Self-esteem and the outdoors

Self-esteem and Forest School

Psychologist Carl Rogers identified five characteristics of the ‘fully functioning person’ i.e. someone who has high self-esteem/self-worth.

These are:

1. Open to experience: both positive and negative emotions accepted. Negative feelings are not denied, but worked through (rather than resorting to ego defense mechanisms).

2. Existential living: in touch with different experiences as they occur in life, avoiding prejudging and preconceptions. Being able to live and fully appreciate the present, not always looking back to the past or forward to the future (i.e., living for the moment).

3. Trust feelings: feeling, instincts, and gut-reactions are paid attention to and trusted. People’s own decisions are the right ones, and we should trust ourselves to make the right choices.

4. Creativity: creative thinking and risk-taking are features of a person’s life. A person does not play safe all the time. This involves the ability to adjust and change and seek new experiences.

5. Fulfilled life: a person is happy and satisfied with life, and always looking for new challenges and experiences.

The most effective Forest School is a long-term programme where learners are able to take advantage of a non-judgmental environment, where they are able to have deep and meaningful experiences, are able to develop their own ‘flow’, be creative and, ultimately, be facilitated along their journey to developing being able to recognise and utilise a sense of fulfilment.

Let’s briefly look at some examples to illustrate how self-esteem can be built this way:

  1. Open to experience: a learner starts from a specific comfort zone in their outdoor/woodland skills, their general (perceived and actual) ability, familiarity of nature and their group etc. Over a time and in a full Forest School programme, the learner is facilitated through reflective practice and observation on the part of the Leaders. Through careful design, the learner is able to realise their innate desire for wonder, exploration and investigation to a higher level than before the programme and thus, their openness to experience is widened and developed. This may, in turn, build-up and perhaps realign the learner’s picture of their actual-self and either create an ideal-self that is more constructive and/or develop a more realistic linkage between the actual and ideal self. With time both these ‘selfs’ can align themselves with each other boosting the learner’s general confidence in new experiences and thereby constructing a new, more substantial comfort zone.
    • Climbing to a new height, meeting new people and building a shelter can all be examples of new experiences that are greatly supported in an equitable learning environment where adaptations and mistakes can be freely made.
  2. Existential living: similar to being open to experience, as above, this characteristic can refer to looking at a task, an occurrence or an experience as a holistic learning experience. Even if you fail to achieve a specific material goal, there’s still a wealth of success to be found in the journey. Instead of looking forward to a given ‘achievement’ or looking back to past failure of knot-tying, say, there is an opportunity to be mind-fully aware of everything attached to the process of what is happening: the texture, the feeling of learning, the sociability, the routine etc.
  3. Trust feelings: again, linked to the previous two characteristics, this characteristic is one that can be unusual to many people. Forest School promotes the idea of trusting yourself, your capacity to learn and your ability to try. Instead of falling at a hurdle of uncomfortableness, gaining the ability to trust your physical and mental fortitude is something distinct to be found in a long-term Forest School programme.
    • Physical exploration of woodlands independently or as a group, climbing to a new height, constructing a fire and cooking or even gaining new friends can all be reached by trusting in one’s actual-self.
  4. Creativity: Forest School is all about being creative and taking a risk through play. A long-term programme of a steady build-up to understanding risk, what is acceptable and how to mediate risk and manage hazards are all part of developing an enquiring and creative mind – and the experience behind it to become a ‘fully functioning’ person who can recognise an issue and work to overcome it or find a different path.
  5. Fulfilled life: one of the indicators of a successful Forest School programme is a group of learners who are confident, comfortable and capable at existing with each other, with – and in – the natural outdoors. Understanding the rhythms of nature, the changes in themselves and others and the bringing-together of the actual-self with the ideal-self all combine to encourage a person who can constructively, positively, actively and consistently live.

Next: Emotional Intelligence…

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