Analysis: Children getting in touch with nature at forest schools

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The move towards hands-on learning, outside of the classroom, is behind the growing popularity of forest schools. Annette Rawstrone investigates.

More and more children are accessing the curriculum through the forest school approach, which is being adopted by a growing number of UK settings.

Forest schools can take on many different forms, and do not even have to be held in woodland, but there are several common features that set them apart from simply learning in the outdoors. Research conducted jointly by Liz O'Brien from Forest Research and Richard Murray of the New Economics Foundation found that forest schools adopt a constructivist approach, giving children the time and space to make meaning of the world through experimentation and hands-on experience.

Rather than use classroom resources and equipment, great reliance is given to using natural materials found in the woodland, helping children develop both gross and fine motor skills through collecting sticks and leaves to make dens, tying knots, handling tools, using twigs to write in the mud, climbing trees, jumping across stones and building fires.

Many features are 'not unique to forest school', notes the report, but 'when combined, they set it apart from other outdoor learning experiences'. And, it adds, 'The more relaxed and free atmosphere provides a contrast to the classroom environment that suits some children who learn more easily from practical hands-on involvement, such as kinaesthetic learners.'

Forest schools, always led by a qualified forest school leader, involve frequent and regular sessions throughout the year, rather than being a one-off visit to a local woodland. Through this children can actively engage with the natural world, experiencing the changing weather and seasons.

Mandi Trout, forest school team leader at Bridgwater College, Somerset, which pioneered the ethos in the UK after being inspired by a visit to Denmark in 1993, says, 'To take a quick overview of a forest school session in progress, I would like to see happy, focused and challenged children who are showing through their body language that they are engaged in what they are doing.

'I would want it to be a small group, with the forest school leader facilitating learning. Potentially, the children would be challenging the leader in an appropriate way. We always plan for a good session, but if the children say they want to do something different, then we know that we are doing our job well because we are empowering them to take control of what and how they learn.'

In demand

Bridgwater College reports a rise in the number of people undertaking forest school Level 1 and 3 training. At least eight other organisations now offer training nationally. Local authorities are also getting on board, with many now employing dedicated forest school co-ordinators to disseminate information and good practice. In Worcestershire the local authority is aiming for all foundation stage children to have access to forest schools by 2013, a goal which they are already more than halfway to achieving; approximately 280 forest schools are already in operation.

Jenny Doyle, forest school co-ordinator for Worcestershire, believes their rising popularity can be attributed to an ethos that fits into aims such as the Government's 'Learning Outside the Classroom' manifesto, the QCA's commitment to build a 'world-class curriculum', which gives priority to the needs of the individual learner, and the EYFS, which encourages children going outside to learn. 'These are all giving people licence to take the children outdoors,' she says.

At Bridgwater College, Mandi Trout adds, 'People often need to see and experience something before they are convinced, and they are now seeing the benefits of this. People are looking at ways to encourage children away from just indoor experiences, away from the computer screen. Not all children are going to be academics or computer buffs.'

Independent consultant Marie Charlton, who has visited forest schools in Denmark, believes that they address the problems caused by depriving children of outdoor play. 'A lot of children are stressed with the system of education, which is certainly not addressing the needs of boys who need to learn through movement and the senses,' she says. 'People are suffering from nature deficit syndrome because they are so out of touch with the rhythms of natural life. I think this accounts for a lot of teenage hooligans, who have not had the chance to express themselves in natural ways. Boys need to work out their social skills and knowledge through rough and tumble, but we put them in boxes in schools where they become pent-up, angry and destructive and develop challenging behaviour.'

Grow your own

Regulations for running a forest school vary. It is advisable to consult the local education authority and a nursery insurance company. Regular risk assessments must be carried out by the qualified leader to ensure a site is safe to visit, and there should be high adult:child ratios - 1:1 when tools such as pen knives and saws are being used.

Training is often the greatest financial outlay in setting up a forest school. Some local authorities will pay for it, and some students have accessed the Transformation Fund or Community Fund. It is also essential to have appropriate clothing to enable everyone to be outdoors in all weather.

Forest schools operate in a range of places, from woodland to a corner of the school grounds, in sand dunes or in reclaimed graveyards.

David Green, owner of Alphabet House Day Nursery in Long Eaton, Nottingham began leasing woodland that had been unused for 80 years, after advertising locally. He says, 'The Country Land and Business Association is encouraging farmers to open up their land, because farming is dying and they need to diversify. It is worth nurseries banging on people's doors to use land that is dormant.'

CASE STUDIES

- Meare Village Primary School, Glastonbury, Somerset

Children throughout the school have access to one session of outdoor education each week, led by the school's three trained forest school leaders. The sessions are held in the school grounds or at the local woods with Bridgwater Forest School staff.

Headteacher Deborah Eveleigh says, 'We strongly believe that everything we do outdoors interweaves with the rest of our work. It teaches children self-reliance, gives them the tools to do things for themselves and uses teamwork. They learn skills such as problem- solving and trust. Recently the children had their first fire of the term, which they are only allowed to do once the forest school leader is 100 per cent happy that the whole group is aware of the principles of fire and the rules. This involves a lot of peer pressure and influence on other's behaviour, because everyone needs to abide by the rules of the fire.

'We see time and time again the children who do not thrive when they are sat at their desks, thriving outside because they learn better from hands-on activities.'

- Alphabet House Day Nursery, Long Eaton, Nottingham

Nursery owner David Green developed a passion for forest schools after attending a training session. He has since gained his Forest School Leader Level 3 and two staff members are trained to Level 2, funded by the local authority.

'I was blown away with what it can do for children,' he says. 'My interest is from my childhood play, free in the local woods. Although our children live in a rural area they are not taken outside as much, because of changes in everyday living. When we go to the woods we give the children a "toolbox" of possibilities. They learn how to build shelters and are familiar with a lot of wildlife. Gradually they explore and do more and more things for themselves.'

Last April the nursery began leasing an area of woodland where the children attend sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Planning permission was sought to change the use of land, and the farmer's and nursery's insurers were informed. Regular risk assessments are conducted. The land rental and transport costs are a large outgoing, but the forest school is a selling point for parents. There are now plans to utilise a farm building as a nursery and encourage local schools to use the land too.

Further information

- Forest Education Initiative at www.foresteducation.org lists national forest school training providers

- Forest School and Its Impacts on Young Children: case studies in Britain by Liz O'Brien and Richard Murray (2007), www.forestresearch.gov.uk

- Institute for Outdoor Learning, www.outdoor-learning.org

- Bridgwater College, www.bridgwater.ac.uk.

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