I had been reflecting for some time on feedback I had been getting from adults attending my Forest School Training courses. Often they would say things like - 'this is the highlight of my week' or 'this time outdoors in nature keeps me going each week' - it was clear that the time spent outside was having a significant benefit on their well-being. This is nothing new with plenty of evidence on how time in natural spaces can benefit us in multiple ways. The often referenced 1993 study - by Ulrich and his colleagues at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden - showed how even a view of a natural space made a significant difference in patient recovery and well-being.
Over the years I have run a variety of activities for adults and children with a focus on getting them to take notice and interact with natural spaces and seen first hand the multiple benefits to their learning, development and well-being. I wanted to explore this further by seeing if a short intervention of time in a green space could significantly improve how someone was feeling on a given day. With this in mind I decided I wanted to trial some activities for key workers who would be experiencing significant stress in their work and who would particularly benefit from a proper outdoor break in a green space.
During 2020 I approached Southmead NHS Trust to set up some trial drop-in lunch time sessions for staff on their main hospital site. These were promoted to all staff across the site as small group sessions that they booked on to in advance. A series of sessions were run from August to the end of the year at lunchtime on a space that was fairly central on the hospital site.
Prior to the sessions I had met with Esther Coffin-Smith, Sustainable Development Manager, to look at the range of green spaces across the site. Southmead Hospital Trust has done considerable work to identify and improve green spaces on its site and has published a map to support staff to use these spaces. A key challenge has been encouraging staff to use them on a regular basis and develop a sense of connection to the spaces. We chose a space that was not overlooked, was away from roads and was fairly quiet. A further key factor that I was also looking for was that it had some good size trees and some wilder corners that would offer different spaces to explore as well as a range of natural materials that we could use for activities.
My approach when working with groups for the first time, as was the case here, was to ease them into the space we were in by getting them to do some simple moving around and exploring and taking notice by looking for particular colours, shapes or textures. After a couple of activities like this I would get them to sit by or near a tree in a spot they had chosen to listen to the natural sounds they could hear. Then I used further sensory or creative activities with a focus on breathing and being present while trying to create some separation from participants thoughts and the working day they had stepped away from.
For some that had attended I got the feeling it had been a challenge to find the time and they had rushed over with a lot going on under the surface. I could see them visibly relax during the session and slow down as they progressed through the guided activities. I felt really pleased that everyone that came found the session useful and enjoyable registering an improvement in their well-being and providing positive feedback. Almost all staff commented that they would like to do something similar again and would recommend the experience to colleagues. There was some great feedback - including:
I have now completed a short report (you can click on it below) on the activities and have looked at recommendations for taking this further and will be exploring how I can make this happen. I feel these experiences are so valuable in supporting and improving people's health and well-being particularly those who have had a high level of challenge in their work.
The following account is written by a Forest School Leader that I recently trained. It looks at their experience of running their first forest school programme with a group and is a great reflective exploration on what they observed and experienced with their group. It demonstrates their excellent approach tuning in to what went on and identifying what the children and adults in the group really valued and how they help them develop a style of session with the right balance of pace, space and content to support the group effectively in getting the most from their time in nature.
A reflective evaluation of a Forest School Programme by a primary school Forest School leader:
I thoroughly enjoyed running my first forest school programme. I found that it took more planning and evaluation than I had expected, and I found that I had to adapt and respond to the group, individual needs and group dynamic during sessions.
I found that simple, calm activities and games worked well with the group and that some repetition of games/ activities seemed to help the group come together, build in confidence and improve social skills.
I discovered that smaller groups and pairs worked well, especially if I did this early on in the session. I could then introduce larger groups for later activities. This helped mix up the group and allowed some of the quieter children to fully engage (they then often acted as good role models for the rest of the group by fully engaging in activities and their enjoyment and involvement was infectious).
I discovered how important it is to have three adults with the group to ensure good support and to enable the safe use of fire and tools (such as the hammers and mallets).
There were many moments that I will always remember from my first forest school session. The points where you suddenly really look and observe the group and can see everyone enjoying the forest school area, the children are all engaged in playing and adapting the activities to their interests. Observing children, who usually really struggle in the class setting playing confidently with others with a look of joy on their face was a very fulfilling experience.
I particularly enjoyed how the children’s knowledge of the forest school area improved as well. Children went back into class and happily told the teacher about how sycamore seeds travel by the wind and about the bugs they had found. At the beginning of the forest school sessions, the majority of children didn’t know what an acorn was, by the end they loved playing with them, along with conkers and beech nuts.
I felt the children connected well with the space and enjoyed the forest school session. As a group they definitely bonded well and the improvement in listening and behaviour from the first to the last session was much improved.
Perhaps what surprised me the most was that it was often the simple activities and slow-paced activities that worked the best. For example, I would have expected leaf pressing or fire lighting to be the most popular, but the group loved bug hunting and a simple nature spot game.
