If you go down to the woods today…

With forest schools becoming increasingly popular, Alex Carter reflects on her experiences as a forest leader at Fairfield Prep

‘Forest learning’ as a concept can be traced back to HL Russell, who hatched the idea at the University of Wisconsin back in 1927. By the 1950s Russell’s idea had been adopted across large swathes of northern Europe, where it has since become embedded in the early-years learning of a number of countries, most notably Denmark and Sweden.

It’s a learning style worth investing in as environmental awareness and sustainability becomes more important for future generations. Taking pupils out of the classroom at such a young age ensures environmentally conscious attitudes become the ‘norm’, rather than an after-thought.

Here in the UK, I have been teaching for over 15 years, and I’m passionate about all things outdoors, whether it’s trekking, climbing or environmental protection. As a qualified mountain leader, I see first-hand how much children learn from expeditions abroad.

Forest learning can really develop a child’s personal, social, and emotional wellbeing. The activities offered at Fairfield nurture such a variety of life skills from an awareness of personal risk, freedom, stress management, confidence building, independence and increased creativity.

We’ve seen how our pupils’ ability to learn and retain information is increased through practical experiences. Not all children have the freedom to explore the natural world outside of school hours, so we’ve found that ‘teaching without walls’ gives all pupils a fantastic opportunity to have a go at a range of different activities.

There are no winners and losers in forest learning; every child can play a part, whether that’s building dens, going on a nature hunt or bird watching. We strive to inspire pupils of all ages through fun, hands-on learning in a woodland environment, just like the early innovators of the forest school ethos. We’ve found that children readily engage in the motivating, achievable tasks and activities that we deliver, helping them on a journey of self-discovery, improving communication, raising self-esteem and helping them to learn to work in a team.

Through exploration, investigation and play, youngsters are able to consolidate and expand knowledge on curriculum-based topics learnt in the classroom. Forest learning, particularly as we head into the warmer months, also encourages children to learn how to stay safe outside, especially around water. Lessons such as learning how to use ropes and shelters are far removed from the normality of the traditional school day but are a regular feature of the forest classroom. For example, at a recent session called Pirates, year one pupils investigated floating and sinking by testing materials safely in a shallow stream. Every child was encouraged to talk, test and self-manage their own risk, while learning as they went and of course, having fun.

Most of our pre-prep classes have one forest learning session a week, always accompanied by a class teacher, with specific curriculum-based objectives in mind. Our year one classes have used forest learning to consolidate measuring in maths by working in groups with an adult to measure the circumference of trees. It means they have to work together as a team, while finding out more about our outdoor world and, of course, backing up what they’ve learned in the classroom about measurement and numbers.

Though most schools now provide some kind of outdoor learning in line with the national curriculum, we take this approach a step further by investing in our staff with level three qualifications and extending the activities on offer to include things like a fire pit. When used correctly by a qualified forest leader like myself, supervised fire pits teach children about fire safety, hygiene and cooking – and they work particularly well with a hot drink and a biscuit!

After the first half of the forest learning session, children are free to play and explore under the watchful eye of the forest leader. At Fairfield, we are lucky enough to have lots for the youngsters to explore from a mud-kitchen, an archaeological dig site, a musical area, rope swing, trees to climb, a lifeboat, maths den, and a writing area to name but a few. It doesn’t matter if they get dirty – it’s a chance to let off some steam and learn through their own self-initiated channels, safely.

It’s true, bringing forest learning to Fairfield had its challenges, but the rewards have more than been worth the effort. Luckily, everyone at Fairfield, including the grounds staff, PTA, catering staff and teaching staff, has been incredibly supportive. Setting up the scheme demands boundless creativity and comes with a challenge of constantly thinking of new activities that meet both the school curriculum and the Forest School ethos of flexible, child-initiated learning.

It didn’t take much convincing for parents to get behind the scheme and they’ve been very positive about the learning style from the very start. Before it was launched two years ago, I held a parents’ information evening to showcase the benefits of the concept, and funnily enough, the most frequently asked question was, “can we come too?” Since then, the forest school concept has been widely heralded as a success. We receive a really high number of positive comments from parents who have noticed improvements in their children’s behaviour, self-esteem and intellect.

Once pupils step outside the conventional indoor classroom, you immediately see a different side to them, as their imagination and creativity really begin to flow freely. Such is their enthusiasm for their new-found passion for the outdoors that they often get their parents involved when they get home. Besides coercing their family into gathering natural materials to take to school, our pupils often enjoy playing teacher to their mums and dads, eager to share their experience and knowledge.

Obviously, all you need for outdoor learning is the outdoors – but getting the scheme up and running requires a little funding and we were grateful to receive donations from our ‘nearly new’ shop and a catering supplier. Fire-pit materials can be costly, and site development and management to reduce erosion and environmental impact is also an important consideration.

The good thing about forest learning is that it’s flexible enough for any school to interpret it in their own way. The sky is the limit when it comes to the creativity of your sessions, and the ethos can be incorporated with any budget or site, just as long as you have a teacher who is genuinely passionate about the outdoors. This helps particularly when the weather is not quite so enchanting! If a school hasn’t got the capacity for a designated forest learning area, there’s no reason why a simpler version of the learning style cannot be applied using a playing field, a plant-a-tree scheme, or a vegetable patch.

I really cannot stress enough how valuable it is to incorporate this ‘out-of-the-box’ learning style in schools today. It’s not just about teaching tactics – it’s expanding the whole learning environment to inspire children to look at their world differently. The Fairfield forest school is continually evolving. We are looking to expand our sessions for children in year two and above, and there really is no limit when you leave the classroom and enter the great outdoors.

Alex Carter is forest school leader at Fairfield Preparatory School, Loughborough


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