EYFS Best practice: All about ... Forest schools

Annette Cummings
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Explore the forest school movement in England with a study of local projects and a trip to the country where the movement started, as practitioners reflect on what they have learned.

The forest school experience is an inspirational process that offers children rich opportunities to promote their well-being and confidence in a natural environment. In the forest, children are allowed to develop their own ideas, make decisions, solve problems, and take risks.

The forest school philosophy allows a constructivist approach to learning. Constructivists are interested in the processes by which children construct their own knowledge (Athey, 1990, p30). Through first-hand experiences, children are allowed to try out their working theories about the natural world. In our teaching we aim to help develop young children's independence, self-esteem, social skills, teamwork and disposition to learn.

The three guiding principles of forest school are to:

  • - Capitalise on the outdoors as a real context for learning
  • - Use the outdoor environment as a rich source of natural materials and resources for learning
  • - Build upon the ways young children learn - being active, gaining first-hand experiences using all their senses which build upon their natural curiosity (Lockett, 2004).

The forest school experience has a beneficial and positive effect on the health and physical development of children.

Children are allowed to take calculated risks at forest schools. 'A hazard is something a child does not see. A risk is a challenge a child can see and chooses to undertake, or not. Eliminating risk leads to a child's inability to assess danger' (Mairs, K, 2000).

Forest schools also aim to help children to develop:

  • - self-awareness
  • - self-regulation
  • - intrinsic motivation
  • - empathy
  • - good social skills and communication skills
  • - independence
  • - a positive mental attitude, self-esteem and confidence.

Origin and development

The initial idea for forest schools originated in Scandinavian countries in the 1950s. The philosophy behind it believes that children's contact with nature and the natural world is a very important factor in their development.

By the 1980s forest schools were being integrated into the Danish Pre-School Early Education programme for children under seven years old. They are now firmly embedded in the Danish education system and have been in use for three generations.

The development of forest schools in Britain began around 1993, when tutors and students from Bridgwater College in Somerset visited Denmark on an exchange visit. They were inspired by the emphasis placed on outdoor activities, and on their return to England they set up their own forest school for children of students at the college.

Today there is an increasing number of forest schools throughout Britain. Some are privately owned but the majority are supported by the local education authority.

Some forest schools are part of the Forest Education Initiative (FEI), which was set up in 1992, around the same time as Bridgwater College's trip to Denmark. The FEI website (www.foresteducation.org) has a wealth of current information regarding all the aspects of forest schools in Britain.

Forest schools are on the increase because practitioners believe that this practical way of learning is of benefit to all children. In the forest, children are developing at their own speed and in their own time, and are gaining an awareness of the outdoors and the environment.

In 2006 the Forestry Commission produced an evaluation on the benefits of forest schools in England and Wales. The findings were very positive. One of the recommendations stated that the way forward for forest schools was to promote 'forest schools to educationalists and parents to give them a better understanding of what forest school is about, the impact it can have and how learning takes place' (O'Brien, L and Murray, R, 2006).

PEN GREEN FOREST SCHOOL

Pen Green Forest School is a member of the Corby Forest School Cluster Group, set up in 2006 (see box). Our site is nestled among other forest school sites in Top Lodge Fineshade Wood, near Corby, Northamptonshire - an area of the wood that the Forestry Commission has selected for the project.

Every school has a boundary rope around its own site. This gives a visual reminder to children about not leaving the area and keeping themselves safe. I take children aged three and four to the forest, where my site has been developed by the nursery staff team so that it offers protection and shelter from the elements when needed.

Last year we held a professional development day for workers on the site and built fences, a fire pit and shelters, making it ready for use and providing basic resources that the children can then explore and extend if they wish to.

Once the forest school sessions have been timetabled into the nursery weekly diary, staff think deeply about which children would benefit from the experience. They then nominate children and their parents are asked to complete the consent form, including all their personal details and contacts.

Sessions run in the morning on a specified day for six consecutive weeks, before alternating the time of the trip so that equal opportunties are offered to children who attend nursery in the afternoon.

During both six-week slots, the staff team encourage the same children to attend the forest school sessions to maximise their learning experience. However, sometimes children make their own decision not to continue to attend. For example, a child may be engaged in role play with their friends and not want to leave nursery.

The minibus is block-booked for the sessions and the risk assessments are completed. If we are going to light a fire, we will notify the Forestry Commission on the day. Snacks are made, the first aid kit and mobile phone are checked and the children are dressed in appropriate clothing for the weather.

