Forest School is increasingly recognised as one of the most effective ways to introduce children to risk and challenge, and whether you are in an urban or rural environment there are always possibilities for setting one up.
If you are thinking that now is the time to take your first step into the forest, the priority is to secure a suitable site. As our two case studies here highlight, it is important to look carefully at all the local options, understanding how you can go about accessing the space and how its particular characteristics will affect your Forest School practice.
FREE RANGE URBAN KIDS: Park space with marshes, woodland and a canal
- Launched in 2014 and gained a Good grade from Ofsted in 2016. It has 42 children on roll.
- The team includes four staff members who are qualified Level 3 Forest School practitioners, and four who are currently completing their training.
- Its 9.30am-3.30pm sessions include up to 20 children at a time.
Each morning, Hayley Mitchell and her business partner, Elizabeth Hassay, set off for work on their bicycles with their trailers full of the kit they need to set up their Forest School kindergarten based in the corner of Millfields Park in Hackney, inner-city London.
The 40-place fully outdoors Ofsted-registered forest kindergarten, which is set up and packed down each day, has been operating from the public park for four years.
Former marketing director Ms Mitchell says, ‘I had such belief in this style of outdoor learning for children in the early years. I wanted it for my own children but it didn’t exist so I began my Forest School Leader qualification, located a site and went about setting it up.’
After cycling around her local area and looking at many potential spots, she located Millfields Park, with its large open spaces, marshes, woodland and a canal. ‘There was a corner of the park on the South entrance that was easy to reach, close to bus and Tube links and was quite secluded,’ she says. ‘When checking out the site, I got talking to the park ranger, who suggested that I contact the local authority. I sent an email; we had a meeting and I presented my proposal and risk assessments. They agreed to it so we signed a service-level agreement detailing how to use the site.’
Ms Mitchell says initially they were told they couldn’t light fires. ‘But I put together a proposal of the benefits of lighting fires with the children and they agreed,’ she says. ‘We have our own public liability insurance and a fully comprehensive risk-assessed insurance for our staff.’
Because Free Range Urban Kids is using a public park, staff arrive an hour before the children so they can sweep the area and check for hazards such as litter and dog poo.
Set-up is minimal. ‘We put up the tarpaulins, put the portable camping toilets into the pop-up tents, set up the kitchen area, which is a pop-up tent with a folding table, and unload the resources,’ Ms Mitchell says.
‘Our resources include just a few books, pots and pans for the mud kitchen area, a first-aid kit, a box of spare clothes, walkie-talkies to communicate with staff across the site, hammocks, a box of blankets and sleeping bags, tools, a box of musical instruments, art equipment, ropes for rope swings and a large parachute which we attach to a permanent pulley system that is hidden among the trees.’
She adds, ‘We have a great relationship with the local authority, which maintains the land, and work with the local community to share the space for school sports days and other Forest School sessions.’
THE LENCHES PRE-SCHOOL GROUP: Orchard setting with beehives
- Launched its Forest School in 2014 and in this year achieved an Outstanding grading from Ofsted. It has 30 children on roll.
- Manager Emilia Munro is a SENCO and Level 3 Forest School practitioner. The setting also has a Level 2 Forest School assistant.
- It runs two-hour Forest School sessions that take out up to 16 children.
Every Monday during term time, 16 children aged three to five set off from their pre-school to The Yates Community Orchard, in the Evesham Vale in rural Worcestershire, for their Forest School session. The mature orchard and woodland area was donated to the local community by the Yates family and is maintained by a local resident and The Lenches Sports Club.
Emilia Munro, pre-school manager and Forest School leader, says, ‘Five years ago, we approached the Sports Club and asked for regular use of the site for Forest School. This was agreed and we have a written agreement from the secretary of the Sports Club stating that we can use the land for Forest School purposes and we can access the orchard and the woodland area at any time with the children. Both the site and the pre-school have public liability insurance.’
The site has many fruit trees including varieties of apples, pears and plums. ‘We have a log pile to build dens and bridges, a fire pit, a muddy kitchen area, picnic tables and a corner where there are bee hives,’ says Ms Munro. ‘There is a permanent wooden shelter on the site, with lockable storage where we store mud kitchen pots, pans and utensils. And we wheel a trolley to the site, containing clean water for hand-washing and drinking, along with first-aid kits, rope, mallets and food for cooking on the fire. We have lockable tins to store sharp tools such as secateurs, folding and fixed blade knives, saws and fire strikers.’
A general risk assessment and a daily check of the site is also in place, checking for fallen branches, glass, animal waste or any other debris. There are many natural hazards – brambles, sticks, holes in the ground and even bee hives, which have clear rules around them. ‘The beehives are looked after by the local beekeepers and the children know that they should never enter the locked gate where they are kept,’ she says. ‘They are taught that bees sting when they are angry but that they are vital to our survival.’
The Lenches Pre-School also has a general risk assessment covering site risks, health and safety and use of tools and equipment, which is reviewed each term. Other risks can be related to weather conditions, and it is vital to be prepared.
Ms Munro says, ‘Working with fire and tools requires a stringent risk assessment and training up of all practitioners and helpers. But the benefits are manifold. To see a child’s self-esteem and sense of pride when they have lit a fire for the first time or saw a piece of wood is priceless.’
MEETING BASIC NEEDS – all from Muddy Faces, www.muddyfaces.co.uk
Outdoor clothing: For quality waterproof clothing for adults and children, try Dry Kids All-in-One Rainsuit, from £13, or adults’ Ocean Padded Pilot Jacket, £89.
Shelter: DD Tarp XL, £37.99; Green Round Shelter, 4.5m diameter, £159.99.
Health and hygiene: A means to go to the loo and to clean hands for eating is always a tricky one in the woods but needs to be thought through logically. Portable Toilet, £15.99.
Fires: Fire Lighting and Safety Kit – Group, £159.99.
Hammock: Rock gently, rest and gaze up to the sky in this Trekker Hammock, £21.99.
Dens: A place to hide away or spend time on your own with this Class Sized Den Building Kit, £109.99.
Tools: Palm Drill – Child sized: a small hand-held drill ideal for simple drilling projects such as putting holes in wooden tags, £4.15; Lightweight Loppers – easy for young children to hold and use, £20.99; and Traditional Mini Dozuki saw (150mm), £24.99.
Selections Garden Trolley, for transporting heavy-duty stuff, £79.99, from www.safetyliftingear.com
FoxHunter Foldable Outdoor Garden Trolley, light duty, £38.99, via Amazon (pictured)
Locking Lambfoot Pocket Knife (CK Classic C9038L), £13.56, via Amazon
Hand-washing facilities: Airpot Thermal Flask with Pump Mechanism (Stainless Steel), £22.49, via Amazon
Level 3 Forest School Leaders course, https://www.opencollnet.org.uk
Insurance for Forest School leaders, https://bit.ly/2GiGrMs