With their dedication to providing positive outdoor experiences and their commitment to ecology and sustainability Phoebe Doyle is keen to go deeper into the world of Forest Schools.
Pioneered by Bridgwater College in Somerset in 1994, the Forest School ethos is founded on an innovative way of teaching individuals, using the outdoors as a "classroom" to enrich their learning experience. Interest from mainstream schools and nurseries into Forest Schools has grown considerably in recent years. They seem to offer a welcome relief from the target driven focus of many initiatives; in woodland areas children can just be children; exploring, playing and learning in abundance about the plants and animals of their planet which they need to take care of.
Paul Moseley the Forest Schools Training Manager says their aim is clear; “it’s to provide long term, regular opportunities in woodland for children and adults to connect and develop a relationship with nature.” The Forest School ethos and ambition is truly holistic as the programme concerns itself with each area of learning; “we aim to develop the personal, social and emotional skills of the learners. This is achieved through experiencing nature through play, woodland skills, tracking and learning about flora and fauna”, explains Paul.
Programmes are meticulously planned, designed and run by qualified Forest School Practitioners. A large part of their role is to teach about the interactive relationship between the woodland and people, and the potential for both positive and negative controls from humans. Paul says; “the practitioners assess not only how the woodland can influence on the learners, but how they could impact on it and put in place an Environmental Impact Assessment as well as identify (or work with stakeholders to put in place if there is not one present) the management. Recognising where they can work most constructively with the long term goals that particular place must have.”
While the concept relies on teaching children outdoors, the educational focus can relate very well to all areas of the curriculum; many schools use the forests to teach number skills and as a starting point for literacy or artwork. Enthusiasts will tell you – the opportunities are endless.
Forest School Sessions
The sessions are all about bringing children (and adults) into contact with the outdoors and letting them have a go at activities they might not ordinarily do - or be allowed to do in our ‘health and safety’ led era. Whilst once all children climbed trees, jumped off branches and got a fair amount of bruises to show off for their efforts, now nurseries and schools are understandably cautious about letting children engage in much physical, boisterous play at all, due partly to litigation and fear of blame.
Regulations and guidelines often mean children are prohibited from certain activities these days, and activities that were classed as 'normal childhood activities' in previous generations, are no longer permitted. The Forest School environment can serve to instil confidence in such activities and therefore serve to promote safety.
For many, especially children living in the inner-cities, being out of town let alone in the midst of a forested area can actually be quite overwhelming. “Initially sessions are planned to allow the learners to feel comfortable and confident in this new surrounding as for some this opportunity may have never arisen before.” Pauls tells us. Even the journey to the schools can be a source of education and excitement; for these children to look out and see the roads become more windy and the villages increasingly rural may be a new and stimulating experience in itself.
“The aim is to develop a learning community whereby all follow the physical and behavioural boundaries set out (with the practitioners lead but where possible, the learner’s sense of ownership intact). It’s also to show them the beginnings of all the possibilities available to them in the woodland. The reason it is Forest School rather than “corner of a playground with 4 trees school” is that there is such a wealth of natural resources to allow the learners to explore and express themselves. This natural environment is dynamic, ever changing and can indeed be the inspiration of those explorations.” Indeed the woodland, with all it’s complexities, would be impossible to replicate elsewhere.
Why Forest Schools Matter
When asked about the importance of Forest Schools Paul is keen not to preach but clearly is sure in his beliefs; “We can lecture, teach and educate until we have exhausted every idea and to a great extent I think that has been done many times. Depending on your politics and outlook, we could be responsible for global warming, or it may be a natural cycle, I am not going to tell anyone which to believe. But do consider this; we are the only industrialised primates on the planet, so the pollution problem is our fault, in my view this is case closed.”
Forest Schools can play a pivotal role in changing how the next generation think about and treat our planet, Paul says; “if we allow children to grow up being a part of nature, for it to have a relevance to them because they have a relationship with it, they are much more likely to look after it in the future.
“The long term, regular nature of Forest School programmes inherently allows learners to become just as at home in nature as in the house. Their attitudes can change dramatically because of this familiarity.” Paul believes it effects how they view themselves, nature and crucially their potential bearing on nature. This can spark discussions on recycling, energy use and conservation at large.
Paul says; “We aim for personal, social and emotional development in the learners themselves, but what they also realise is that they have a personal as well as a social need to respect the planet on which we live. The key difference that this approach fosters more than many others is that the learner develops an emotional need to care and to act also; they develop a genuine and authentic desire to protect.”
Cuts and the economic climate
Most working in education right now feel concerned to a degree about how the cuts in public spending may impact their setting. Paul remains optimistic and confident in their achievements; “In many respects the current economic climate has meant that additional provisions attached to mainstream education is being looked at more carefully and when it’s seen that Forest Schools contribute to the building blocks of learning so directly, and in turn to academic success, to numerous initiatives (Every Child Matters, Learning Outside the Classroom, Obesity, SEN, Local Area Agreements, Sustainable Community Strategies etc), as well as to a change in thinking with regards to sustainable living, I hope it will be recognised for the valuable educational opportunity that it is.”
Dame Clare Tickell’s review delighted many in the early years with it’s focussing on reducing the number of goals of the EYFS, making it more cohesive, sound and workable. Most early years practitioners are child-centred to the core and so instinctively understand that what children need is experiences and not targets. And in our world, where urbanisation and fears for safety are both on the increase, parents and teachers are reluctant to allow children to roam freely outdoors. We have become terrified as a profession of anything that’s potentially hazardous. Perhaps then Forest Schools are a way to bring children back in touch with experiences that are age-old and important to overall development.
The Forest School experience is one which can help children understand nature and help adults to pass this on too; all whilst developing a raft of curriculum skills without even really knowing it. Just nurtuing a more risk-taking attitude, required in Forest School sessions can help children when back in their setting; reading and writing alone require a great degree of risk for young children at the cusp of acquiring such skills. If the cuts are to force a reduction of Forest School practitioners and impact this powerful tool they will do so to the peril of the enrichment of education and subsequently the environment too.
So if you do go down to the woods today you might have to prepare yourself for a lesson in how children learn through nature, how they benefit from taking risks and how it’s young children who need most to learn about our integral dependent relationship with our world.
Becoming a forest school practitioner
Paul explains how it all started for him….
My background has been in countryside management, forestry, social forestry and bushcraft. I attended the Forest Schools course while a countryside ranger for a wonderfully fascinating site in Leicestershire called Beacon Hill Country Park. It was here that I began to run programmes for a range of different learners, which is something which they have carried on to this day.
Once I was qualified and had been running Forest Schools for a while, Sarah Blackwell the trainer and owner of the largest Forest School training company in the world, asked me if I would like to help teach the course. Over a couple of years I learnt the craft and eventually become a trainer myself. A year later I was appointed Lead Trainer and a year following that I was asked to take responsibility for all training, including the trainer training itself.
At a Forest School you might…
Learn to use tools
Be encouraged to take risks (climb, jump etc)
Make a camp fire
Build a den
Be asked to think about your environmental footprint
Experience being outdoors whatever the weather
Learn about the properties of woodland
Learn about sustainability issues
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