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Forest Schools

Forest Schools

Natural learning

Forest Schools offer children and adults a wonderful opportunity “to learn about nature and science by being there in person, not via books”, explained Martin Felstead of Sussex Wildlife Trust to HOT’s Zelly Restorick. She decided to find out more about the significant difference this outdoor learning project is making to the lives of some local children and adults.

Forest Schools started in this country in 1994, developing from post WWII Forest School Camps and projects in Scandinavia, working with nursery age children. The philosophy ‘is to encourage and inspire individuals of any age through positive outdoor experiences’.

I spoke to one of the Forest School’s Level III teachers, Mary Dawson, local resident, storyteller, retired play therapist and someone who has spent most of her life supporting and working with children and families. Working closely with Martin and Kim Richards at Sussex Wildlife Trust and Ken Giles of The Education Futures Trust, she’s someone who firmly believes in the therapeutic benefits of spending time outdoors.

Bee made out of natural materials

Forest Schools

“The objective of the project is to get people into nature and to learn skills within a safe environment”, she explained. “It’s about us as a society reconnecting with nature. We’ve lost a lot of skills and I feel that it’s essential we find them again.

“Forest School learning is about doing not just seeing, listening and being told. It can help in so many different ways – raising confidence and self esteem, developing social and friendship-making skills, increasing cognitive, emotional and learning development, encouraging team building, increasing vocabulary and language ability, mastering of skills and just feeling better about yourself.

Camp fire and cooking

Forest Schools

“We focus on outdoor activities, including some curriculum based learning. Children learn species identification and about nature and species’ habitats, bush craft skills such as fire making, cooking, building a shelter and maybe peeling a piece of willow and making charcoal, observing the chemical changes taking place, map work and art, using natural materials. The children have time for free-play too and exploring the woodlands within a safe environment and with supervision.

“Being involved in the sessions, 90% of the children improve in some amazing ways. We see them enjoying themselves and learning at the same time. Some children shine in this different learning environment, outside of the classroom.”

One boy, who had very low self esteem and found it hard to make eye contact, be told what to do, listen, concentrate or finish anything he started if he encountered any problems, experienced quite a transformation after participating in Forest School sessions.

“He chose weaving as the skill to demonstrate to his parents, when they came to the site at the end of the course”, Mary explained. “It was clear he’d learned that if something went wrong, it was possible to fix things. He knew how to persist, how to be more patient and how to teach others. And back at school, he was more focussed and there was a marked difference in his attitude and his whole feeling of being able to do something. Better listening and better behaviour.”

Another little boy who was extremely shy and who had hidden behind his arms at the start of the course, later spoke at school assembly about his woodland experience.

“We are constantly adjusting the sessions to suit the needs of different groups and individuals. Forest School learning is holistic and child-lead, as much as possible, with adult supervision.”

‘Circle Time’ allows everyone a chance to talk about their experience and share their feelings. A Talking Stick is used, allowing each person a chance to speak whilst the others listen. If any problems, difficulties or disputes are encountered along the way, the children are encouraged to be involved in coming up with a solution themselves.

One of the main teachings is ‘to leave no trace of your presence’. The children are keen to collect and dispose of their own – or anyone else’s – rubbish with care and to leave the site exactly as they found it.

Children playing hide and seek

Forest Schools

A lot of the learning happens naturally, through free exploring, being able to ask questions and participating in fun activities and free play time. The children gradually build-up their skills in small, individually paced steps, including how to make a campfire and use tools, such as a knife and a bow saw. What’s impressive about the sessions is that children are taught with a ‘can-do’ attitude. They learn how to self-assess risks, to be respectful of fire and tools and to use them properly and thoughtfully.

“People can find it hard to believe, but some children as young as three are able to use a bow saw and make a wooden name badge for themselves. They just need to be supervised and shown how to use the tools in small steps and with respect.”

A number of local schools are already participating in the Forest School programme, including primaries, Churchwood, Silverdale, St Pauls and West St Leonards. Some of the sites are permanent, such as the one connected to Churchwood. Volunteers, school staff and members of The Community Payback Team got together and created a Forest Schools work/play area, including a circle of benches where students can sit around a fire, pathways through the undergrowth, perimeter fences and gateways.

At Silverdale School, a Forest Schools site has been developed around a large pond surrounded by trees, including building a shelter, again with the help of the Community Payback team. In a recent Ofsted report, the school was praised for their involvement in the scheme and encouraged to develop it further.

At the moment, the local Forest Schools teams mainly work with targeted groups, such as young children, people who experience mental health issues, disadvantaged young people or those who are seen as having behavioural problems, and mothers and children. However, it’s something that would appeal to a much wider range of participants, as the benefits could be appreciated by individuals of any variety and can be a great team-building exercise.

Further funding has been received to train more teachers and teaching assistants within local schools, but the 9-12 month training is open to anyone who cares about nature and enjoys being outdoors with people, facilitating groups, learning and teaching skills.

There’s a Forest Schools Taster Day on 31 October, 10.30am–2.30pm. Please contact Sussex Wildlife Trust on 01273 497561 for more details and to book a place.

Mary Dawson’s email:
Forest Schools website

Sussex Wildlife Trust website

Education Futures Trust website



Posted 12:57 Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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