Enabling Environments: Forest Schools: Part 2 - Lead on


Being a Forest Schools practitioner requires a constant awareness of the opportunities presented for the children, writes Sarah Blackwell.

Forest Schools is a very distinctive approach to play and learning and as such, varies greatly from the 'learning' trips that early years practitioners regularly undertake with the children in their care. Given this unique approach, effective Forest School Practitioners are essential to the success of a Forest Schools programme.

To gain an appreciation of the practitioner role, it is useful to define 'Forest Schools', outline the principles of Forest Schools, and list the practitioners' areas of responsibility.

DEFINITION

At Archimedes, Forest Schools is defined as 'an innovative and inspirational approach to outdoor learning and development. Forest Schools are run by qualified practitioners and run over a long period of time in the woodland environment.

'Through reflective practice, the goal of the Forest Schools practitioner is to provide a wide range of opportunities that will enable each child to flourish, grow and develop into healthy, confident individuals. The natural woodland environment connects those taking part to nature and promotes social and emotional well-being with a balanced approach to holistic development.'

PRINCIPLES

The principles guide the training process to ensure that children are given the highest standards on their Forest Schools programmes. At Archimedes Training, our principles are:

  • 1. Forest School is fun!
  • 2. Forest Schools are prepared and delivered by Level 3 Forest Schools Practitioners.
  • 3. Forest Schools take place over a long period of time, preferably through the course of a year.
  • 4. Forest Schools ideally take place in woodlands or 'wild' environments.
  • 5. Forest Schools provide opportunities to increase self-reliance, confidence and self-worth.
  • 6. Children are observed and presented with problem-solving opportunities designed to span all areas of learning and to promote thinking skills through challenge and success unique to each child.
  • 7. Children are given time to enter a 'state of flow' (see box) and to create their own learning opportunities, both within a session and over the programme.
  • 8. Independence is encouraged through encountering (balanced) risky situations and environments.
  • 9. Reflective practice is paramount for the practitioners to promote children's involvement and extend learning opportunities that are unique to each child (see box).
  • 10. Children are encouraged to reflect to develop their emotional well-being in the form of self awareness, self-regulation and self-motivation.
  • 11. Practitioners promote social and empathetic skills in children through both formal and informal verbal and non-verbal interactions with peers and adults
  • 12. Connection to nature is essential for all-round well-being.

RESPONSIBILITIES

Practitioners involved in Forest Schools programmes have a wide range of responsibilities, including being aware and in control of:

  • - the environment and how the Forest Schools site is organised
  • - the resources available and the appropriateness for the age, maturity and importantly the interests of the children
  • - the relationships between adults and children, between the children and with the environment
  • - the safety of the individual, the group and the environment
  • - the structure and flexibility of the session, in isolation and in relationship to the overall programme
  • - the outcomes for each child.

OUTCOMES

The outcomes for children will depend on those determined by the setting and the practitioner, as well as the individual child, but they can potentially address the holistic development of the child, including:

  • - physical - fine and gross motor skills
  • - communication (verbal and non-verbal), language and literacy
  • - intellectual - knowledge and understanding of the world, mathematical and cultural understanding, etc
  • - personal, social and emotional skills - self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, respect, self-confidence, self-reliance, self-worth
  • - dispositions for learning - curiosity, persistence, motivation, problem-solving, reflection, etc
  • - spiritual understanding - awe and wonder, sense of place, altruism, care and respect (for self, for peers, for significant adults, insignificant adults, family, environment, community, world)

It is important, then, that the practitioner knows how to:

  • - make sessions fun for both adults and children
  • - meet the needs and interests of the individual child
  • - engage, motivate and challenge the children within a supported and rewarding learning environment that allows children to reach their full potential.

What these principles, responsibilities and outcomes all point to is that Forest Schools training is essential. Training with an established, high-quality training provider will cover all aspects of Forest Schools, including the responsibility of the adult in supporting children - a responsibility that starts before going to the woods for the first time with the children, and that continually needs to be monitored, developed and adjusted as the programme develops.

BENEFITS VERSUS RISK

Remember that for possible hazard and level of risk - which is assessed by likelihood and severity - there is always a resulting benefit.

Every potential hazard presents opportunities for 'Cotton Wool Children' to develop self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy or social skills. 'Deep-level' learning can stem from investigating possible problems.

For example, if the woodland floor is covered in slippery tree roots, should we cordon it off and ban children from playing there for fear of falling? Or should we allow them to play a game that requires sneaking and tip-toeing, so allowing them to experience what it feels like and to use all their senses? By opting for the game, the children would be able to develop their physical dexterity, core body strength, communication skills and an understanding of how to motivate themselves and support their friends. The game would also present the opportunity for the children to be creative and use their imaginations.

