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Learning and development at Forest School

Posted by FSLI on July 3, 2017

Samantha Clement writes about her Forest School journey...

The role of the Forest School leader to promote learning and development is to enable the learners to be able to fully access the outdoor learning by supporting and facilitating their learning. That’s the official line but I’m going to explain my journey as a more personal one. 

I myself had expressed an interest in training to become a Forest School leader for a few different reasons and I’ll try my best to explain them. It’s a funny thing but I wouldn’t really class myself as an outdoorsy person! Oh my days... what a thing to admit, but yes, I said it, I never thought of myself as an outdoors person. When thinking of these types (I know, it’s not ideal... before I get pulled to pieces for my stereotypical point of view), I picture farmers, hikers, horse riders and any general adrenaline junkie (think snowboarding, abseiling, etc and you get the view) so I’m not one at all.

But wait, hold on a minute, I do like being outside. I’m a self confessed sun worshipper (I know it’s bad, but there’s worse, am I right? I also always use sunscreen), I adore reading, if outside then it’s even better, I like gardening (It’s not quite the ‘Good Life’ but that’s ok), I enjoy walking, dog walking is good and that’s definitely an outdoors thing. BBQ’s are always a good time, that’s fair weather though... hang on, I’m the first out in the snow. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of sledging or a snowball fight? I don’t mind the rain either, nothing better than booting up and going for a splash and my umbrella is covered in rhinestones so I’m still looking good... right?

OK that’s it, I do enjoy the outdoors! My happy times are mostly involved with being in the fresh air and my most fabulous childhood memories are fishing, walking to pick bluebells with my grandparents and water fights or sledging in the school holidays. I also have an awareness of children and the busy lives they lead now in comparison to my own, slightly sheltered and definitely less computer stimulated world. Children around the world are not playing as much as we did, there are so many factors as to why and I could write a huge piece about it, but instead of digressing I want to give across the passion that I hold in getting more children outdoors.

At St Georges our current catchment of children are bought into nursery via the car clutching an iphone in their hands. With parents explaining how clever their darling little one is as they can play games on the tablet... “Watch them swipe at the screen!” they shout with glee. Yet we’re struggling as they have no pencil grip and no stamina to hold themselves to sit correctly. As they grow and develop, the opportunities arise throughout the early years for the exploration of the outdoors, often this is met with wonder and awe as they first discover the water play, the sand and the mud kitchen.

Unfortunately it only takes a “look at the state of you”, “what an earth have you been doing” or “can you keep him out of the dirt please?” parental comment to put the small minds off their new found discoveries. I mean if you knew you would get into trouble every time you went outdoors what would you do? These youngsters are quick learners, they stop going outdoors, unless they are particularly strong willed.

This is the fire that fuelled me to push for Forest School back at St Georges. It had been at least 4 years since Forest School was included and we needed it. We needed to educate the parents that the outdoors is good, getting dirty is fine and  exploring is necessary to allow our young people to develop and grow into strong independent learners, able to manage their own risk and learn new skills in an outdoor setting.

Our Forest School area was lying abandoned and looking lonely, and the EYFS were using it for welly walks. These walks are completely teacher led and even though they have their good points it wasn’t anything like Forest School. The amount of questioning the children are put through can completely distract from the fabulous outdoors and all she has to offer.

My other slightly selfish but completely honest reason for asking to be Forest School trained was that as a HLTA I often have to cover class teachers as part of their PPA and/or management/leadership time. The class coverage has become more frequent in my timetable and I was always given lessons of art, PHSE, maybe a bit of PE, occasional science, RE, guided reading and music. In all honesty, it was a bit of this and a bit of that, but nothing ever to call my own. 

I felt like Forest School could be mine... all mine (sounding a bit like Gollum with his precious!), I could plan, deliver and assess my own lessons. I could teach the children new skills, allowing them to find the love and freedom of the outdoors. They would be able to discover new things, make different friendships and manage their own risk in a safe way. Life is built on experience and some of our children weren’t getting this experience, this is something we can offer.

Fortunate as I was, our deputy head teacher was fully on board. She could see my enthusiasm and agreed with the need in our school. She had worked with the previous Forest School leader and remarked on the quality of the children’s writing after a Forest School session. Brilliant news I’m signed on the course!

I started my Forest School leader journey in November 2016 and was lucky enough to meet some amazing teachers from the Forest School Learning Initiative and some fabulous colleagues to train with too. We were all from different schools and the groups ranged from teachers and TA’s, to play workers, all with various experiences with Forest School. I was blown away by the amount of knowledge and I tried to squeeze in as much information as I could.

We were set straight off with our assignments too, again being honest I was a bit overwhelmed with the workload, especially as I have a demanding family of my own but I’ve tried my best to chip away with it bit by bit and have managed to keep fairly up to date with my work.

