The Scandinavian philosophy of Forest School comes to Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 July 2019
Gemma Sproston from Cheshire Wildlife Trust goes to back to school to find out about efforts to re-connect children to nature
There's something about Scandinavian culture that is so very appealing, as the lifestyle concept of hygge - which is said to make homes cosier and people happier - can attest. So perhaps there's little surprise that Forest School, another Scandinavian import, has become increasingly widespread in primary schools, woodlands and nature reserves across the UK, including right here in Cheshire. And yet, much like hygge, the concepts behind Forest School stretch back decades.
Conceived in Denmark in the 50s and introduced to Britain in the early 90s, Forest School involves taking children into an outdoor, ideally woodland, environment to develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences. It's not so much a practice as a philosophy, and much like IKEA, it's a Scandinavian idea that seems to have really caught on.
Cheshire Wildlife Trust is well versed in the transformative nature of Forest School, having run sessions on its own nature reserves, in schools across the county, and with partner organisations for years.
In the past three years in Warrington alone, the Trust has introduced 3,084 children to a wilder Cheshire through the support of players of People's Postcode Lottery.
Thanks to a cash boost of £132,000, the Trust's Wild Warrington project has provided free Forest School sessions to local primary schools, run outdoor activities aimed at pre-schoolers, and hosted Forest School-themed days for families. It has also welcomed more than 30 and counting local schools to experience Forest School for themselves.
So, what exactly is Forest School and why is it so special?
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 just can't.
Groups are small, giving children more independence and the freedom to perform challenging tasks while being in a safe environment. Over time they might progress from playing games that help them identify wildlife, plants and trees, to gradually learning how to use a bowsaw to chop up branches for dens, or a knife to whittle a skewer for toasting marshmallows.
The small headcount also gives the Forest School leaders the chance to tune into the needs of each child, and then tailor their sessions accordingly.
As parents worry about the pressures on young school children, Forest School seems to provide an antidote to technology and testing. All sorts of learning styles are catered for, and sessions are led by the children's needs which allows them to take responsibility for their own learning.
There's no such thing as a 'typical' Forest School day. One week, children could be exploring woodlands and looking for minibeasts, or pond dipping, and on another, they could be playing sensory games which encourage them to look, feel, smell and listen so they can find their way around the woodland. And while the pupils may not realise they are learning, activities are often linked to work they're doing in the classroom.
Nick Rowles, Wild Communities Officer (North) said: 'We know being in nature is good for us and Forest School is a fantastic way to re-wild the child and make nature a part of growing up, but it also provides a practical element to learning.
'It promotes holistic development in children, building up their physical skills, and has huge health benefits. It also improves their social skills and gives them a chance to enjoy and connect with the natural world.'
Favourite activities tend to be classic practical woodland skills - building dens, setting and lighting campfires, playing games and telling a good story around the fire. That's before you get to the art and craft work - creating pictures with leaves, building furniture from logs and twine, making hedgehogs or owls from clay or pine cones.
And as for the weather? Well, it appears there is no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing - no season is out of bounds.
Teacher Sarah Nesbitt, from Locking Stumps Primary School in Birchwood, said: 'It was a fantastic programme. Many of the children would not have had this experience or been in this sort of environment for an extended period. Their obvious excitement, concentration and application was fabulous.
'Not once did I hear 'my hands are muddy, or 'I'm cold', just lots of observations about their environment, and it was great to watch the older children interact and care for the younger pupils.
Nick added: 'We're delighted with the growing success of Wild Warrington. These activities are not only valuable in helping people appreciate and care for wildlife, they also really draw people together, creating a space where they can enjoy time immersed in nature, chat with friends and get to know new people.
'And hopefully, by planting the seed now, we're inspiring a whole new generation to care about and look after our local wildlife in the future.'