We go out in all weathers except high wind and we have invested in waterproofs to ensure the trips can always go ahead. The ratio is three members of staff to ten children, and the minibus driver is also on hand to help out. The journey from nursery to the forest is an important part of the learning. As children become accustomed to the route on the bus, they begin to recognise and identify landmarks, realising they are getting closer to the destination.

A short walk

It is only a short walk from the minibus parking place to the site, and over time the children begin to learn the walk, recognise landmarks and look out for memorable features such as the 'trippy trappy bridge' and the 'dark scary tree'.

On the walk to the site we often find horse or rabbit or deer droppings. This usually sparks off conversation about 'poo', much to the amusement of the children. To support this interest we have read The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business (by Holzwarth and Erlbruch) while in the forest.

Some children take on the roles of carrying the snack bag and first aid kit. As the weeks progress, the children become more confident and run and lead the way to the site, negotiating with the uneven terrain of the woodland floor. If they fall over they are able to pick themselves up and keep going. They seem to be developing a sense of independence and confidence in being outside. The children learn to work co-operatively and develop an enhanced sense of awareness for one another, often holding hands or pulling back branches to make space for other children to pass through safely. They learn to take pride in their environment and gain a better understanding of the outdoors (See box, page 18).

Health and safety

On arrival at the site, the first and foremost activity is talking to the children about the health and safety rules. We encourage this by practising the '1, 2, 3, where are you?' safety game. This involves counting to three and teaching the children to respond by shouting 'we're over here', encouraging them to use their voices to be heard if they need an adult's assistance. We then ask the forest to let us in to play, shouting 'forest school, forest school, let us in'. We open an imaginary magical door and the children are then free to go off to play and explore the area.

Child-initiated learning

The sessions are child-initiated and the staff follow and support the children to extend their learning, believing that children are intrinsically motivated to learn. We also look at the children's schemas and different learning styles and bring resources to support these - for example, string for 'connecting' and bags for 'containing' and collecting things.

We document the children's learning by video and digital camera and record the children's questions and answers, which are given back the child's family worker to inform their planning. The documentation of the trip would be put in the child's 'Celebration of Achievement File' and linked to the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The children have opportunities to build shelters and engage in imaginative and creative play. They can climb trees, play hide and seek, and engage in storytelling. The storytelling helps boost the children's vocabulary, communication skills and self-confidence. Exploring the flora and fauna promotes their interest and curiosity in the natural world.

Children are physically active for the whole session, which helps them develop their stamina. Their tactile senses are enhanced by handling and smelling bark, moss, mouldy wet leaves and glorious mud!

One of the children's favourite activities is to lie on the ground and listen to the silence and the noises in the forest. Just being in the forest seems to promote the children's emotional well-being and sense of self, which in turn boosts their confidence and self-esteem.

We have snacks around the fire pit and watch the fire burn or cook simple things, such as damper bread, marshmallows or bananas. The children are all encouraged to look after the site, so any litter is packed up and taken back to nursery.

When it's time to leave we make sure the site is safe. Reversing what we did upon arrival, we all say 'forest school, forest school, let us out'.

In all, we spend around two hours travelling to and fro and spending time at the forest site.

BUILDING INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

A visit to Denmark was organised in March 2010. This was an opportunity for 20 Corby forest school leaders to visit a number of Nature Kindergarten in Aarhus. The rationale for the trip was to give the forest school leaders a unique insight into the Danish education system, and to:

  • Improve skills and motivation
  • Provide continuing professional development
  • Share best practice and values
  • Build international relationships and links.

The cost of the trip was shared between the schools and Corby Learning Partnership. The trip consisted of three full days, during which the forest school leaders were provided with an overview of the education system. They all visited at least one kindergarten and then shared their thoughts with the Danish practitioners during an open meeting.

The Danish pedagogues were interested in how we organise our forest schools in Corby and how many health and safety rules we have to adhere to. They were intrigued by the fact that the forest school leaders meet up on a regular basis to support each other, and decided that this was an excellent idea; they proposed that their nature school should start to meet up.

The Danish experience

The following observations give examples of Danish Nature Kindergartens.

Setting: Bornehaven Ajstrup Kindergarten

The building boasted several 'classrooms' which resembled a front living room with large sofas, bookcases and other resources. The atmosphere was calm and civilised. There were no toys to fight over, and the children used their imaginations to play.

Upstairs, there was a large changing room where the children were able to change their clothes and go outside as they wished. The leaders simply wandered from room to room providing direction and assistance when required, but it very rarely was.

Outside, the children were able to explore, discover and play as they wished, with some choosing to visit the animal paddock and feed the Shetland ponies and chickens.

