THROUGH CHILD-LED meaningful and real experiences in Nature, skills have been developed that simply would not have in a classroom situation. For example, a particular group of children who love playing with string found an old shoe whilst out in the woods as part of their Forest School experience. This promoted a discussion around how the shoe had arrived there and why. Each theory was listened to, thought about and the likeliness of its occurrence mulled over.

The activity evolved into a wonderful age-appropriate and spontaneous introduction to issues around conservation and caring for our natural world. The children collected many objects that “do not belong in the woods” and tied them onto a piece of string they had attached between two trees. The ‘mobile’ consisted of a piece of glass, crisp and sweet wrappers, a rusty tin lid, elastic bands and of course the shoe!

The group then went on to produce a second mobile from “things that should be in the woods” which involved the children tying natural materials onto the string. The mere act of tying is a huge physical challenge for small children and one that requires hand-to-eye co-ordination (a skill that needs to be developed in order to begin writing and drawing). Little did those children know or indeed care that they were involved in a literacy lesson!

A discussion developed while the children worked and all but one of the group said that they preferred the natural objects mobile, giving their reasons as “It is prettier” or “It smells nicer.” One child told me, “I like it because all the things are the same colour as all the other things in the woods.” The children also said that the mobile containing “things that do not belong in the woods” was dangerous to the squirrels, foxes and birds. The child who chose the unnatural objects as his favourite said it was because he liked sweets and crisps. At the end of the day the children carefully removed the mobiles and took them back to nursery where they were displayed with an explanation.

These children attend Forest School each week for a block of six to eight weeks. This builds familiarity and confidence, encourages team building and allows the children to witness changes in the environment and to develop projects, plans and ideas.

Time is a valuable resource at Forest School. Even the most child-led and free-flow settings are governed by timetables such as tidy up time, story time and lunch. The children at Forest School eat when they are hungry or when it naturally fits in with their plans. A democratic system has formed where the children arrange between themselves when to take a break. I witnessed a usually rather unco-operative child negotiating with another and agreeing to wait until he had finished sawing before the group sat for lunch. In fact he offered to help, saying, “Let’s do it together and get the job done quicker”!

Of course, setting up and running such a venture, particularly in a city environment, is not easy. The barriers included finding a site and overcoming attitudes to risk, dirt and weather conditions. After much searching we did indeed find a site that is nearly perfect and one that enables us to stay as true to the original Forest School ethos as possible. Due to public access laws we cannot make the area secure or exclusively ours. This is overcome by defining the ‘school’ boundary using bright incident tape. The children are involved in the process and negotiate what they would like to include within it.

The safety of the group is paramount; parents are invited to a meeting to discuss policies and procedures and to sign the necessary forms beforehand. Parents and children are given the option to withdraw from the experience, but to date only one parent out of 128 has chosen not to allow their child to participate. Families are then invited to join the children on the last session. Although sometimes problematic to arrange, these sessions are always successful and the feedback after attending has been that the families are accessing the green spaces of London more than previously, in their leisure time.

Many of the children live in high-rise flats and have no access to outdoor spaces. Most of them and their families have never experienced a woodland setting before. Research suggests that the biggest predictor of the use and care of outdoor spaces by adults is whether a connection was made during childhood.

There are few rules at Forest School and all are connected to the groups’ safety: for example, do not cross the tape or put anything in your mouth. The children understand the significance of the rules and are happy to comply. Children also use tools such as bowsaws and penknives, but it is a gradual process and each step is explained. This challenges our society’s culture of risk avoidance rather than risk management. Children’s risk-taking behaviour begins with physical risk and then moves on to creative, social, emotional and intellectual risk. If we do not assist in this process, how are our future generations going to reach their full potential?

Forest School is an inclusive learning experience for all. I believe what makes this style of education work is that it plays to a child’s strengths in a meaningful context and, therefore, nobody fails.

For more information contact Jo Skone at [email protected] or Bayonne Nursery School 020 7385 5366.

Jo Skone is an Early Years Educator who has worked at Bayonne Nursery School for 6 years. She is committed to the personal, social and emotional development of children and has a firm belief in the value of outdoor play.