I want to share with you some recent reflection from someone working in early years who recently did their level 3 leader training. The following helps to show the real benefits to being outside on a regular basis, engaging with nature and other children and being active for the whole day.
'During ‘lockdown’ I noticed that some children I know put on quite a significant amount of weight after spending most of their time indoors on digital devices. They were confined to the house and were only being allowed outside for an hour’s exercise each day; not being able to visit woodlands and parks had a big effect on them physically and mentally.
Many years ago, when I first assisted at a preschool, if it was too cold or wet, the children would be encouraged to play inside, to keep warm (partly due to the staff not wanting to get cold or wet themselves). I observed the children becoming frustrated being cooped up inside, and also not fully engaging with all the indoor activities.
When I became a manager of the preschool, I became aware of ‘Forest School’ and its principles and quickly realised that its ethos mirrored my own, confirming my beliefs that children benefit enormously from such activities. As we implemented many of these, the children became generally happier, more engaged, and there were fewer behavoural issues.
Children developed a curiosity and fascination for the creatures they found under stones, logs and in the bug hotels they built. Their knowledge and understanding of the natural world increased significantly through these first-hand experiences which initiated a lot of questions by the children as their curiosity grew. This led them to develop a healthy respect for living creatures. They also learned to appreciate how the trees changed throughout the seasons, e.g. an apple tree from just leaves to blossom to fruit, then the leaves falling before growing once again in the springtime.
As in the previous setting, the staff were reluctant to go outside when it was wet or cold, however the benefit to the children was apparent and the staff were quick to see the benefit of the increased learning opportunities.
Some of the children in our Forest School had never experienced woodlands before, and were very excited to learn that they would be able to have fun exploring them for themselves. I observed that the childrens’ concentration had become much better, their listening skills improved and both fine motor and large motor skills were developing after using various tools and climbing trees and clambering over logs. Even though the children are very young, they were learning to keep themselves safe during activities and giving themselves a sense of pride in all that they did because they had done it themselves.
One of the other things I love about Forest School is that it has no language barrier - even the children who don’t speak English and may struggle in the classroom, can join in all the activities with their peers and feel included in everything we do at Forest School.'
The Forest School experience can have a real impact on how children play and learn together. Simple activities and shared experiences can bond groups and support better communication, sharing and support. The account below is from somebody I trained recently who has been developing their Forest School programme with different groups and looking at how this has supported their ability to learn and develop as a group.
I took a small group of four boys who all have Special Educations Needs/ Education Health & Care Plans for forest school sessions. They had done several forest school sessions which they really enjoyed. During one session while they were playing one of the boys got muddy whilst playing on the tyre swing. He then got mud on his face from his hands. The other boys decided to mark mud on their faces to. They then all called them their ‘forest school’ faces. They then walked back happily as a group with their ‘forest school faces’ we bumped into the caretaker on the way back up and it made him smile. I then had to get them all to wash their faces before they went back to the class but I could see that it had been a good shared experience and they all enjoyed being part of their little ‘forest school’ group. I could see that it had helped them cement their forest school group and bond together as a team.
Bug hunting proved very popular one of the forest school groups. Once they had done a bit of bug hunting, I called everyone back round to the fire circle. Those children who had found bugs in small pairs/ groups then walked round to show everyone what they had found. This included ‘Colin the Centipede’ who was an impressively large centipede, this made a lot of the children smile and laugh. Several had found centipedes, there was one black ground beetle and lots of woodlice. The shared enjoyment of bug hunting as group helped to bring the group together. I have found that doing work in small groups or pairs and then bringing everyone together again to talk about what they’ve found and share ideas is a good way to develop a community of learning. After this we did bug hotel building, I was pleased to see that groups increased in size and bug houses connected in together for some groups. I could see some great team working between the groups and the sharing of different ideas. I also saw a knock-on positive effect from the bug hunting forest school. At lunchtime A and M were a bit upset as they hadn’t had much time playing on the tyre swing. Then A taught M about making a bug hotel (as she’d done it the previous day in forest school) and they both happily worked on this. M then had the idea of adding a bridge for the bugs and the structure grew from there. Then later that day M had a forest school session and she was very proud making another bug hotel area and shared her ideas with others in the group. She had a very large bug hotel with ‘one ladybird and one worm’ which she proudly showed to the adults.
I have also noticed that routine and repetition have a calming effect on the group, and I think probably helps develop a community of learning and a feeling of being part of a team/ group. I have repeated the colour match game over several weeks and seen this evolve and children begin to work together more. Also, I have seen that coming together, to have a hot drink and cook some food, encourages a collective experience and encourages good social skills within the group as a whole.
Jon Attwood has been leading outdoor activities in the wider Bristol area for over 20 years. He developed a passion for nature and a love of the outdoors as a child and was lucky to have a free range childhood with plenty of time exploring wild corners of rural Essex. Jon is a Forest School leader and trainer and is happiest in the woods sharing experiences with children and adults.