is also happening in this isolated environment. It's like I'm in rooms by myself for the majority of the day, whether it's at home or whether I drive into the office, no one else goes to the office.

So it's just me and now I'm forced to do these long, well, I'm not forced to do long walks, I'm forced to take the dogs for walks, but I find that I'm actually taking the dogs for these really extended walks now, which I did every, I normally did on the weekends, but now I do it every day and I'm actually way more productive even though I have a lot less time, because my mental health, my mental state is so much, my brain is so much clearer. I take the dogs for a huge walk in the morning before I start working, I go to the seaside, I get the fresh air rolling off the sea, there's mountains all around me and I just go for this long walk down with the dogs and the dogs are running around and jumping in out of the water and whatever, and it's just like I feel so much healthier, right, and I've always kind of naively thought that has to do with oxygen, there's oxygen, but I think there's more to it than that, right?

Robin Potter

Yeah. There's definitely more to it than that, but if you break it down just into the simple fact, you're going for a walk with fresh air and you are breathing in nature and breathing in the forest air or maybe if you're down at the beach even, I mean, yes, there are-

Andy Psarianos

I got the forest on one side and I got the sea on the other side, right? Doesn't get much better than that, really.

Adam Gifford

No, that's magic.

Robin Potter

No, and to go to your question, Adam, at the beginning about technology and we talk about disconnecting to reconnect, and that's really key. Disconnecting from technology to reconnect to nature. Kids benefit so greatly from this and a little fun fact because I know, Adam, you love your fun facts that they say spending at least four days in nature without technology boosts creativity by 50% and interacting with nature increases your problem solving abilities, which goes back to what Andy was saying, he's more productive. So there are some powerful things about taking kids into the forest, and now with these forest schools for the early years and the preschool kids, there's a big emphasis on actually taking and teaching kids outside in nature because of the health benefits.

Adam Gifford

But what I was thinking, was a couple of things, what I'm about to say now is utterly unscientific, but it's a bit of a-

Andy Psarianos

That doesn't meet the rigour standards of this show, Adam. Sorry. We have to cut this out-

Adam Gifford

I'm lowering the bar, but just work with me for a moment, right? I heard a snippet on the radio and I use these things. I heard something on the radio that was sort of saying about our subconscious brains working away and the things that we're conscious of is just the mere tip of the iceberg compared to what else that the brain's using, and I always think that if when you go out and you just walk without a purpose, I mean, you're walking the dog, so there's a purpose to that, but what I mean is that we are not confusing, say being outdoors with a structured, say sports activity or you're outside to do this thing which requires your conscious thought, this is just, I am wandering around here and I'm free, my thoughts are free and those sorts of things.

I always believe let the subconscious do its thing. So if I'm struggling for an idea or I'm thinking things through, I have faith that these things will help. I remember before many, many, many, many, many years ago when Ofsted used to come into schools, that the head teacher could select one teacher to be observed, right, for the Ofsted inspector, and she said to me, "Right, you are going to be observed," "Thanks very much, that's super." But rather than spending the night planning all that, I put faith in my subconscious and just went out for a wander, like wandering the hills and just a wonder and just, it was the best thing, and it went okay. So that's all good, and I think that maybe, and I don't know if this, again, I don't know if this is true, but children learning to be at home, just being out there without a focus, just being allowed to explore, just being allowed to do something without it being wrapped up in a structure, and I think that's really important.

Andy Psarianos

That's an interesting point, because often when we do, schools do field trips, they will go out and they'll have some artificial like, "Okay, well there's a treasure hunt. You need to find these six things while we walk through nature," right? Whether they've hidden them or they're whatever they, and maybe that's not the right thing to do. Maybe it's like, "All right, kids, here you go. We're in forest now for the next hour. We're just going to kind of generally walk this way and we'll come out somewhere around there and just look at the trees and pick up sticks if you want and maybe even just interact with the nature." Do we do enough of that kind of stuff, just bring them to the beach and just let them play on the beach, right? I don't know.