In the New Year we had our 2 skills days (which were fabulous); we cooked a meal together and were all well kitted out in our lovely warm ski wear that we’d bought for such cold occasions. After this day the best news was that my handbook was signed off and I’d booked a date for my assessment at school... now it gets real.

It was a boost that I personally needed at the time because unfortunately our school got put into Special Measures after our November Ofsted, things were pretty grim at school and getting into the outdoors couldn’t have come at a better time. I planned my first half term’s lessons and I was starting with nursery, the 2 reception classes and a year 1 class. It was slightly daunting but, it truly was an amazing way to go, I could get stuck in and each of the classes were all different, even though most of the lessons were loosely based around the same thing.

The children were fabulous, being able to try new things, join in with the activities and generally enjoy being in the area. I’ve never seen children as excited as they all were when we took delivery of the new benches that Rob from the FSLI had made for us. You’d have thought it was Christmas with the looks on their faces! I also held a staff meeting, in which I introduced some of the Forest School ethos and what I had planned for our school. It was warmly welcomed and everybody has been extremely supportive in the facilitating of Forest School St Georges.

I’ve been met with occasional whinges of “isn’t it too cold today” or “surely the children can’t go out in this rain” but I believe I’ve been able to overcome these by preparing staff, giving advice about clothing for poor weather and of course bribery with a decent biscuit has generally worked too! Again with the parents, we’ve tried to give as much information as relevant; I’ve shared the photographs and allowed the children to take home and share as much of their Forest School learning as they are able to.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned and definitely enjoyed is the impact that Forest School has had on the children. Children who would rarely speak in classroom or engage are leading the way in activities and sharing learning with their peers. Negative behaviours that are often displayed in the classroom are just simply not seen at Forest School. I’ve even had to record children as the teachers are so amazed at the things I say about certain characters.

I’ve invited as many teachers as possible to observe at Forest School sessions, and many have taken me up on the offer. Often they are able to capture some learning and/or behaviours that they have never seen in the classroom setting, this proving once again the wondrous impact of free, outdoor play in children. Children have been seen to investigate, build, climb and relax at Forest School. They are able to achieve some simple things, able to manage their own risk and fully access the curriculum in the outdoor setting, allowing them to fully experience nature in all her glory. To see some of our children’s self esteem being raised is the most positive impact of all, with all children having a sense of achievement after every Forest School session, which makes it all worthwhile for me.

My assessment, just before the Easter holidays in April went very well, I was really happy to see Tracy and touch base with the FSLI again. My session was lovely and the feedback given was great, it was a super way to end the term and once again my colleagues at St Georges have been so supportive. I have still been trying to keep on top of my written Forest School work as much as possible but occasionally with the demands of the curriculum this hasn’t always been possible.

I’ve been extremely fortunate that even after our unsuccessful Ofsted, where teaching and learning has been highly prioritised, I am still able to continue my Forest School sessions. In fact the head has been so pleased with the attitude to the children’s learning at Forest School; she has allowed me to also work with Key stage 2. Currently I am working with 2 nursery groups, 2 reception classes, 1 key stage 1 class and 2 key stage 2 classes. That’s an amazing 7 sessions a week... I’m pretty impressed with myself.

I feel that I’ve developed and grown as a leader myself. I feel more confident with myself and with the children, their sessions allow me to plan and build on the learning that may be facilitated at Forest School. I feel more confident with planning activities that incorporate the children’s current classroom learning, this is great as it allows them to secure and deepen their learning in many different areas.

So we come to today where I am nearing the end of writing about my Forest School journey, as this is my last assignment. I’m sorry if I’ve waffled on a bit, but I’ve felt that this piece is truly a part of me, it is in fact ‘my story’. No fiction here, just what has happened in the space of 8 months. I feel that I have taken an unused and unloved forest school area and created an area that is accessible for the whole school. I am sharing the forest school ethos with St Georges, and the children and staff are embracing it and enjoying the experiences with me.

In reflection there is simply nothing that I would have done any differently. Have I been lucky in the fact that I’ve not have any negative experiences... maybe, or maybe it’s just the perspective that you put on things. I’ve tried very hard to keep the positive alive, especially throughout what could be described as turbulent times at our school. I’m reminded myself and others that we are here for the children, to allow them to have experiences and enjoy outdoor lessons, in a safe environment.

I’ve promoted confidence, self esteem, motivation, knowledge and understanding, as well as social and physical skills. These things have all been planned in a way to allow the children to be completely immersed in the whole Forest School way of life. The role of myself as the leader is to facilitate that learning, allow those experiences, offer advise if asked, encourage participation and most of all create a safe place to have fun. I allow those children to be children, they dig, climb, discover, play, grow, build, carry, etc and they do these things because they want to.

Forest school is completely child led and for many of our children (and adults!) this can be a daunting prospect. In actual fact this is how children learn best, they gain confidence to make choices and manage themselves in this natural environment. I personally couldn’t ask for a better role in school, I am proud to be (hopefully) a level 3 Forest School Leader.