Lunch was made in the woodburning stoves and served outside between 1pm and 3pm. The children could choose when they sat down to eat, if at all. This resulted in a civilised lunchtime with the children conducting conversations between themselves and the leaders.

Setting: Naturbornehaven Folfod

The leaders found children playing freely in this setting. The outdoor area was a short walk away from the main building, and two children conducted a risk assessment before allowing the rest of the group on to the site. The children demonstrated fire lighting and then roamed freely.

The children were relaxed, calm and confident in what they were doing. There was little adult supervision. The site contained a store room with tools and equipment, swings, fire pit, a small waterlogged area and a circular open room where children would put on performances. Lunchtime was when the children felt hungry and wanted to eat.

Setting: Project Mariendal

Children were aged between three and six years and came from mainly urban areas. The centre comprised an indoor and outdoor facility. However, much of the focus was based outside. The buildings were old holiday homes and beyond the hedge boundary was the sea (see above). There were no physical barriers between the site and the beach, although children were aware of the boundaries.

Children were free to do as they wished. They could roam around the fire pit area with ease and all were capable of managing their own risks. As a result, children were more independent and confident in their abilities. Activities were made available if the children wanted to participate. Otherwise, they were responsible for their own learning.

What we learned

A week after our visit to Denmark we reflected on our findings at a forest school cluster meeting.

Our Danish guide, Claus Jensen, works for the trade union for Danish pedagogues. He explained that 94 per cent of pedagogues in Denmark belong to a union.

Danish kindergartens are run by pedagogues. They are modelled on the child's home life and the belief that children should feel safe within this environment. Many centres have a family photo area and parents are encouraged to be involved in the centres' daily activities.

Pedagogues see themselves as 'social educators' and the word 'pedagogy' in Danish refers to a 'complex and holistic relationship between people and between man and society' (Jenson, J and Hansen, H, 2003). The Danish pedagogue has a much higher status than any UK early years practitioner and this is reflected in their pay. The role of the pedagogue in Denmark attracts a high percentage of men.

The facts we learned from our visits to the Nature Kindergartens were:

  • There was no top-down curriculum, no formal planning or assessment
  • Children were supported by the pedagogues
  • Children knew their own boundaries and the boundaries of their kindergarten without any visual reminder
  • There are only ten Nature Kindergartens in and around Aarhus, so not all children in the area have an opportunity to experience them. The inner-city kindergartens used a minibus to take the children to the forest
  • Children were very independent learners. They were encouraged to make their own decisions and take risks
  • The children were socially aware of each other
  • They appeared calm, unhurried and confident
  • Children could start kindergarten at 6am and finish at 5pm
  • The parents paid for their children to attend
  • There were very few health and safety rules or risk assessments
  • The three- to six-year-olds all mixed together, showing the importance of peer modelling
  • All the Nature Kindergartens were different - some were on the beach, some were on the edge of a built-up area and some were in the forest - but the philosophy was all the same
  • The children spent most of the day (up to 80 per cent of the time) outside, no matter what the weather. They were properly equipped to keep themselves warm
  • Inside the kindergarten there were minimal resources, as the emphasis was on outdoor learning
  • There were good transitions to schools and links with local schools
  • There was free exploration and greater emphasis on personal, social and emotional development.

Moving forward

The consensus from the cluster group evaluation meeting of the research trip was to come up with a comprehensive list of feasible changes for our project. Some of these changes could be implemented immediately, and some not.

For example, since the first forest school sessions, staff have used the blue rope as a boundary for children and also as a means of dividing plots of land designated to different schools. One of the decisions to be taken straightaway was the removal of this visual boundary, because after visiting Denmark we were able to view at first hand how little impact physical boundaries have in the forest school settings. We did, however, choose to leave the blue rope in the two nursery training sites to allow for transition for new schools and children that might benefit from visual boundaries.

The forest school leaders thought that the learning from the trip to Denmark was inspiring. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn not only about the Danish Nature Kindergarten, but also about the wider context of the Danish education system. It was felt that although the Danish and English both have the same passion for learning outside the classroom, under the British education system our forest schools are more adult-directed and as such, the children are less confident and less comfortable in the outdoor environment.

As educational practitioners, we believe that children can take, assess and manage risk competently. After discussing and sharing ideas, it is apparent that the majority of forest school leaders believe that in the UK, formalised learning is thrust upon children at a premature age. This belief was supported by visiting Denmark.

It was also agreed that the forest school ethos has a significant impact on children's personal, social and emotional development. Although we were aware of this, visiting Denmark and experiencing the variations in their forest school practice encouraged us to implement the positive features of their system and integrate them with our own.

