Reading, writing and mud: the growth of Forest Schools
Out of love for our children and out of wanting them to have the best and happiest life, we have explored different ways to educate them, fostering their passions and allowing them to be free and hopefully thrive in an environment that supports their passions and interests. I really enjoyed reading this article and i hope you do to.
The afternoon sun covers the playground in autumnal light. A group of four and five-year-olds gather around an open fire. The heat isn’t strictly necessary - it's only September, but it wouldn't be Forest School without a fire.
After a pep talk on not entering the 'fire circle' (a precautionary bucket of water is on standby) the pupils from St George's Infant School in Northam, Devon are let loose to explore the patch of wilderness behind their playground.
The transformation is palpable and swift. Suddenly, they are children once more, not pupils - sitting in a circle listening to an adult - but children rolling down grassy banks, hunting for bugs and sliding in mud.
This is Forest School - a Scandinavian import that is becoming increasingly widespread in primary schools across the UK. The approach, which was introduced to Britain in the early nineties, involves taking children into an outdoor, ideally woodland, environment to develop confidence and self- esteem through hands-on learning experiences.
It's not so much a practice as a philosophy, and one that might easily have disappeared under the greener carpet of Steiner schools and home educators when it first crept in. But, like IKEA, the idea seems to have caught on.
Now, just over 20 years on, ask a five year old at St George’s what she does at school and the reply is likely to be: reading, maths and Forest School, with the latter often being the favourite.
In Northam, Devon, a group of boys smear earth on their faces and belly-dive down a mud chute they've channelled into a small hill.
''This is a racing place. You have to climb up,'' enthuses four-year-old Fabian, proudly displaying his mud-caked hands.
Five-year-olds, Tilly-Mae and Cameron, are stamping in puddles like born-again toddlers. Beth is observing a worm.
It strikes me how young these children actually are and how easy it is to forget that, once they become swallowed up in compulsory education. Unshackled by school uniform, it's as if they've been released into their natural state, given licence to act their age and re-engage with play, nature and physical energy.
Teacher, Louise Trask, leads Forest School at St George's and is passionate about the benefits.
''It's about them taking a journey, taking risks, developing self esteem and the way they get on with other children. Building activities to support those areas then strengthens what they do in the classroom.''
Louise, whose mother is Danish, was inspired by memories of her childhood cousins routinely leaving for school with waterproofs and wellies in line with the Scandinavian culture of 'friluftsliv' or open air living. It's something she is keen to bring to her own pupils through Forest School.
She says: ''You build a different relationship with the children because you're not at the front of the classroom, it's much more child-led. When they discover something, or realise they can do something, it's that complete wow moment. You don't get that in the same way in the classroom.''
The first UK Forest School was set up in 1993 by a team from Bridgwater College in Somerset. Inspired by a field trip to some Danish nurseries, they employed the principles of an outdoor focused, child-centred and play-based approach in their own school and were stunned by the way in which the children blossomed in confidence and creativity.
In 1995, the college began offering Forest School training courses. The take-up has grown exponentially and John Blaney, project and development manager for Bridgwater College Forest School, estimates they have trained around 10,000 early years practitioners, with many more attending information days.
One school with a deep rooted Forest School programme is Great Bedwyn Primary in Wiltshire. Forest School co-ordinator, Fiona de Pass, says: ''In an age where we are concerned that children are more sedentary, Forest School supports all the physical development curriculum goals, encouraging the children to adopt healthy lifestyle habits and use their local area.
"This in turn inspires respect for the natural environment and gives the children a real sense of belonging to their local community. All the children take an active role in assessing for danger and regulate themselves following simple rules that are learnt as they work.''
As adults increasingly lament the ''cotton wool'' generation and parents worry about the pressures on young school children, Forest School seems to provide an antidote to technology and testing. And while the pupils may not realise they are learning, activities are often linked to work they're doing in the classroom. Fiona recalls one particularly successful session.
''The children had read The Enormous Crocodile story and their task that day was to set cunning traps. The sheer ingenuity was outstanding and the literacy that developed as a result of the outdoor learning was remarkable.''
The teachers are keen to see Forest School rolled out nationally. ''It's one thing to teach subjects, but teaching them to be lifelong learners has a bigger impact,'' says Louise Trask.
And John Blaney is keen to promote Forest School in urban areas, too. He recently spent a week training 22 teachers in inner London, teaching them how to make the most of playgrounds no bigger than a domestic garden.
He says: ''Even in a very small area, just roofed by the sky, you can use it as an outdoor classroom, bring wildlife in and really engage the children. A good practitioner with a passion for the outdoors can achieve wonders.''
As home time looms at St George's, a whistle summons the children back to 'base camp.' They resume their place around the fire and cook bread and marshmallows over the coals.
Arming a bunch of four and five year olds with smouldering sticks may not seem hugely sensible, but allowing children to manage risks is central to the Forest School ethos and they respond with due caution; the promise of a toasted marshmallow, an added incentive.
Fortunately, there are no burnt fingers, only sticky ones. Then the sky thickens, and it starts raining. No-one goes inside. Fabian is babbling about Bear Grylls, clearly feeling something in common with the adventurer and survivalist.
Just before they traipse back indoors, the pupils are asked to rate how much they've enjoyed the session with a thumbs up or thumbs down. It's a unanimous vote of approval.