Finding Forest School
On a wet, uninspiring late November day back in 2012, I sat sipping tea in the Outside Café in Hathersage with my husband and two and a half year old son Ewan, when my attention was suddenly taken by an advert for a Forest School Open Day in a couple of weeks time in Grindleford. I had an uncanny feeling that this might be the answer to our preschool search, which I had embarked on months before but was beginning to despair in.
We went along to the open morning, meeting staff and children at the Pavilion and walking into the National Trust owned Hay Wood, a short walk from the Pavilion. The friendly staff informed me that their Forest School
was opening in the new year and that I could apply for Ewan. The walk inspired me; I had stumbled across an alternative way of educating preschool children which really appealed to me. Learning more about the ethos of Forest School only confirmed that this was where I wanted my son to be. On a bright day in the new year we helped the staff and other parent volunteers create the forest school site and applied for Ewan to attend from September. Living at a distance from the playgroup I was unsure whether he would get in. To my immense relief he did.
Ewan attended Forest School sessions over the summer holidays. The staff were very supportive of a gradual and smooth transition into playgroup for him, allowing me to attend sessions with
Ewan as long as this was required. I gradually cut back on the time I was with him, taking our dog on walks in the woods after having settled him in at forest school. I increased the periods I was away from Ewan until I was confident he was OK without me.
Ewan started attending playgroup in September, which included one session of Forest School per week. By the October half-term he was going to sessions independently.
I was very taken with the Forest School philosophy and loved being in the woods with Ewan and the other children. I always felt more at peace and more connected to myself, my children and nature after a morning in the woods.
The second year
I planned to home educate Ewan once he turned five. We made the decision for Ewan to carry on at playgroup in the year he could have been in reception at school, which the playgroup were supportive of. Children are eligible to receive fifteen hours of early years funding until the term they turn five, although most start school the September after they turn four so this is not a well known fact or indeed well advertised. Neither is it well known that school (or education otherwise) is not compulsory until the term after children turn five, which in Ewan’s case is September 2016. Ewan has therefore stayed at playgroup until the term after his fifth birthday, and will be home educated from September onwards. This arrangement has worked very well for us.
This academic year the playgroup have increased their provision of forest school sessions to two per week, so Ewan has benefited from six hours per week in the woods. We have been very
fortunate to find a preschool provider with a pedagogy similar to our own, which includes a lot of child-led free play, forest school and influences from Steiner Waldorf. The playgroup is a home from home for Ewan, a nurturing environment where Ewan has thrived and the staff have always been extremely welcoming. Their priority really is the children. I cannot sing their praises enough.
When my daughter Tessa turned two she started Woodland Adventuers, which is a mini forest school for two to three year olds. When I applied for Tessa to start, it was hard to envisage my baby ever being old enough to start playgroup, but now she is almost two-and-a-half and is very happy there. From day one she thrived in the woodland environment. I have volunteered at Woodland Adventure sessions since Tessa started in March.
My volunteering has opened up a new career path to me; I am now part-way through training to be a Forest School Practitioner myself, with the support of the playgroup and Forest School Education. I attended a fantastic and inspiring week’s training in May and am now consolidating my skills and starting to write my portfolio. I have also attended a number of Friday Forest School sessions, where I have seen first-hand how much Ewan has
developed since the very early days as a new starter, a quiet three-year-old to a five-year-old in his element, immersed in deep level play using the woodland environment as a stimulant to his rich imagination.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the sessions volunteering, learning a lot from the forest school practitioners and other staff. I also feel more confident in myself as a childcare practitioner now, as well as a mum, which remains my main
occupation! I am very passionate about enabling children to connect with nature through forest school and am grateful to the playgroup for believing in and supporting me in my endeavours.
The knighting ceremony
The knighting ceremony was a beautiful way of marking the end of an era for all the children who were moving onto school
or otherwise. Parents and other special people in the children’s lives were invited to forest school for one of the last sessions, joining in their children’s play, chatting with other parents and the staff and enjoying a cup of tea and a cake by the fire. They also participated in the ceremony, watching as their children were knighted on the throne and handed the sword they made themselves at forest school. As each child sat on the throne the
supervisor introduced the child to the audience and said a few meaningful words about them. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks as Ewan was called to the throne and knighted. It was an emotional and poignant moment.
My words of appreciation and gratitude to the playground up for what they done for my son
and now my daughter know no bounds. You have treated my son as an individual with respect and love. You have truly nurtured him. I cannot thank you enough. It is with a very heavy heart that Ewan says a fond farewell to a preschool which has done and has meant so much to him for the past two years. He walks away with many happy memories, well equipped to deal with the next stage in his life, that of a school-aged child. I know he shall miss the forest school and other playgroup sessions a lot; nothing will replace them.
However, my forest school training will help, as will the forest school sessions I have found for home educated children in the Secret Wood, run by Creative Explorer Activities.
My relationship with the playgroup shall continue next year as Tessa increases her hours, attending two Woodland Adventure sessions a week. I shall continue to volunteer at playgroup too, for there is a lot more to learn and many more fun times ahead.
Ewan shall return for holiday forest school and on other special family days. I am sure he shall take with him into the future a lot of what you offered him, intangible in many ways but present all the same in who he is.
At the end of an era, I want to thank playgroup for providing him with such special, beautiful and unique experiences in his formative early years. You have helped him to shine.