I enjoyed how forest school responds to the group dynamic and the overall plan of a session adapts with the group. I find this very satisfying and fulfilling way of working and believe it helps to counteract the more restrictive academic approach of the classroom. What I also enjoyed was the look on the supporting adults faces as they began to enjoy the sessions more and could see the benefits it gave the children (almost a moment of ‘oh I get this now’), that made me smile.
Benefits for the group included:
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.
Great to revisit a favourite woodland and Forest School activity.
The Basic Idea
In an area with a row or quite a few trees get your group to walk slowly under the trees while holding a CD or mirror flat at the end of their nose so they can look straight up in to the canopy and feel like they are walking through it.
This activity is most interesting when leaves are on the trees but can also be good to explore the structure of bare trees in the winter.
Age group and duration
Work with any age and can take from 10 - 20mins.
Resources you will need
Old CD's (ones that you have recorded onto will not work) or mirrors.
Find a good space with lots of trees – a row of trees along an edge of a field can work well. In advance of the activity walk the route yourself with a mirror. Make sure the ground is fairly level and free of trip hazards and that it goes under lots of trees with ideally both low (although not in your face) and high branches as this gives the best effect.
Talk with the group about how to walk safely and slowly - space the group out and keep an eye on them so they do not bump into each other. Also it is great if the group can stay quiet as you may see birds in the tree tops and will be able to focus more on what you are seeing.
Tell the group to put the CD or mirror on the tip of their nose – not under it as it will fog up – then angle it so they can just see their hair and then level off so this is just out of view and now they are looking directly up. Tell the group to stay looking in the mirror as much as they can as the feeling of being in the tops of the trees will grow. Slowly lead the group on their tree top walk.
On finishing come together in a circle to share experiences and explore what the group saw and how it felt. Discuss the different shapes of leaves and colours that the group saw.
How to take it even further or make it more challenging
You can ask the group if they can be quiet to look for birds in the trees if there are any about.
If the leaves are on the trees get the group to look for holes in the leaves. Following the activity you can then discuss what has made the holes and which insects might live and feed on different trees. You can then also discuss what might feed on these insects and explore food chains on trees.
A partnership project with Ben Carpenter founder of Grassroot Communities CIC
I am working to develop a new project exploring outdoor learning and forest school activities and programmes for all ages in my local park. All schools that are within walking distance of Greville Smyth Park are being offered the opportunity to benefit from learning outdoors in a local community green space which will connect them to nature through hands-on learning experiences.
Sessions will be tailored to the learning and developmental needs of pupils and will enhance learning across a broad range of subject areas as well as supporting the personal development of children through building confidence, self esteem, communication and inter personal skills. Progressive programmes of activity will be on offer which will have the most impact through building on the experience of each session which will be cumulative in its effect on children’s levels of engagement with learning. This will also develop a long lasting positive relationship with a local green space and increased levels of confidence for children being out in their local community. In addition one off sessions will also be possible to support wider learning in school settings.
Types of Sessions on offer:
Outdoor Learning – using the outdoor environment to enhance and support learning on a broad range of subjects such as english, maths, science and more.
Forest School Sessions – regular sessions focused on personal development particularly suited to small groups needing additional support and nurturing.
School trips – one of sessions to enhance specific learning topics and explore the green spaces in and around the park.
This project is being set up because we want to see parks used as learning spaces and because we have a deep belief that children need to spend more time learning and developing outside.
We are planning to meet with local schools to explore this further. We will also be running a twilight information and activity session on Friday 5th May at 4 – 5.30pm for local schools that are interested.
A theme that emerged from our Learning Everywhere conference in July was the idea of encouraging schools and other learning groups to use our fantastic resource of local parks to support and develop learning experiences for children in Bristol.
The current way in which our parks are used by learning groups varies significantly from place to place in part determined by the history of use of learning providers and relationships between the space and groups.
What is clear, and was reinforced at our conference, is that teachers do not usually live in the area where they teach and often do not have local knowledge of what green spaces or parks are within walking distance of their school. A fantastic resource to emerge in the last year is Bristol Parkhive - a fantastic app that will highlight local parks and green spaces nearby and provide useful information on what facilities are there, what different spaces look like and if there is a local parks group that works with the council to look after and manage the space.
Following on from the conference a group is coming together to collaborate to explore how we can create a template in Bristol that will provide schools and other learning groups clarity on how they can use parks to support their learning.
The meeting on the 5th December will be exploring the following areas:
It is hoped that an interest group will emerge from this to continue to work with Bristol City Council, as the main landowner, and parks groups to explore how we support and continue to develop both a culture of learning in parks and spaces that support it. Key to this will be developing a successful working partnership between the council, the local community and schools and learning groups to develop, use and manage these spaces.
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.