Surrounded by high-rise council blocks, Eastwood Nursery School in Wandsworth, London, appears an unlikely place to operate a forest school. But amid the urban sprawl, the practitioners have found a green haven in the grounds of nearby Roehampton University.
Many of the nursery children who attend the sessions come from cramped and confined local housing estates and do not have access to a garden or a safe, natural play space. In a community where outings to the park are not the norm, many of the children would be missing out on a local resource and experiencing little of the natural world if they didn't attend forest school.
Forest school co-ordinator Katherine Milchem, who undertook her Level 3 Forest School training at Bridgwater College in Somerset, acknowledges that finding natural spaces in a big city can be challenging, but she believes that it is vital that children have the opportunity to experience these areas. 'How else are children in the city meant to develop a personal morality towards nature, if they never have access to it?' she asks.
'Some people believe that you can't operate a Forest School unless you have a 100-acre wood or woodland site. But it's not true. When Forest School was first introduced to the UK by Bridgwater College, it took place on a sports playing field. People can still connect with nature and learn to respect it in urban areas - you just need to work with what is around you. To the children, when you are a metre tall, a small site can feel like 100 acres.'
In the university grounds there's a pond, open grassy lawns, bushes and lots of trees forming dark, enclosed areas, plus minibeasts galore. Eastwood nursery children explore this environment in rotation twice a week for three weeks, for up to two hours a session. The groups of up to eight children, with a maximum 1:4 ratio, are rotated so that they can experience all the seasons, whatever the weather.
'We can offer more freedom with small groups, and the high staff ratios ensure that staff and children are equally engaged in the learning process and they can share their thoughts and develop them,' explains Ms Milchem.
Encouraged by the child's key person, parents often accompany the groups. 'We like them to be involved because they can see how much the children are enjoying the natural spaces, and they can model appropriate language and engage with children in a stimulating learning environment,' Ms Milchem says. 'It also gives parents an idea of what they can do with their children outside of school time.Parents do get much more involved in this context, and they share with staff how they have revisited forest school experiences in their own time.'
Staff learn from the parents too. One parent used to work for a local park and has a wealth of knowledge to share, whereas others learn along with their children. It's been noted that fathers tend to be more enthusiastic in going to the forest school than involving themselves in other nursery activities where parents regularly take part.
Dirt is great
The forest school experience starts at the nursery, where the children are encouraged to dress in warm layers, cagoules and wellies as independently as possible. They discuss the weather (cold but sunny) as they get kitted up and share out equipment to carry in their rucksacks. It's then just a ten-minute walk to Roehampton's grounds, with everyone singing songs, counting their steps, listening and looking at the traffic and surroundings as they go.
Staff have collaborated with the centre's speech and language therapist to develop the questioning and reflection techniques they use with the children. They ask lots of open-ended questions to help develop speech and language skills, such as, 'I wonder what will happen if ...?' 'What do you think of ...?', 'Why does ...?'. They use commenting or choices as a way to encourage language - 'I can see a ...', 'Is the sky blue or grey and cloudy?'.
It's rained recently, so there are puddles to jump over and into - 'What sound does that make?' - and mud to 'squish' through, especially in a large ditch. In the past a few have become anxious about getting dirty and grimy, so staff reassure them and actively encourage children to get mucky.
One girl took five sessions before she plucked up the courage to go into the ditch. 'Eventually she did go in,' recalls Ms Milchem. 'When she came out she said to me, "Look Kath, I'm really muddy and dirty." And I said, "That's great!"
'One child will go into the ditch headfirst and be absolutely covered, and another child will be very timid and cautious and anxious about taking the risk. When they do get really dirty, I usually make an encouraging remark like "Congratulations, you win the prize for being the muddiest today". This usually alleviates any situations and we carry on.'
An evaluation is conducted by staff and children after each session, and they plan an activity for the next session in response to the children's comments and interests. On the day, the lead is taken from what the children want to do. 'The unfortunate bit is having to stop because of the time,' adds Ms Milchem. The learning continues at home and back in the nursery through planned activities, play and further reflection.
Today's session includes making boats to float on the pond, following on from Hayden and Hannah's previous comments during a pond visit. Staff have brought along twine and clay to help fasten together the twigs, leaves and other natural objects that the children gather.
Before approaching the pond to launch their boats, they talk about how to stay safe by the water, such as not standing on the slippery grass. Then they ask, 'Will they float or sink?'. Some of the boats sink, which prompts a discussion about why this happens, and the children experiment with removing the clay and find that the boat is now light and floats. They then explore whether the wind will blow the boats across the pond and sing 'Row, row, row your boat'. One child eagerly asks whether they can catch fish, so it's decided that they will bring fishing nets next time.
Children variously roll down a grassy bank, listen to birds and use binoculars to look at trees, or explore and hunt for monsters. Then it's time for a snack. The children lay a groundsheet in a grassy area, clean their hands, share out hot chocolate, biscuits and raisins, and reflect on the session. They sing a tidy-up song as they make sure there's no litter left behind, then walk back to nursery, where they will remove their clothes and put them away, ready for home time.
Some children attending Eastwood Nursery School have special educational or behaviour challenges. An improvement in positive behaviour has been noticed in these children since they've started forest school. 'They find the space quite calming,' says Ms Milchem. 'One child needs a lot of personal space and will push children who come too close to him in the nursery environment. But at forest school, where there is plenty of space, the behaviour diminishes significantly.
'We have seen children who are very quiet in the classroom come out of their shells when they are outside. They see something and they will try harder to communicate. They'll make eye contact, or vocalise as a way of drawing our attention to something of interest to them. Generally, children are more focused in the outdoor environment and their language is stimulated.'
Children also experience the outdoors in the nursery garden. However, being away from the noise and activities at nursery gives them a totally new experience that enables them to think and respond creatively. For instance, if children want a cup for role play, they have to create one using a natural object.
'Nature is very good at providing things to play with, but it's a matter of searching the environment for them,' says Ms Milchem. 'There is so much space and children can hear sounds more clearly, such as birds singing, that they may not in the nursery garden. They are also more likely to find mini-beasts, and we've found frogs and toads and discussed how frogs hop and toads crawl. There are always new things to see and new experiences to be had at forest school.'
Equipping a forest school needn't be expensive. Eastwood has picked up deals and negotiated discounts in stores, and they occasionally look for equipment on Freecycle, www.uk.freecycle.org. Other settings have bought waterproofs from Lidl. Local pound shops often sell things like binoculars or magnifying glasses.
Other suppliers include:
Further information and reading
- 'All about ... Forest Schools' by Mandi Trout (Nursery World, 2 December 2004)
- 'Forest School and Its Impacts on Young Children: case studies in Britain' by Liz O'Brien and Richard Murray (2007), www.forestresearch.gov.uk
- 'Analysis: Children getting in touch with nature through forest schools' by Annette Rawstrone (Nursery World, 17 December 2008)
- Eastwood Nursery School Forest School, www.urbanforestschool.co.uk
- Forest Education Initiative at www.foresteducation.org lists national forest school training providers
- Institute for Outdoor Learning, www.outdoor-learning.org
- Bridgwater College, www.bridgwater.ac.uk
- Learning Outside the Clasroom, www.lotc.org.uk