Adam Gifford

I don't think we do, Andy. I really don't, and you saying that's raised a really strong memory for me. It was secondary school and I don't, well, when I was growing up, we lived in a place that was away from the city and so a trip into the city was a big deal, but I can't remember a time being taken to the museum, well, very rarely anyway, right, and I remember we did a school trip and we were in these weird groups and we've been given the sort of, I don't know, the bog standard questionnaire. So go to this part of the museum only and answer these questions on these exhibits only. Now I was really taken by something else and had a really good look around this other exhibit. I got told off. I got really, really told off because I wasn't filling in the questionnaire, that the exhibits over there and it's exhibit 28, and that's what you are looking at, and I'm thinking, "You know what? Screw you, screw the museums. I'm not interested," because it was Vancouver Museum.

I'm sure it was Vancouver when I was about 18 or 19. Is Vancouver Museum the one that, it's probably changed now, but it was almost themed. So when you walk through, it was kind of, I don't know, say you're going through the Ice Age, it was looked like it was made out of ice and I fell in love with museums again-

Andy Psarianos

Right.

Adam Gifford

Because I could just do it at my own pace. It was a really cool museum in my memory. This is, I don't know, early '90s, and I think these are the things I think that this is the importance of letting children, because kids are curious. Why would we want to beat that curiosity out of them by making them do not look at that interesting thing. All right, you are not interested in that, do not look at that. That's ridiculous.

Andy Psarianos

Look at this thing that I'm interested in, because this one here meets my learning objective that I set for you for the day and that one doesn't. So how did the Japanese come onto this? What's their take on all this?

Robin Potter

Well, the Japanese use it, I mean, they actually have put so much money into their healthcare system specifically to use forests for wellness, and I believe the Taiwanese and the Koreans have also done this, but really, I mean, rather than giving you a prescription for some kind of medication for depression, they'd give you a prescription to walk in the forest because that's how much they believe in it, and they actually have doctors that-

Andy Psarianos

Prescribe that-

Robin Potter

Give people. They prescribe it and they go. That's what they do, but that's a bit more off topic than I wanted to talk about, but it just shows you the importance that they believe in the connection to nature, and so with kids, Adam you had me thinking even my daughter was fortunate enough to have, she went to two different primary schools that had garden programmes and every other day, they would work in the garden, and I think on the off days they would make food from the garden, but my point is just getting into the earth, spending time. I mean, that's not maybe going into the forest, but it was still an activity where they've got their hands in soil, they're out in the garden. I think that made all the difference. Just being able to do that and other kids I know who, they kind of, their school playground backs on to kind of some woods of some sort where they're allowed to just play and be imaginative and go out and climb on the rocks and run around. I mean-

Andy Psarianos

The danger with that where you live, Robin, is there's things like bears and wolves in the woods. It's like a fairy tale, stories.

Adam Gifford

But Robin, I'm thinking about this, right? So one of the things that I never had the guts to do, and it is, I suppose, a regret when I was a head teacher is I would get rid of homework. I just don't like homework and I see homework ramping up and up and up. So I saw it in my children and I've seen it as children get older, but actually it's starting younger and younger now. So I think to myself, right, so they're in class, so in the morning where are the kids having breakfast? Usually inside. Then we're taken to school and some children, they may walk to school, but they may also be inside a car. Then we go into the classroom and where do we have lunch? Inside, inside, inside. Then what happens after school?

Well, some may just go straight back and they need to do homework, and depending on in my house, that was always a battle, right? So half an hour's homework turned into longer, and I hate myself for it because I just thought this is not helping. Knowing what was going on around my kitchen, and I know I wasn't alone because I had so many parents come to see me in my professional capacity to say the same thing. So I think that if we don't create some chances just for children to experience the outdoors, right, to have that curiosity, this isn't just a sort of, I don't know, 21st century thing, this is a reality that children may not have those opportunities, and I just think it's such a shame because when you see children playing outside at playtimes, like when the field's open, right, the kids love it.

They're gutted in the UK when the field's kind of out of bounds for at least a month or two, because it's just a big mud pit. When you open the field again and they're in it and on it and, "Can we get into the trees," and, "Are we allowed to go around here and that?" "Yeah, for sure." I almost think it's innate, because we're all designed to spend some time outside and I think that unless we create those opportunities, we're in real danger with things like, I don't think this is unique that you've got the school, then you've got the homework, and then you might have something structured after that, and all of those things might take place inside, and where's that chance just to switch off and just to be curious?

Andy Psarianos

So what could inner city schools that maybe don't have a forest or even a field or anything close by, what can they do? Some schools just have pavement all around, right?

