Forest School training had been on my radar and wish list for professional development for a while. The draw to Forest School has its roots in my own passion for the environment and learning outdoors with children. So when I found out about training locally, I took the opportunity with both hands. I had just accepted a job as a TA in a Reception class after having worked as a childminder and in a nursery. I had high expectations of the course, hoping it would give me the teaching tools to offer children in the Reception classes more and opportunities for outdoor play and learning.
Before starting the course I read Sara Knight’s book ‘Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years’ and immediately it struck a chord. The Forest School ethos resonates with everything I think is essential, beneficial and fun for children and their childhood. Our society is changing at a fast pace and it concerns me that children are increasingly disconnected from nature and spend less time playing outside. (www.playengland.org.uk, 2015) Forest School is literally a breath of fresh air. It can help to make children more resilient, sociable, creative and hopefully to be able to handle the pressures of life better. Forest School can play a part in increasing their chances to grow into happy, healthy and successful adults. The course taught me this and much more.
Initially I felt self-conscious and unprofessional as I realised how little I remembered about theories underpinning good early years practice. At the same time I realised I would be learning together with the children about flora and fauna and I would need to model and display the characteristics of effective learning myself. I found this exciting and after the first training weekend my head was full of ideas and I could barely wait to start running my own Forest School sessions. Competent at risk assessing, I had never conducted a risk benefit assessment before. Forest School gives ample opportunities for children to take supported risks and be involved and assess their own risks. I have now included risk benefits in all my risk assessments inside and outside the classroom.
I purchased some books about theories linked to Forest School as well as flora and fauna guides. The homework assignments were small achievable tasks and also helped me to learn more about self-esteem, play theories, learning theories and learning styles. I started to be able to identify more trees and my confidence was growing. It made me realise I like to specialise in outdoor learning.
At the second training weekend I felt a huge sense of achievement having made my own mallet using a scary looking bill hook. I love making fires and I learnt about fire safety and risk assessments. It felt so satisfying to make simple beads from Elder and I could relate to how these small achievable tasks can improve a child’s self-esteem having experienced it first-hand myself.
At this point I was still a bit apprehensive about how children would react to Forest School. How would I cope with children who don’t want to stay outside? What might children notice and be interested in? I was able to shadow another Forest School Leader who works on our site. Observing him and experiencing a session gave me the confidence to go with the flow and tune into the children’s needs instead of holding onto a planning. The flora and fauna resource task helped me to get to know my Forest School site better and to start identifying trees and shrubs on site.
I was very pleased with my sessions and the outcomes for the children. The course and the handbook I had to write had given me the foundations for the sessions. Now it was up to me to make it happen and make it fun. I came across some challenges but my fellow students and Tracy gave me advice which made me feel supported. I wanted to make sure I balanced the child-led ethos well with keeping the children safe and maintaining authority. It took some time but I felt I did get it right. The smiles on the children’s faces and the sparkle in their eyes were magic. It felt great to be able to give children time to play and explore and connect with nature. My favourite moment was when all the children stuck out their tongue to ‘eat the rain’.
The concept of Forest School is simple but effective. The theories have helped me to focus and formulate my core values in relation to connect children with nature. I want to be an advocate for outdoor learning and Forest School training has opened up a whole new approach to me. It has helped to shape my provision for children for learning and playing outside. It has become a valuable tool in my Early Years Teacher toolkit. It has empowered me to facilitate rather than teach children within the boundaries of the school curriculum but outside the classroom. Forest School is an excellent way of providing children with time to play, explore and learn, giving them a new and different experience which supports all children and all learning styles. The principles of Forest School are based on play showing strong links with the EYFS. Forest School observations can easily be linked to the EYFS areas of learning and characteristics of effective learning.
Personally it has given me the chance to work with 4 and 5 year olds within the more strict school environment in a way which reflects my believes and feelings, being able to give them time to free play, explore and take appropriate risks, stimulating all their senses.
My challenge is now to develop my practice by running more sessions and keep learning as the seasons and groups I work with change. I am going to make sure Forest School becomes a part of the Early Years curriculum and time table at the school.