Enabling Environments: Forest Schools: Part 3 - Aiming high


Planning your Forest Schools programme for the short and long term requires thinking exemplified in these cases from Sarah Blackwell.

Practitioners should leave Forest Schools training feeling inspired and well versed in the basic theory and simple practical woodland skills that support this unique approach to early learning. However, some may feel unsure about what long-term goals to set for their individual programme and, consequently, how sessions can then be constructed in a way that will achieve the outcomes identified for each child.

The overarching aims of a programme will be determined, in part, by the age of the children and the amount of time children spend in their wood (see also Forest Schools, Part 1, 24 November 2010). Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway have various models, including:

  • - total immersion (five days a week) at the Kindergarten for threeto six-year-olds (similar to our Forest or Nature Kindergartens)
  • - total immersion at the Kindergarten for fiveto six-year-olds only
  • - once or twice-weekly visits to the forest throughout the Kindergarten years or for the final year only.

Regardless of the frequency of visits, all Forest Schools programmes will share the same theoretical underpinning and all programme aims and goals will need to fit within the principles of good practice (see also Forest Schools, Part 2, 15 December 2010).

For some programmes, the overall aims are quite straightforward - namely, delivering the outcomes as set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum in the woods. For others, however, the goals are more complex and broad-ranging, as the following example illustrates.

Archimedes was asked to deliver a 30-week programme involving Derbyshire Children's Fund and two local settings, so we had to take account of the objectives and targets of all partners throughout the project.

The Children Fund's objectives

The Fund wanted to use the programme to work towards Children's Fund objectives, in this instance to:

  • - ensure that children and families are linked with other services that may assist with identified problems
  • - offer priority to children and families assessed as being at prevention level three
  • - further the objectives of the social inclusion policy appropriate to the service.

Targets

Its targets were to undertake projects with two nurseries/schools, to produce quarterly returns of activity levels and budget projections, and by the end of the programme to have:

  • - no children requiring statutory intervention
    - all children receiving appropriate education
    - no children involved in offending
    - all children with enhanced self-esteem
    - all adults with enhanced self-esteem
    - any drugs or alcohol problems addressed
    - 80 per cent of children and parents satisfied with the service.

The settings' objectives

The settings wanted all the children participating in the programme to develop:

  • - self-confidence and self-esteem and to work towards personal targets
  • - effective communication with peer groups and adults
  • - a greater understanding of social boundaries
  • - an understanding of how to deal with risk
  • - strategies to deal with their behaviour issues and adopt these strategies both in the setting and at home
  • - physical dexterity and approaches to healthy living.

If a project is to succeed, it is vital that the training company understands the objectives of all the partners involved and how to deliver partners' long-term targets through a child-sensitive programme.

ON THE GROUND

Having established the long-term outcomes of a programme, it is the role of the Forest School practitioner to then dissect the aims and break them down into sessions which provide small achievable steps in which the child can learn and demonstrate the skills, knowledge, understanding and strategies identified in the overall goals.

What is important during this process is that the principles of Forest Schools and the needs of the individual child are not lost in the midst of the organisational or funders' aims laid down by contributing partners.

What practitioners need to keep uppermost in their minds when starting to plan their programme is that:

  • - Learning is initiated by the individual child, not imposed by the adult. A programme led by the child's needs, aspirations and intrinsic motivations will ensure the most positive and beneficial outcomes for the child, not for the adult. Allowing children to make choices and work independently is central to the Forest Schools approach and enables children to develop feelings of self-worth, self-confidence and being valued.
  • - Forest Schools programmes are long-term and year-round and it is over time and through repetition within the sessions that children will be able to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding. A programme offering challenge, excitement, high emotional content and deep-level learning opportunities has the potential to meet the holistic needs of children and deliver physical stimulation, greater emotional awareness and cross-curricular learning.
  • - Observations are essential to establish the further learning requirements of each child. Practitioners need to assess every child across all areas of learning, as well as noting their general well-being and how they respond to challenge.

The baseline assessment phase, during the first six weeks of the programme, allows practitioners to build up an accurate picture of all the children. An effective cycle of planning enables practitioners to both deliver the desired outcomes and ensure that the programme remains child-led. In such a cycle, the phases are:

  • - Identify outcomes
    - Design session
    - Facilitate and support the session
    - Observe children
    - Reflective process
    - Evaluate children's learning and responses
    - Recommend next steps for children's learning
    - Identify outcomes for the next session.

Working with another practitioner during the observation, reflective practice and planning phase will also help provide the support needed to ensure that children are provided with what they need, and not what the adult thinks they need!

Part 4: Session planning will be published in the 24 February issue of Nursery World

Sarah Blackwell has been developing Forest Schools programmes in both rural and urban settings for ten years and now runs Archimedes Training, 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. Visit www.forestschools.com

 

CASE STUDY: CHELWOOD GATE NURSERY GROUP, EAST SUSSEX

We are a small pre-school, based in a village hall, and run Forest Schools sessions twice a week in a wood that is walking distance from our setting, write Lisl Lewis (FS leader), Louise Spackman (supervisor) and Lucy Norris (manager).

Our main focus is to offer continuity and stability between our indoor provision and Forest Schools programme. Such an integrated and holistic approach has enabled us to tune in to the daily needs and energy levels of the children and has been a major success for our children, who await with anticipation their days in the woods.

In order to establish baseline assessments of all the children in the group (mostly two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years old), we ran two summer Forest Schools pilot sessions. The first six-week programme focused on awakening the senses, with each week tuning in to one of the senses and the final week celebrating all five. The sessions established a 'new normalcy', one of simply enjoying being present in the woodland and tuning in to the world around us. To achieve this normalcy, we realised the children would have to feel comfortable and aware of their own relationships to the environment, each other and the practitioners around them. These, in turn, we felt could only be achieved through continuity and stability in our provision. Only then would the children be able to engage within the group upon arrival and maximise their potential throughout each session.

So, to settle the children and tune in to their mood, energy levels and varying needs, we start our Forest Schools days with puzzles, puppet play and a story, before reviewing the previous Forest School session and talking about what this special day might hold.

As we put on our outdoor kit and start our walk to the Ashdown Forest, we reflect and share observations of the day, so enabling us to optimise the opportunities during the rest of the session.

On Mondays and Thursdays we bake snacks for the children to take with them to the forest on the Tuesday or Friday. Similarly, we incorporate the children's discoveries during Forest School into the following day's nursery session. Through this back-and-forth rhythm to the week, we are able to build on the observation-based development of each child.

As well as our daily and weekly planning, we find that sharing observations and comparing notes about each child on a monthly basis gives the Forest Schools practitioners greater confidence and clarity about what to plan, both for future Forest Schools sessions and for the developmentally-appropriate 'next steps' for each child.

For example, we observed that two boys were very confident in the outdoors and eager to play independently together, but were reticent about joining in shared activities. In response, we introduced some tools the children could use to make things together. The objects were then incorporated into the wider nursery programme for the term and meshed into our wider strategy to develop social and emotional skills.

Since starting our Forest Schools programme, we have found that the identity of the pre-school itself is shifting as the practitioners and the children themselves gain confidence and have happy experiences out in the forest. It is our ongoing focus to ensure that we are providing the daily link between indoor and outdoor forest sessions with the back-and-forth rhythm to the week firmly synchronised.

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