All risks have benefits, so you need to decide which ones are acceptable, and which are not. But remember, your goal should be to allow your children to explore this magical and amazing world, to grow and develop a deep sense of place and connection to the world, through touch and smell and vision and sounds.

 

STATE OF FLOW AND INVOLVEMENT

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched extensively the concept of 'flow' and what it means to be 'in' it. He described it as 'being completely involved in an activity for its own sake' and where 'you are using your skills to the utmost'.

See Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial). 'Continuous Provision', Parts 1 to 4, by Anne O'Connor examines 'states' (Nursery World, 17 September, 16 October, 19 November and 18 December 2008; www.nurseryworld.co.uk/go/continuousprovision/)

See also Prof Ferre Laevers' 'SICS - Well-being and Involvement in Care: A process-oriented self-evaluation Instrument for care settings', www.kindengezin.be/Images/ZikohandleidingENG_tcm149-50761.pdf

 

WHAT HAPPENS FIRST?

As a Forest School Practitioner, you will be acting as safety officer for your children, staff and visitors to the site, and also for the health of the woodland itself. So, at the outset you need to formulate:

Normal Operating Procedures - these are tasks or actions that will be carried out by practitioners and any other adults to ensure the well-being of all and to reduce the likelihood of any injury.

Emergency procedures - these are a specific sequence of actions to be carried out in the event of an accident or incident to ensure an individual or the whole group is made safe, relevant people are contacted and, if necessary, emergency services are accessed.

These procedures needn't be complicated, though they will need to cover:

  • - managing your site
  • - clothing
  • - equal opportunities
  • - transporting your children to the woods
  • - the roles of the practitioners, visitors and supporting adults
  • - setting boundaries, physical and social
  • - fires and tools
  • - activities - where, when and how they will run
  • - inclement weather
  • - child protection, including using volunteers and CRB checks
  • - food hygiene
  • - first aid and administration of medicines
  • - cooking and water
  • - toileting
  • - tree climbing.

This is not an exhaustive list, as each setting will have different needs. A Procedure Booklet is available to help you on your way from www.forestschools.com.

Now you are in a position to go to the woods to create your Risk Assessments, which need to demonstrate that you have considered the likelihood of injury from a potential hazard, person or activity that may be undertaken at your Forest Schools. You will need to monitor and adjust these as necessary throughout your programme, as well as carrying out a daily dynamic risk assessment. Most settings will also get their children to evaluate the site and identify, for example, any potential for tripping or slipping.

Sarah Blackwell has been developing Forest Schools programmes in both rural and urban settings for ten years and now runs Archimedes Training Ltd, which is providing Forest Schools training in Wales, England and Scotland as well as to international students from Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe. For more information see www.forestschools.com

CASE STUDY

It's so important to access high-quality Forest Schools training, writes Lysa Bromley, area co-ordinator for Children's Services in South Warrington, working with Mandy Munday, manager of Westy Sure Start Children's Centre

We had already recognised the importance of the outdoor learning environment and its potential to expand children's experiences and broaden their capacity to learn and develop in unique ways, so exploring the Forest Schools approach seemed a logical next step for us.

What we wanted to gain from our Forest Schools training was a deep understanding of our roles and how our teaching would impact on the children.

Our training with Archimedes achieved this, in part by increasing our knowledge and understanding of children's learning styles, motivation and feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. More importantly, however, it gave us confidence and inspired us, by opening up the range of possibilities of what we could achieve with the children and families in our local community.

In fact, had the training not been of such a high quality, I think we would have been much more hesitant about developing our Forest Schools programme in the way we have done.

Two years on, we have trained eight members of the team, with three more ready to train. We have confidence in our approach, which only comes from knowing that we are delivering high-quality sessions.

Our programme is run in partnership with the Woodland Trust and uses a site just a five-minutes' drive from the Centre. We started by offering the children weekly sessions in the woodland, but from there have moved on to involving parents, in recognition of their role as their children's first educators.

Parent sessions led on to a summer play programme, and from there we offered our most vulnerable parents a six-week taster Forest Schools programme. We have run this twice and it has proved so successful that we have now organised a 12-week programme for parents.

Parents are embedding the Forest School ethos in their own parenting skills, and the outcomes are positive. Parents are reporting to us that:

  • - their relationships with their children have become stronger
  • - they have a better understanding of their children's learning, and learning styles
  • - they are involved and interested in the ways their child learns
  • - they have started to use aspirational language in their everyday lives.

Next, Part 3: Programme and session planning

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