Forest School isn’t a place or a person. It’s a philosophy in which an outdoor natural space provides an environment for creative learning development. Using Scandinavian principles and European pedagogical theories in it’s teaching, frequent Forest School sessions empower the child with a range of skills that are often untouched in a standard classroom setting. The benefits to physical and mental health aside, it builds confidence and encourages self awareness.
I was thrilled to be invited back to South Lee School (read about my last visit here), and was even more excited when Mrs Julie Last – Head of Early Years, informed me that it was Outdoor Learning Week for their Nursery and Kindergarten children.
Introducing a strong relationship with nature at an early age has been proved to provide children with a list of qualities that are taken through life into adulthood. Schools across the globe have participated in Outdoor Classroom Day this week, and in recent years outdoor learning has become a much talked about subject. At South Lee, they have inestimable enthusiasm for their outdoor education and it has developed substantially for the Early Years department over the last few years. It has the teachers from upper school eager to include more outdoor learning into their teaching, and Mr Paul Burrows – Head of Mathematics told me of his plans to build bird boxes with some of his class.
Mrs Last is a Level 3 Forest School Practitioner. Using her training she has created a whole new meaning to outdoor learning time at the school. With the encouraging support from Mr Watch – Headmaster at South Lee and her teaching colleagues, she has transformed a secluded area of the school site. It now plays host to not one, but two designated outdoor learning spaces and the children are in contact with them as often as possible. The Forest School space is fenced off to conserve and protect it’s wildlife, and guards an entrancing natural space. The school are looking to add to the area with plans for an outdoor open classroom. Funds are currently being raised via the school PTA.
Whilst Mrs Last has only one official rule, ‘NO RUNNING’, the children abide by many many more. They protect their surroundings, and ensure that they leave the site as they find it.
Encompassing the Forest School is another natural area where children can spend break and lunch time frequenting the space below the trees. With tarpaulin, tree stumps, cable reels and willow, they design and build their own play area encouraging team building, determination and self reliance.
For the morning session, I was lead by the Nursery class across the playground and down to the Forest School. Dressed in their red waterproofs and wellies, they sang cheerfully all the way! When we arrived Mrs Last invited us to lay on the grass and look up at the tree coverage and sky above us. The children were respectful of this time and laid still, focusing on the tiny raindrops falling from the leaves to their face. They were asked to think about what they heard, felt on their faces, and saw. A valuable skill which is transferable to the classroom when they begin to read and write. A few children shared some of their thoughts before we went on into the Forest School grounds.
Entering through the gate, the children told me not to walk through the centre of the grounds as it boasts wildflowers which provide habitat and refuge to a range of bugs, beetles and bees. They informed me that we must help to look after it for them. They pointed out a suitable hiding spot for a hedgehog, and a small group began making hedgehogs of their own using clay, sticks and leaves. Others went off to make wands using sticks, string and leaves. Casting spells, I was turned into a frog called Rosie!
In a fast paced world many of us are guilty of overlooking the nature we come into contact with on a daily basis. Something Mrs Last said to me stuck with me long after my visit…
“I’ve been out in the rain, of course I have… But Forest School has given me the freedom to stop, notice and appreciate it. How many people pause to really take it in?!”
Mrs Last has a energy for Forest School that has to be seen. I challenge anyone to spend just ten minutes as a silent bystander and not feel the magic of her natural play sessions.
Taking teaching into natural surroundings has provided a new platform. Children seen to struggle with certain factors in the classroom, have been found to strive in different measures in the outdoors. Mrs Last and the other Early Years teachers have watched natural leadership. They have seen the children’s creative minds develop and the strengthening of communication between the children.
They have been astounded by the bewitching power of the outdoors. Touching not only the children, but the teachers themselves. Often Mrs Last will suggest that a class teacher can remain in the classroom whilst she leads the Forest School session, only to be met with a disappointment and plea to take part. The staff are as eager to participate as the children, and there are many wanting to undertake the Forest School Practitioner Course for themselves in the near future.
The hour whizzed by in the afternoon session with Mrs Gisbey’s Kindergarten class, during which I observed 5 or 6 micro-adventures unfold. A group of boys debated how to use the pulley system hung in the tree in order to lift some logs. They challenged spacial awareness and one boy naturally took the lead, guiding and directing his peers to obtain the desired result. They cheered wildly as they succeeded in lifting the bucket and a large heavy log, high up into the tree. As this played out, another boy had observed and identified that the pulley rope had caught itself under a branch. With quick thinking, he problem-solved and used another log to prop up the branch, freeing the rope.
Another group of boys took ideas from their recent work on volcanoes and created their own in the ground. They used spades to dig a hole for a cup and then used mud to create the mound around it. When they were ready, they beckoned Mrs Gisbey so that she could watch their spectacular moment! Pouring more water in to the hole than the container could hold, made it erupt over the side in a volcano style fashion!
A group of girls and boys used flowers, leaves and water to stir up perfumes whilst several other children took turns in making the log scale balance by standing in the centre. Those waiting for their turn directed their friends to move slowly along until it was level.
Using hand-eye coordination and balance, some of the children chose to manoeuvre themselves along a slack line which stretched between two large trees.
Although some of the skills learnt outdoors at school aren’t measurable in the conventional way (how do you measure a child’s self esteem, confidence and their resourcefulness?), as a parent myself I’d say that independence and strong determination are qualities I’d like my own children to be endowed with.
Once again, a big thank you to South Lee for inviting me along for the day. The staff and children were a pleasure to be amongst… and school dinners have certainly changed since I was at school!
Did you take part in Outdoor Classroom Day? I’d love to hear what you got up to!