Outdoor learning through nature can be very enriching for pupils. Angela Youngman discusses this broad and creative approach to learning
Making fires, toasting bread over the flames, building shelters, climbing trees – these are not woodland activities that you would normally associate with children under five today. Yet for increasing numbers of children, this is a reality. Within the ambit of a ‘forest school’, even very young children are learning all kinds of outdoor activities, appreciating how to care for and respond to the environment, whilst looking after themselves and others.
Learning through nature
Children ‘learning through nature’ is not a new concept. From as early as 1860, educators have promoted the value of the natural environment for health, learning and emotional wellbeing. Froebel, for instance, believed that children should be taught through the direct involvement of their senses, emphasising the important role played in this by nature. However, only in recent years have these concepts been pulled together in this way. All of those who have been involved in forest schools within the UK have been adamant that children have benefited immensely, particularly with regard to their self-confidence, care for others and care for the environment.
The concept of forest schools originated in Scandinavia, where there is a strong belief that nature and movement are essential to a child’s development. In 1995, the concept was introduced to the UK by a group of nursery nurses from Bridgewater College who had visited a Danish forest school. Forest schools now operate in Norfolk, Cumbria, Monmouthshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset. Scottish Natural Heritage has also trained schools, in conjunction with the Forestry Commission.
A case study
Last year, four-year-old children from the nursery class at Litcham Primary School took part in a pilot scheme held in the woods at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. One day a week over a six-week period, they spent all day in the woods as part of a forest school. Every session was planned around the same routine – singing Mikkel Rev (a Norwegian nursery rhyme about a fox), doing brain gym, walking on a rope train and free ‘play’ in the woodland, before coming back together again as a group, singing again then finally returning on the rope train. During their time in the woodland, they engaged in unhurried and natural activities such as shelter building, climbing trees, playing with leaves, willow weaving, pouch making, mini-beasting, and jewellery-making. Each activity used only natural materials from the woodland and children were given tools where necessary and taught to use them safely. On the last day, they toasted bread dough (which they had previously prepared at school) over a small campfire. The woodland sessions were reinforced by activities within the school grounds.
Christine Watts, headteacher of Litcham Primary said ‘This has been a wonderful opportunity for our class of four-year-olds. They have learned how to keep themselves and others safe within acceptable boundaries and love the fact that they are able to make their own choices. It has given teachers the time to observe individual children carefully, thus helping them to plan their next stage in learning. What has really impressed me is how the forest school has provided an opportunity for us to work in partnership with parents. We are all learning together.
‘Participating children definitely became more confident within the space of those six weeks. Their independence moved on as did their self esteem. Children who normally had behaviour problems within the classroom were easier to manage once they were given a place with more space and freedom.’
Parents Persuading parents to allow their children to take part was one of the hardest elements. A special meeting was held, during which the whole concept was fully explained. The school had always sought to use the outdoors as a classroom as far as possible within the curriculum, so there was not too much surprise when the extended concept was described. Any concern that children would be out of school and so not participating in the normal curriculum quickly disappeared once the project started.
Susan Falch-Lovesey, head of environmental education in Norfolk commented ‘I had parents email me saying “I have never seen the children play outside so much.”, “I have just realised how good it is”.’
There were inevitable incidents during the forest school. One child fell from a tree but was not hurt and, undeterred, immediately wanted to climb again. Careful explanations of how to deal with fires and flames prevented accidents.
To sum up
Susan Falch-Lovesey summarises: ‘Outdoor learning motivated the children to ... appreciate, respect and care for their natural environment. It gave an opportunity for children to have a voice and make informed choices. Handling responsibility, rising to expectations and understanding the consequences of actions led to the principal outcome of safety and risk awareness appropriate to their age and activity.’
Finding out more
For more information, look at www.foresteducation.org and click on ‘forest schools’ for contact details of forest schools all over the country.
Another interesting and informative site is www.bishopswoodcentre.org.uk. The centre is based is Worcestershire, but the site provides plenty of information on how forest schools developed, as well as what activities are offered at this particular forest: their sessions are run from 10am to 2.30pm, they loan waterproof clothing, and have sessions all year round so that your children can experience life outdoors in all its variety. They cover stepping stones leading to the early learning goals across all areas of the foundation stage curriculum, with particular emphasis on independence, mathematics, language and listening skills. Their aim is to offer ‘A totally organic experience that is tailored to the needs and interests of the youngsters through activities designed to enable them to achieve.’