Elizabeth Denyer, lead Forest School practitioner and teacher at Craigclowan Preparatory School, discusses why…
Most children love mud. It’s just one of those things. And most of them are delighted to spend a couple of hours out of the classroom each week, in the woods, playing with mud. And sticks. What is it about mud and sticks that brings a smile to so many young faces? Couldn’t, or shouldn’t, they be keeping that kind of thing for the weekends?
We don’t think so, which is why all our seven to nine-year-olds spend time in the woods once a week for half of every term. We, like many other schools across the UK, have a Forest School programme. Forest School is predominantly child led and focuses on making connections with the environment and building a wide range of skills through regular sessions outdoors over a prolonged period of time. It’s no quick fix, but it does fix all sorts of things.
Our children learn practical skills in the woods such as knotwork, shelter building and safe use of fire and tools. These skills are valuable in themselves, of course, and the children feel a great sense of accomplishment when they can safely lay, light, toast a marshmallow on, extinguish and leave no trace of a fire, but to focus on these skills alone would be to miss the wood for the trees, so to speak. What they also learn are a number of ‘soft’ skills, the ones that are notoriously hard to measure but that are essential to developing confident and balanced individuals. Skills such as independence, communication skills, concentration, creativity and problem solving.
How do these things come about? Through playing with mud and sticks. Through the freedom to choose whether to build a den, make a musical instrument or create a civilisation for imaginary people. Through exploring something begun in the classroom and recreated or given a personal twist in the woods. Through showing peers what they have created and helping others to see it as they do. Through listening to someone else’s story or looking at someone’s creation and using their imagination to see things their way. Through succeeding in achieving goals which are self-set and making them a little more challenging the next time, and the next.
Do we really see the benefits of this in the classroom? Absolutely. We see improvements in motivation, focus and co-operation, in resilience and attitudes to problem-solving. We see increased self-confidence and a willingness to ‘have a go’. We see a more understanding and respectful approach to peers who are struggling or see things a little differently. And we aren’t the only ones.
What is it about mud that brings a mile to so many young faces
When we asked parents what they thought of Forest School, in an anonymous survey after the first term of running it, the answers were overwhelmingly positive: “We feel the addition of Forest School to the curriculum at Craigclowan has introduced a good method of applying team-building, problem-solving and practical tasks into their learning,” and “Forest School has enabled him to gain confidence outside the classroom”.
The programme has been running for two years now and parents remain convinced, despite the muddy clothes and Wellington boots that go home each week.
As for the children? Well, they can have the final say: “You can explore and learn new skills,” said one pupil. “It makes me feel adventurous,” and “It makes me feel brilliant inside,” said another.