Adam Gifford

I just think being outside, Andy, and I think that if you're doing things outside, it kind of doesn't matter. Some of the coolest things I've seen to even exist in, I think about say central London, but this would be true of so many big cities, first of all, if you want to see things that have been amazing outside for inspiration, there's so many big buildings and architecture now has that living space outside in so many places. I guarantee if you went there as a school, where you got in touch with them and said, "We're really intrigued by this and we want to motivate the children to create our own space," that they'd open their arms to it for sure, because most businesses have got a sort of community mandate that they need to, that they want to, if you give something back, and I think it's those things, I think just something that grows. Insects that come because you've grown something and they're going to now do this. That's entirely possible, you don't need big open fields and you don't need all that sort of stuff.

Andy Psarianos

So many kids are afraid of insects these days, right? That blows my mind, right? I don't know, has that always been the case and I just never noticed or-

Robin Potter

No, we used to have them bring the bug lady or someone would come in and bring all these, and hey, in New Zealand you can find some really interesting insects.

Adam Gifford

And some of the terrifying-

Andy Psarianos

Creepy-crawlies-

Adam Gifford

But I think it comes back, Andy, to when's that chance? I know it sounds all really idealistic and I am by no stretch the perfect father, let's get that on record, but what I would do-

Andy Psarianos

Hold on, wait, I'm still writing that down, Adam. Adam is not-

Adam Gifford

Well, I just think getting out -

Andy Psarianos

Underscore, underscore-

Adam Gifford

Like you're saying, Robin, about digging in the earth about being around, you're not going to be petrified of things if you are exposed to them often. If the first time you see a bee come up to you and everyone runs terrified because they've not seen one, then that's what you're going to live with, and they're going to be seen as bad things or whatever else, but if you frame it in a different way and say, "We are growing these, have you ever noticed about purple flowers? Let's just watch them for the next five days and see which insects come to them and do you know what they do? Do you know that that apple that you've got in your lunch wouldn't exist without this and these things?" All of a sudden it's framed in a different way, not some stinging beast that you need to run terrified from, but I just think as simple as being outside, genuinely that simple because they do spend children do spend, or, and I think this is true for most children that go to school in buildings, that they spend a phenomenal amount of time inside.

Robin Potter

Too much time.

Adam Gifford

And even just 10 minutes to go out just to have a run round, to just, why not?

Robin Potter

Well, you know how that, and this is getting a little off topic, but punishment often for kids was take away their PE or their recess or something, and I thought that's the absolute worst thing you could do to, aside from just the physical activity, but even just being outside and moving. Absolutely. So I was also going to make the comment that my, I have two teenagers now and I used to take them out all of the time. We'd always go for a walk every day in the forest and now as they've gotten older and less interested in spending time with, quality time with me, and probably more time on their devices, I have to kind of struggle with them to get them out, and every time I do, they always say after, "I'm so glad we did this." It wasn't easy getting them out, but they, I can see either moods, they just feel so much better about everything,

Adam Gifford

But Robin, I think that's a really important point, because they feel comfy in it, right, and I always think that, "No problem." There'll be times where all of us would've really loved doing something, but we stopped doing it for whatever reason, but I think the most important thing is we'd feel comfortable starting it again, and I remember taking some children out, and these are children maybe and a little bit older, so 9, 10, 11, and we'd take, we'd usually do every year, we'd take a group out for a week and we'd get up into the hills and all that sort of stuff, and I think some children found that really genuinely intimidating because they didn't know it.

They'd not done it. They'd not sort of felt at home in it, and I think that's, I think that the, well, the importance of giving their children the time outside is so they're not, it sounds ridiculous, but they're not intimidated by it as they get older, that it's a real option for them as opposed to, "I don't do outside. I don't do grass. I don't do bugs. I don't do trees. I don't do anything like that. No, that's not me. That's just not what I'm about." We can say, "It's not what I'm about this weekend, because I'm online or I'm doing whatever," but I think as long as they feel comfy that they can do it, I think then it's kind of job done.

Andy Psarianos

Well, there you go. Hire a coach, get a bus, go for a walk, bring the kids to the forest, just do something, get outside.

Robin Potter

Get outside.

Andy Psarianos

Get outside and let them wander. Don't just make it all so rigid, just let them pick up stuff and climb a tree or something. Bye everyone.

Thank you for joining us on the School of School Podcast.