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Cheshire schoolchildren learn about nature through the Forest School project

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 May 2016

Around the campfire

Around the campfire

Tom Marshall

Jan Shone explains how Cheshire Wildlife Trust uses Forest School to take the classroom outside and help children to learn the wild way

Around the campfireAround the campfire

When you take children out into a wood and they say ‘where are the monkeys?’ or ‘will we see wolves and bears?’ then you realise that, sadly, for some their only experience of wildlife is what they have seen on the television or interpreted from a computer game.

Giving children exciting outdoor educational experiences and helping them to explore and discover the natural world has always been an important part of our work at Cheshire Wildlife Trust, and in recent years we have increasingly done that through our Forest School sessions.

Forest School is a Scandinavian concept, developed in the 1950s, which uses the outdoors to educate. It came about after a study showed that children who experienced learning in an outdoor environment were more balanced, more socially developed, had deeper concentration levels and better coordination. It was adapted in Britain in the early 1990s and since 2013 we’ve been running Forest School on a number of our reserves, local sites and schools.

Forest School usually takes place in a woodland, a freer and wilder learning environment than the classroom because, to put it simply, the natural environment can offer children learning experiences that a classroom environment can’t.

Toasting marshmallowsToasting marshmallows

Groups are small – ideally 12 per session – which gives the children more independence and the freedom to perform more challenging tasks while being in a safe environment. It also allows us to get to know the children and tailor our sessions accordingly.

Forest School caters for all different learning styles and encourages children to use all their senses. Sessions are led by the children’s needs, allowing them to take responsibility for their own learning, developing their motivational skills and inspiring creativity.

While it’s linked to the National Curriculum and Early Years Foundation Stage, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ Forest School day. One day they might explore the woodland, build dens and look for mini beasts, on another they could be playing sensory games, setting and lighting camp fires, telling stories and learning practical woodland skills. We also take the view that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing and we go out in all weathers – it never seems to put anyone off!

We know that first-hand contact with nature is good for children because it makes them happier, healthier and more creative and, for some, it can be life-changing. Forest School is a fantastic way of making nature a part of growing up but also provides a practical element to learning which is especially beneficial to children who struggle in the classroom.

Building a denBuilding a den

It promotes the holistic development in children, building up their physical skills and has huge health benefits. It also improves social skills and gives them a chance to enjoy and connect with the natural world.

Angela Ellis, a teacher at Halton Lodge Primary, Runcorn, said: ‘The children who came to Forest School are more engaged and able to work together with other children. I have noticed this when working with ‘talking partners’ in class. Listening skills have improved and there is a willingness to speak out in groups.’

Steve McQuade, who teaches at Mablins Lane Primary School, in Crewe, added: ‘Several children who previously found it difficult to integrate with others are now more able and willing to do so. Quieter children have now found their voice in class and ask more questions and are more confident.’

support network

Support for the Wildlife Trust’s Forest Schools work comes from many sources. Starting from scratch as a Forest Schools provider in 2013, the Wildlfie Trust had to develop sites on which to deliver the sessions, train staff and find subsidies so that they could offer sessions to schools as economically and effectively as possible.

Luckily, the benefits of this type of outdoor education are appreciated by many and there was some generous financial assistance – firstly, from a starter grant from The William Dean Trust, then a Heritage Lottery Fund grant that enabled the running of a project for 25 schools over two years.

Cheshire East Council has also commissioned some Forest School sessions for children who are specially selected by local schools, and ESSAR has helped develop a woodland in the Ellesmere Port area and funded regular local school trip there.

The most recent exciting bit of news is that funding has been secured from a Cheshire East Community grant plus a Manchester Airport community grant which will allow the development of a new Forest School site at one of the flagship nature reserves – The Quinta, near Congleton. This lovely, quiet, tree-lined site, which should be up and running early this summer, gives an ideal facility to help in the mission to ‘re-wild’ children.

To find out about Forest Schools and other outdoor education programmes such as Nature Tots visit: www.cheshirewt.org.uk/kids.

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