First published in The Mother magazine issue 72, Winter 2016
My son at Forest School
Sitting quietly on a log, I observe my five-year-old son as he carefully places some leaves onto the roof of his fairy house. Ewan then scampers off to find additional roofing material to ensure the fairies are kept dry, totally immersed in play and at one in his environment. My son’s fairy house has taken six Forest School sessions to complete, complete with a washing line in the garden and fairy furniture made of out moss and leaves inside.
Set within a beautiful broadleaved, native woodland owned by the National Trust in the Peak District National Park, this Forest School site is truly magical. All around Ewan children are also engaged in free, exploratory play; a cluster are playing super heroes in one of the dens, another group are leaping in and out of a make believe pirate ship and a couple are fishing with stick rods with shiny leaves proudly attached as their catch. A lone child sits contemplatively on a log by the fire, companionably close to a Forest School assistant, whilst another child stirs a magic potion composed of natural materials collected from the forest floor. Finally, a group of children are peeling bark off hazel sticks with support from the Forest School practitioner, beginning the process of making swords for the upcoming knighting ceremony, which will commemorate the children who are leaving forest school this term.
The familiar sing-song voice of the Forest School practitioner gently breaks the children’s activities. They all happily ‘come and join in our small circle‘, sitting on logs at the fire circle to share food and drink together; hot chocolate warming and raisins and jam sandwiches energising. Nourished, the children return to spend the rest of the morning playing or joining in the supervised activity if they wish.
As the session draws to a close, the children gather around the fire circle to reflect on the session. Ewan says in a clear, confident voice ‘I enjoyed making the fairy house’. As the children return to preschool, a fifteen-minute walk through the woodland and across a sheep field, I observe Ewan squelching through mud, climbing over a gate, splashing in streams and hiding behind stone walls with the other children. His exuberance reassures me, confirming that after much deliberating I did choose the right pre-school environment for him.
Finding Forest School
My search for a suitable pre-school for my son appeared futile until I stumbled across an advert for a Forest School Open Day. From that day forward we did not look back. A few days later, on a crisp winter’s morning with temperatures as low as minus six, we headed out into the frozen woods. Captivated, from that day forward we did not look back. We were welcomed into a small, nurturing Pre-school with open arms, run by a committed team of staff who were passionate about re-connecting children with nature. We were delighted when Ewan secured a place at Playgroup the term after his third birthday, knowing it was well worth the thirty minute commute to enable Ewan to experience the many delights of Forest School.
What is Forest School
Forest School was introduced in the UK in the 1990s, after staff from Bridgwater College in Somerset visited Denmark. Forest School has grown exponentially since then, popular in early years settings but also expanding across other providers, such as secondary schools, children’s centres and adult therapeutic services. The Forest School’s Association define Forest School as ‘an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self-esteem, through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.’
Forest School takes place regularly over time, a minimum of one session per week spanning ten weeks or more, with a high-level of learner to practitioner ratio. Sessions go ahead in all weathers and seasons, apart from in high winds, allowing learners to become immersed in the natural world. For learners to successfully engage with their environment, they need to be suitably dressed for the weather, be it cold, wet or hot, and they need to be given permission to get dirty, to play in the mud and to take risks.
In The Wild Network’s discussion on how we can re-wild habitats, the authors point out that ‘ The most important species to be reintroduced to our fields, woods and meadows are kids.’ How true this is! As my children play in the woods, I am acutely aware they are an endangered species. We rarely see other children exploring our local outdoor spaces. Our children are perhaps the first generation of captive children, kept ‘safely’ hidden indoors in an often virtual world, or shipped from one organised activity to the next. This can lead to what Richard Louv in 2005 termed ‘nature deficit disorder‘. No longer are children able to freely explore their local woods, streams and fields.
This disconnect from nature has far-reaching consequences, including growing levels of childhood obesity, a raft of emotional and behavioural problems and loss of ‘natural’ skills and knowledge, such as an appreciation of plants and animals, the ability to forage and environmental awareness.
For the next generation to be guardians of the natural world, they need to return to wild places, where they can risk-take, play freely, be creative and simply ‘be’. Forest School serves to fill this gap, vital in our overly prescribed, results-driven educational system and electronically connected era. It is therefore exciting Forest School is growing so rapidly, with many schools, parents and children experiencing its many benefits.
Forest School in our lives
Our family time is often spent in the woods, exploring and learning about the natural environment together, erecting shelters, cooking on an open fire, boiling water using a Kelly Kettle and at times even wild camping. I feel more connected to myself, my children and nature when I am in the woods. There really is no place I would rather be, which makes me very happy.
After two wonderful years at Playgroup, Ewan has now moved to a Forest School for home educated children. Our daughter Tessa, who is two-and-a-half, attends Woodland Adventurers at Playgroup, an outdoor session which prepares toddlers for Forest School. I have been a parent volunteer at Playgroup for the past year. I always leave the site feeling a deep contentment and peace within myself. The experience is also enriching for the children, who derive a lot of pleasure in addition to many other positive outcomes, from simply being able to play in a woodland setting.
It was for these reasons that I made the decision to train to be a Forest School Practitioner. I am now part-way through my training, having recently joined the Playgroup team as a Woodland Adventure Leader. Forest School is leading me down an exciting new career path, one where my love of working with young children and nature is combined. My eyes have been opened to new ways of learning whilst my self-confidence has improved, as well as my ability to achieve, learn and face fresh challenges. I am not only learning about how to use tools or light a fire or work with children in an outdoor environment, I am also discovering more about myself, a process at the heart of Forest School.
The next generation face an uncertain, challenging future, yet it is one enthused with hope. I believe Forest School is part of the answer. I hope it is a movement all children are fortunate enough to experience in some form. For my children, it is an integral part of their daily lives, the ethos deeply ingrained in the way we home educate and live day-to-day. We are working and growing in partnership, where I am a learner as much as my children. I am my children’s facilitator and their guide, I hope one who points but does not lead the way.
As a new mum over half a decade ago, I never envisaged we would be walking down an alternative parenting and educational path. Wherever it takes us, I am confident this is the right way for us, with no destination in sight but enjoying the journey. On this family adventure the trees and the fairies are our dear friends, who lend us a hand when we stumble and fall. In return, we nurture and respect them, sharing the wild places together.