How many parents regularly bemoan the fact their children seem to have lost sight of the simple enjoyment to be derived from outdoor play? This comes as a direct result of over reliance on electronic devices and the overwhelming temptation to join the leagues of primary school children who are already embracing social media. We are in danger of raising a generation whose leisure time is restricted to communicating via a TV, tablet or mobile phone depriving them of all the critical social skills required in life.
But persuading children to spend more time in the natural, as opposed to virtual, world is not just good for the soul. It also provides unique learning opportunities and a chance for children to shine and thrive in a totally different environment: helping them to learn how to assess risk for themselves, improving both their physical and emotional confidence.
Barrow Hills, a prep school in Surrey for girls and boys aged two to 13 has always focused on the importance of providing a school setting that encourages children to be, first and foremost, happy. The School takes pride in offering an education which does not lose sight of the need for children to enjoy a carefree childhood for as long as possible. This founding principle led to the School acknowledging the value of Forest School and incorporating this style of learning into the weekly schedule for all children from year 3 upwards. Forest School is an outdoor learning concept that offers ALL learners regular opportunities to succeed and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment. It is a specialised learning approach that sits within and compliments the wider context of outdoor and environmental education and represents an ethos that is shared by thousands of trained practitioners across the UK and beyond (the Forest School programme was first pioneered in Scandinavia).
At Barrow Hills, Forest School takes place in the School’s impressive 12-acre forest. Activities are centred at ‘HQ’ where there is a fire square surrounded by a large log circle. A large camouflage net provides an outdoor/indoor space or perhaps a classroom with no walls. This area is useful for more complex instruction on the safe use of sharp tools and useful knots. Children attend Forest School attired in appropriate clothing every week right through the year, almost regardless of weather conditions.
The children come to Forest School to enjoy exploring the natural world. As well as having tremendous fun and breaking free from the traditional classroom setting, we are able to teach them a wealth of technical techniques to help them understand the basic requirements for survival, ie warmth, shelter and sustenance. One of the greatest attractions of Forest School is that, unlike timetabled lessons, we are often able to adapt our plans to suit the mood or conditions. The children can, to a degree, influence the activities we undertake, all of which offer subliminal learning, which will equip the children with important skills that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Forest School is the very essence of holistic whole body learning. Rather than simply developing academic prowess we are also helping to develop ’emotional intelligence’, which helps to hone important social / practical skills like reliance and the ability to bounce back from challenges and setbacks.
Every day spent in Forest School is different. The children’s hunger for learning in this environment is unique, whether they are working out where and how to safely build a fire, building dens (from simple sticks lent against trees to more complex structures) or gaining confidence in how to forage safely and enjoy nature’s ‘larder’ (including understanding the steps to be taken to enjoy natural spring water). Enjoyment is at the heart of everything they do.
The programme has also been proven to offer specific benefits for children with special educational needs, who may find it difficult to cope with the normal protocol consistent with a traditional classroom.
Children who may experience some issues with conventional learning and the processing of information describe Forest School as an idyllic island, a place where they can thrive, far away from the stresses and pressures of a regular learning setting. Seeing the children return to the classroom with rosy cheeks, a big smile and feeling revitalised and ready to concentrate, is incredibly rewarding.
Richard Dean is Forest School Leader at Barrow Hills School in Surrey – www.barrowhills.org.uk