Some of the changes we discussed were:

  • Increasing child-initiated learning
  • Having less adult-focused planning to decrease adult direction
  • Allowing children to take more calculated risks
  • Mixing age groups
  • Increasing the time in the forest with the children
  • Increasing the information being relayed to the rest of the school and inviting all members of staff to the site during a session
  • Inviting parents/carers to join in sessions
  • Having the children take and carry their own rucksacks, including spare clothes and snacks.

Generally we felt that these changes would have to be negotiated with the heads, teachers and parents at the schools, and that the forest school leaders would have to drive the changes forward.

Annette Cummings is senior family worker at Pen Green Centre for Children and Families, Corby, Northamptonshire

 

CASE STUDY: CORBY FOREST SCHOOL CLUSTER GROUP

Corby Forest School Cluster Group was set up in 2006 by the Corby Education Action Zone, now called Corby Learning Partnership (CLP), with support from the Pre-school Learning Alliance and Northamptonshire County Council. The group is supported by a forest school co-ordinator, Rebecca Bishop, and has the commitment of the heads, staff and parents of 24 schools in Corby.

Last year the Forest School Cluster Group was a finalist in the Sustainable Communities Award, sponsored by the Local Government Chronicle and the Health Service Journal, and won the youth initiative category.

After the award, a group of practitioners from New Zealand visited the forest school site, as part of their European trip, to find out why the school was so successful.

Before observing Corby's forest school practice, they had visited both Denmark and Sweden, but concluded that the Corby model would be more successful in New Zealand because the health and safety regulations were more in line with their own.

Corby children have the unique opportunity of visiting and working on their own acre of land. The site is situated about ten miles outside of Corby in a beautiful wood, which is part of the ancient woodland of Rockingham Forest and is managed by the Forestry Commission.

The Commission kindly donated 26 acres of wood to the project. All the schools involved have forest school leaders trained to a Level 3 National Vocational Qualification, and an outdoor first aid certificate. The forest school leaders are a mixture of teachers, nursery nurses and learning assistants, and they work in nursery, primary and secondary schools.

The Corby Cluster Group is a committed team of practitioners who meet every two months to discuss issues and challenges that have arisen on the forest school sites. The cluster group also has ongoing professional development days out to the forest to brush up on their woodland skills - for example, identifying trees and how to use the bow saw. There have also been storytelling days organised in the forest for the children, facilitated by a professional storyteller, paid for by the CLP.

There are now a number of NVQ and BTEC training providers in Britain (see box, page 21).

 

CASE STUDY - HOW INDIVIDUAL CHILDREN HAVE RESPONDED

Children attending Pen Green Forest School have benefited from the experience in a variety of ways.

Child A

When Child A started at nursery he had already been excluded from two nurseries at the age of three.

His play was very solitary, often only with the cars and trains, and he found it difficult to sustain any periods of involvement. He tended to be fractious and to flit around the nursery, sometimes hitting and being cross with other children.

He went with his family worker to the forest school site and became totally transfixed on the fire pit. He sat for a period of 20 minutes just gazing into the fire and looking at the smoke. He looked relaxed and calm.

Child B

Child B moved from our Baby Nest into nursery with a global development delay. He would often stand around until an adult intervened to support him, not sure of what to do; there was little evidence of any self-initiated play. On arrival at the forest site, Child B found walking in a pair of wellies on uneven ground very difficult. He kept stumbling and tripping and looked out of his comfort zone. After only two trips to the forest, the child was slowly progressing, joining in with the other's play. He enjoyed playing the 'hide and seek' game and smiled when he was found.

Child C

Child C was a confident girl in nursery and was very comfortable and relaxed in the nursery setting. She was the 'leader' in play with other children, often overpowering them and their ideas.

When she arrived at the forest school setting, we noticed a dramatic change in her confidence, as she was wary of the unfamiliar surroundings. It was only after a period of time that she felt comfortable to go off and play.

Two other children approached her and attempted to engage her in their play. She went off to explore with them, but rather than instructing them about what to do, she listened to their contributions and ideas.

Her awareness of other children grew as she learned to appreciate others and build friendships.

 

FOREST SCHOOL TRAINING PROVIDERS COUNTRYWIDE

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

- Lockett, A, 'If you go down to the woods today', Early Education, no42 (Spring 2004)

- O'Brien, Elizabeth and Murray, Richard, 'A marvellous opportunity for children to learn: A participatory evaluation of forest schools in England and Wales' (2006)

- Trout, M, 'All about...forest schools', Nursery World (2 December 2004)

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