How much happier we would be, if we had all grown up infused with a feeling that we had the resources for what life was going to throw at us. It’s confidence, but confidence based in real experience rather than a fake-it-till-you-make-it / self-help-book kind of way. Fostering intrinsic confidence is the aim of the Forest School movement. SIMONE WITNEY goes exploring. 

The idea of educating children through a connection with nature is not new and has developed from the Romantics, through the filter of environmental scientists such as Alexander von Humboldt and psychiatrists and philosophers such as Friedrich Froebel and Susan Isaacs. Through them Forest Schools have become grounded in theories of a holistic education, set outdoors, in which teachers take a facilitative role, finding opportunities to develop intellectual skills alongside physical abilities by working intuitively with the inclinations of the children.

PICTURE: Rohan Van Twest

Carry on wearing pink but get twigs in your hair

Ceri Milne, who runs Forest School at the Bridge Centre in Hastings told me how this holistic approach works in practice. The day starts with a sit-down chat with children and parents so that teachers are aware of any issues, then there’s five hours of monitored freedom, starting with a safety walk. They look for anything which might be dangerous to themselves, animals, plants, and note changes such as the effect of weather conditions or changes in the terrain which may affect the way they can move around. This of course involves language skills, problem solving, risk assessment, encourages interaction and a sense of responsibility for their friends as well as teaching self-regulation. It can take children a while to acclimatise, especially if they are shy or have particular problems, and there’s an open indoor space for those who feel in need of a little cosiness during the day. There are huge opportunities for developing literacy and maths skills, as the children become unselfconsciously absorbed in observation and comment, and learn to relate numbers to the spatial relationships they are experiencing for real. There is story-telling, observing patterns, lots of experiments using forces, tools, scientific principles. Ceri sees children making huge advances every day who return to a standard school environment confident, articulate, with high levels of dexterity and stamina. 

“They just don’t get continuous colds like indoor children” 

Ceri Milne, In2Play

One little girl who dressed immaculately, who barely spoke and would only look from the window, ended her first week outdoors climbing, dragging logs around with hair full of twigs and in a few weeks returned to school confident and articulate, though still in perfect princess attire. 

“Empowerment” is a concept which is used extensively in any debate about rights and personal development in academic, political and informal contexts. Because of its elasticity and the implication of having power over someone (if only oneself) or something, I prefer the word ‘competence’. Outdoors holistic training delivers broad-based competence with solid foundations. 

How do you train to become a Forest School Practitioner?

Ceri qualified as an early years practitioner but wasn’t happy in a conventional working setting. Working with children who had a lot of problems felt more like the area that was right for her. She spent some time as nanny for a farmer which meant spending days out in the fields, teaching and joining in the work on the farm. Other farmers sent their children and she had an embryonic outdoors school which she ran with her sister. Since then she has spent 11 years developing projects for young people across Hastings in collaboration with In2Play as well as having four children of her own. In2play is a community interest company which provides training, sources funding, and offers consultancy to individuals and organisations which foster education through play. They provide challenging, stimulating and safe activities and environments which are inclusive of parents in developing sites and events and which are responsive to diverse needs of the community. One such development is the Adventure Playground at Upper Broomgrove Road in Ore. 

When local parents asked her to set up a pre-school group on the same lines as her group for 8-13 year olds, she took a degree in early years education and qualified in Playwork. She now has 2 teams of five professionals and 2 sites in Hastings providing 3 days a week pre-school Forest training and the In2Play Creative pre-school at the Bridge Centre Priory Road which has been rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. 

Though there are only around 108 fully-trained and accredited forest school practitioners, the first UK school set up by nursery nurses at Bridgewater College Somerset has trained over 10,000 in a range of skills appropriate to educating children outdoors: an indication of how the benefits are widely recognised. The government body Natural England reports: “In 2016, 125 schools in the South West of England were happier” thanks to “turning the outdoors into a classroom. 92% of teachers surveyed said that pupils were more engaged with learning when outdoors and 85% saw a positive impact on their behaviour.”

Although these are associated most strongly with Scandinavia, some level of outdoor education is being practised in many countries: Japan, New Zealand, Germany, the US, Singapore, Czechoslovakia. This kind of mind-stretching feels like a no-brainer.

The government funds 15 hours of pre-school education a week for every child, but Ceri still has a colleague whose main job is to raise funding. She is always looking for volunteers, so if there is anything you might be able to help with please get in touch.

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