Lessons in nature's classroom

Teachers have started taking their pupils out of school and into the woods with tremendous results
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The Independent Online

If you go down to the woods today... you'll get improved self-esteem, more confidence, fresh air, exercise, and a whole new set of skills. All over the country, children are discovering that time spent exploring in the woods is good for the body, soul and mind.

Of course, children through the ages have lit fires, whittled sticks, climbed trees and made dens. And - although no one ever talked about it in this way - they also, as they did so, absorbed knowledge, took risks, solved problems, kept fit and learned to co-operate with their friends.

But today's children are different. Few get to explore the countryside; many hardly play outside their homes. They might have classroom lessons about the Brazilian rainforest, but they've never watched an earwig, sploshed through mud, or burnt toast over a smoky fire.

Enter Forest Schools, a Scandinavian idea that was imported to the UK by Bridgwater College, Somerset, in the mid-Nineties, and is now taking off around the country, as more people wake up to the fact that children badly need to be outside more.

Worcestershire, Somerset, Devon, Yorkshire, East Anglia and Wales all now take children down to the woods for hands-on learning, while many other areas are working to get their own forest schools up and running. In Oxfordshire, more than 600 children a week spend time in about 20 local woods a short minibus ride from their school. "They go every week, or fortnight. They spend 10 per cent of their school time there, so it's much more than just a trip to the woods," says Kris Tutton, Oxfordshire's forest-school consultant. And all ages take part. "Both big teenagers and young children need a lot of space. Out in the woods they aren't always knocking into each other. And the quality of the air is better. There's 25 per cent more oxygen than in fuggy, overheated classrooms."

Younger children might play games, plant saplings, go on treasure hunts, or learn how to light a fire safely. Older ones might help to fence a new woodland site, or build a shelter. Almost unnoticed, they develop their communication, numeracy and observational skills as they have fun doing practical tasks.

Schools tie in what their pupils do in the woods with the national curriculum and there is growing evidence that time in a forest school brings multiple benefits. Teachers questioned during an evaluation of the first three years of Oxfordshire's schools spoke of children's improved confidence, motivation, social skills and ability to listen. There is also evidence from Wales that infants who have been to a forest school have better confidence and physical stamina when they move up to reception class than those who haven't.

"And it ties in with the new foundation stage in Wales," says Lucy Kirkham, who is employed by the Forestry Commission Wales to coordinate the Forest Education Initiative (FEI), an educational programme that supports forest schools in South Wales. "Children have an entitlement to outdoor play, and there's a growing understanding that this shouldn't just be about rubber matting and bikes and outdoor play equipment. What we notice most is the change in language. Children with very limited vocabulary, who might be reluctant to talk, start to feel compelled to talk because what they are doing is so interesting."

Forest schools have also been used successfully with women's refuge groups, women with post-natal depression, family centre groups, excluded children, traveller children and young offenders. "And it works particularly well for 'practical learners'," says Susannah Podmore, who coordinates the FEI for England. "Naughty children tend to shine at forest schools and that can break a whole cycle."

Such is the joy of seeing children run happy in the woods, that forest-school supporters become keen evangelists for nature's classroom. But in this litigious age, projects have to be carefully controlled. There are three levels of vocational training for forest-school leaders, and issues of health and safety are taken seriously. "You can't have children cooking marshmallows on a stick that might be poisonous," says Podmore, "and people have to know about things like the fact that trees might fall down in windy weather." Parents are often worried when their children first go to the woods. Mobile phones and antiseptic wipes always have to be to hand. Yet statistically speaking, Podmore points out, the most dangerous thing about most forest-school sessions is the minibus journey there and back.

However, while the idea behind forest schools is simple, setting one up is not. Most are supported by complicated alliances of environmental, educational, neighbourhood and early years groups, and struggle to find funding, or train leaders. The FEI can offer £5,000 to help local groups get a forest school off the ground, but after that groups have to sort out for themselves how best to encourage and continue the work.

The one thing they don't need is a handsome swath of forest. Some forest schools have got going under a single tree in the corner of a school playing field. "Forest schools are really more a technique, than a place," says Sally York, of the Forestry Commission in Scotland, who is nursing along "an embryonic forest-school network" north of the border. She knows of a county council office workplace nursery in England that uses "just a scrubby bit of woodland" for its forest school. But this particular school "is very accessible, so you can take people to see it, and when adults see how children are responding, they are much more likely to support it. It's the sort of thing that, until you see it happening, you tend not to get it."

And it isn't just the enthusiastic adults who take people along to see. "Some of our woods are public nature reserves," says Kris Tutton, "and we've noticed some children dragging their parents back at the weekend because they so want to show them where they go and what they do."

'THEY TAKE TO LEARNING OUTSIDE LIKE DUCKS TO WATER'

The pupils of Duffryn Infants School, Newport, are gathered around the log circle in their forest school - a small strip of woodland next to the playground. They have remembered how to step safely into the log circle around the fire - "over the logs from behind" - and are now being given magnifying pots to collect "mini-beasts".

"Anyone know what this is?" asks their teacher who is now holding up a transparent plastic collecting pot.

"A lip gloss!" cries a tiny girl.

Soon, though, the children are running off, finding woodlice and interesting red bugs hiding in the bark of trees, and peering at them through their pots.

"Look, it's wriggling! You can see its legs!"

Gradually colour creeps into their pale cheeks, and they seem oblivious to the blustery wind.

"It is just so lovely to see how they learn and grow outside," says the headmistress Sian Jones. "They take to it like ducks to water. You see new friendships develop, and children starting to smile. There's one who has really surprised us by becoming so much more confident, and another has become fascinated with flowers. At first some of them cry at the thought of going into the woods, or they don't like their waterproofs and wellingtons. Some of them can't even walk on uneven ground - they have to learn; they've only ever been on pavements and carpets."

This is particularly true at this school, which serves a deprived estate where the surrounding woodland is used for drug-taking and burning stolen cars, and parents tend to keep their children corralled at home. But parents are invited to the forest school for Christmas celebrations and Easter-egg hunts, and quickly come to see what time in the woods is about.

The school has three trained forest-school leaders on its staff. All its children get a good chunk of regular forest-school sessions and those with particular problems, who are part of a nurture group, go out every week.

"To get into the forest school we go over a little bridge, and we always stop, and they look at the reflections, and look around and notice how things have changed since they were last there, and look for tadpoles and fish in the water, and maybe play Pooh sticks," says a nursery teacher Jackie Lusty. "A lot of the children have never been over moving water before. Then we start the lesson by taking a bag from our treasure tree, a big ash tree, and seeing what it's got in it."

The children might have to find sticks for the fire "as thick as their thumb and as long as their arm", or use a potato peeler to whittle a stick to hold bread for toasting. They might have to work out how to pull each other up "the slippery slope" with a rope, or play a game of 1,2,3 Where Are You? and "we always go back to the log circle, and sit and talk about what we've found. Then we'll have a snack and sing a song.

"They absolutely love it. They say 'Is it forest school today?' and 'Are we going to the woods?' Sometimes they sneak out and get dressed up for it even when it's not their turn. And we've heard quiet children talk about it non-stop, either to us or to their parents."

education@independent.co.uk

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