Given the weather we typically enjoy here in the UK, it may come as a surprise that outdoor schools, where children learn through outside play, all year round, warmed only by sunshine or open fires, are gaining popularity.
Forest Schools, as they are known, originated in snowy Scandinavia and by the 1980s the approach was widely adopted in Danish nurseries run on Scandinavian friluftsliv (“open air life”) principles as a solution to the lack of indoor facilities for pre-school children. It was these principles that lay behind the first forest school in the UK, which opened in Somerset in 1993.
Jon Cree, Chair of the Forest School Association, agrees that the popularity of outdoor schools is, in part, a reaction against the contemporary testing culture. Forest schools have fallen victim to public sector cuts – until recently, a number of local authorities employed staff to develop forest school sessions in mainstream schools but all but one has lost their job. And yet the movement is growing in Britain and beyond.
In Germany there are more than 1,000 forest kindergartens now, where children from ages three to six spend every day outside, all year round. Jon recently visited South Korea and found 40% of its kindergartens undertaking some form of forest school education. “They want to move it into their very regimented primary and secondary schools,” he says.
An outdoor education
Nadia Romano, a former childminder from Tonbridge, launched Rain or Shine Forest Preschool, in Judd Wood Farm between Bidborough and Tonbridge, in 2015, the second only of its kind to be set up in the county. She received an ‘Outstanding’ inspection in May 2016 and having already expanded, is now looking for more land to open a third site in 2018.
Adriana Forrester explains why she chose an outdoor nursery setting for her son: “It’s an experiential and child-led form of learning; he witnesses the life cycle and the seasons – and how many other three-year-olds get to use a knife to chop vegetables to make their own soup over a campfire for lunch?”
With a bell tent and parachute canopy for shelter, compostable toilets, a large mud kitchen made from pallets and recycled wood, a sawing horse and an activity table, children follow the Early Years Foundation Stage set by Ofsted but enjoy learning through outdoor pursuits. Jessica Moore, mother-of-three from Tunbridge Wells, believes the forest school concept should be part of the curriculum for all ages: “There are so many learning opportunities beyond the classroom. My son learned to count using pebbles, made shapes with sticks and leaves, knows the names of the birds and insects, even made paint from berries – and he doesn’t think anything of it!”
Making the grade
Like any other conventional nursery, forest school nurseries are still at the mercy of Ofsted inspections. Ashdon Preschool Forest School in Saffron Waldon, Essex, was the first completely outdoor nursery to be inspected. While it was judged “Good”, an “Outstanding” rating was withheld because children had too few opportunities to “turn on and operate information and communication and technology equipment”.
Despite fears, then, that the forest school movement is not well-served by Ofsted, Caroline Watts, who opened the Forest Kindergarten in Toy’s Hill National Trust Woods, near Sevenoaks, in 2014, received an “Outstanding” rating as she had provided technology in the form of cameras and torches.
“Like any preschool, we meet the early years’ curriculum, however this is all through learning from experiences in nature and the real world,” says Caroline, adding: “Our aim is to help children connect with nature, to become resilient and independent, and to have the freedom to play, within a spacious environment, to create, and learn to manage tools, fire, and themselves – by climbing trees, building dens and more. The Government advises that children should spend an hour a day being active – we spend five hours of the day being active, climbing trees, swinging, seesawing, balancing on logs, rolling down hills, building, and as a result, parents say that their children sleep well, eat well, and are more able to rest and be calm at the end of the day.”
As well as the kindergarten, Caroline also runs a forest holiday club, storytelling events in the woods, and mindfulness workshops.
Primary & beyond…
And it doesn’t stop when children reach primary school age. The Forest School Association charity has since helped 12,000 teachers and other professionals undertake forest school training. In Worcestershire alone, there are 360 “forest schools”, mostly primary schools, which typically give pupils one woodland learning experience each week.
More locally, primary school teacher Dan Gillinder, from Langton Green, runs Woodland Ventures, a forest schools scheme in partnership with several local schools in West Kent. The children improve their motor skills through walking, climbing, using sticks, tying ropes and balancing while also developing their collaboration skills, finding ways to solve problems.
Dan links outdoor learning with core curriculum subjects, such as history, focusing on the Romans, Vikings or Celts and science, looking at tree and plant classification, reactions and changing states of materials, habitats, life cycles and food chains.
Caroline Watts believes that early exposure to the great outdoors has a positive impact on development at primary school, and beyond: “Parents and teachers visiting us in the period of transition to school, remark on how well developed the children’s communication skills are, how curious and confident they are, and above all, that they are enthusiastic! Resilience, independence, and team working are among the skills that really help a child to successfully develop in school, and forest school is particularly effective at enabling this.”
Come rain or shine, it seems that forest schools have a bright future.
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Image: Kate York – The Happy Picture Company