Category Archives: Learning Outside the Classroom

Forest School and Us

Ewan at five years old, in his element in the woods
Ewan in his element in the woods

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.

My family at forest school
My family at forest school

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.

Ewan at Forest School for the first time
Ewan at Forest School for the first time

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.29 April 2015 (4)

Re-wilding habitats

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.image133

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 future

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.

Resources

Websites

–  Forest School Association

The Wild Network

– Forest Schools Education

Books

Sara Knight; Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. 2Nd Ed. 2013. Sage.

Richard Louv; Last Child in the Woods, 2005. Workman Publishing.

My children, my teachers

Welcome to the August 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Life Learners

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have talked about how they continue learning throughout life and inspire their children to do the same.

Travelling in Scotland

Life learning is an interesting, relevant, large and worthy topic for parents to explore. Here’s my post about how I continue to be a learner now I’m a parent with two young children.

Background

I was fortunate to be to able to spend the majority of my twenties studying, training or travelling. My son was born just shy of my thirtieth birthday, my daughter followed almost three years later. I have spent the past half decade parenting, finding some time to also pursue my hobbies of writing, yoga and walking. More recently, I started volunteering at my children’s playgroup, which has led me down a new and exciting career path in Forest School.Our family in Quebec

Forest School training

IMG_1124
On the forest school training course

I am at the beginning of a year of training to be a Forest School Practitioner, having taken an initial training course and now consolidating my skills through further voluntary work, studying in order to complete my portfolio and the start of paid employment one session per week in the role of Leader at Woodland Adventurers, an outdoor session for 2 to 3 year olds at playgroup. If all goes to plan, I will be a qualified practitioner by the end of 2016. Studying is in addition to my main role as mother and home educator of my children, who are now 5 and 2 and a half years old.

Learning and parenting

Ewan and his Mummy
Baby Ewan and mummy

After my son was born, I spent many hours devouring every natural parenting book available, mainly when Ewan was nursing. I was in the very fortunate position of being able to dedicate most of my time and energy to my son, without a job to return to or other children to already care for. Becoming a mother sparked a period of new self-directed learning, with the ultimate aim of becoming a better, more informed mother. This more choice-based, learner-led research was a far-cry from the more formal, directed learning of my past. It also bore in me a period of creativity in writing, which is still developing. Continue reading My children, my teachers

A Fond Farewell to Forest School

Ewan at Forest School for the first time
Ewan at Forest School for the first time

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.

Setting up Forest School, New Year 2013
Setting up Forest School, New Year 2013

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

Ewan at two and a half
Ewan at two and a half

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. Continue reading A Fond Farewell to Forest School

Wild summer days

Welcome to the July 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Summer Fun

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have talked about how to get out and enjoy the warmer season as a family.

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IMG_4671aA blog post about what we get up to in the summer months could be pages long, as we are a very active family regardless of the weather, but in the warmer summer months we are out and about even more than ever. To keep it concise I have broken up our activities into mini themes to help you navigate;

The Buzzards, a tiny campsite
The Buzzards, a tiny campsite

Camping; as a family we love going camping, using our trusty 3 person tunnel tent as our home from home, with a good size porch giving space to eat if the weather is bad and space for our Labrador to sleep. The Tiny Camp-sites book has really inspired us; all the

Our tent
Our tent

camp-sites are an acre or less, many rustic with rather basic facilities, which is just what we like. We prefer the feel of almost camping in someone’s back garden, as opposed to camping on a large camp-site with all mod-cons.

Tessa and Ewan by the camp-fire
Tessa and Ewan by the camp-fire

For instance, at the end of June this year, we returned to The Buzzards camp-site in Hereforshire, where we were again the only campers. This is a friendly, small camp-site with a compost-able toilet (and another toilet attached to the owner’s home with a shower too) and place to light a fire. Continue reading Wild summer days

Woodland Adventurers’ on the hottest day of the year

heat-waveWe’re going on a bear hunt!

HO9001 - Helen Oxenbury - Going on a Bear Hunt - Collectors Edition PrintA level 3 “heatwave action” heat-health alert was declared for all parts of England on 1st July, with temperatures rising to 36.7C at Heathrow  (source; BBC website). 

However, the Woodland Adventurers’ were not deterred! They managed to walk all the way up to the Forest School site on a bear hunt, even in such blistering heat, protected by the canopy of the trees and thereby shaded from the worse of the heat. Using the well-known, lyrical words from Michael Rosen’s much-loved story, Julia drew the children into an exciting hunt for a cute teddy bear.

We're going on a bear hunt; through the swishy grass
We’re going on a bear hunt; through the swishy grass

Before long, the children were swishing through long, wavy grass ‘swishy swashy’, walking through a deep cold river, ‘splash splosh’, through thick oozy mud ‘squelsh squerch‘ and into the big dark forest ‘stumble trip’, all the way up to Forest School where the teddy bear was hiding! Continue reading Woodland Adventurers’ on the hottest day of the year

Wild magic in the woods

Growing in mind and bodyIMG_4730

The Woodland Adventurers spent an enchanting, rather magical morning in the woods this week. Julia, the forest school practitioner, led the children to a cool, far-off Gruffalo Pool, nicely sheltered from the warm sun, deep and cosy in Froggatt Wood.

The children did fantastically well, walking further than they’ve ever walked before with ease, even on tricky ground with large stone boulders for little feet to negotiate along the path.

This is testament to their growing, more confident little bodies, both physically and emotionally. The clement weather also helped, enabling the children to stay outdoors with few clothes to encumber them, for longer than in cold or wet weather. Most of the children are progressing to Forest School in September. Again, this session indicates how ready they will be for this move and how smooth a transition it is likely to prove, after so many sessions in the woods in preparation.

The Gruffalo Pool Continue reading Wild magic in the woods

Wood Skills Day

I returned to Leam Woods for a CPD (Continuing Professional Development) Wood Skills Day on June 6th, organised by Sarah Blackwell. This was very helpful as I embark on the consolidation element of my Level Three Forest School training.

I returned a little apprehensive, wondering if anyone would be there from my course and also if everyone would have more to share than I. However, I felt instantly at ease once I’d stepped into the woods and felt the positive, supportive vibe the other twenty or so students were giving me. Only one other student from my course was present, but I felt all the other students were on a similar wave length. I soon remembered the ethos of Forest School and what I’d learnt on the course, that we learn when we feel comfortable, in small, achievable steps.

After a short fire circle introduction, we were free to learn and do as we pleased for the next five hours. Yet five hours wasn’t long enough, we needed all day, a whole weekend, with the skills people were offering and the activities available. Which is why another skills day is to be organised soon. Fun was had by all as we learnt and chatted and tried new activities, whilst being fed hot cups of tea by those using the Kelly Kettle. Continue reading Wood Skills Day