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Greenfield School

Forest School – What are the true benefits of outdoor learning?

Greenfield Forest School Leader, Mrs Charman, shares her thoughts on outdoor education and the positive impact it has on pupils.

In our recent move from Brooklyn Road to Old Woking Road, we have inherited two fantastic Forest School areas which provide children with the opportunity to explore, learn and grow. For those of us who grew up climbing trees and building dens it is easy to see the appeal of Forest School, but as we embark on this exciting new chapter for our school we have come to realise the enormous and varied benefits it presents to children who have the opportunity to take part in regular outdoor learning.

The Forest School ethos consists of six main principles, which help us to harness the potential of our Forest School areas and ensure that our time there contributes to the wider learning of all our pupils. Now that we have spent almost half the school year on our new site, I have been reflecting on how these principles will benefit our pupils in real terms.

Implementing academic learning

Nearly every day a class of children is taken into our onsite Forest School, a wooded area at the edge of our playing fields, complete with tepee, log piles and open campfire space. We use this area for ‘traditional’ Forest School sessions, but the woodland is also used as an opportunity to take the classroom outside, for lessons such as English and Mathematics. This opportunity, to take academic learning outside the four walls of a classroom, allows children to think differently about their understanding of concepts and apply them to problems presented to them in the real-world environment of the Forest School.

Cultivating imagination

The excitement when children are getting ready for a Forest School session is electrifying! Children from Owls all the way up to Year 6 discuss what they are going to do when they get there: ‘let’s build a huge den with a fire place and a secret area’ or ‘maybe we will see the monster again!’ or ‘I want to find another wiggly worm!’ or ‘let’s cook Santa more chocolate pancakes!’ All of this imagination and articulation develops story-writing skills and gets everyone’s creative juices flowing. In an age where magical worlds are conjured up on screens, and with alarming realism, in a matter of moments, we cannot underestimate the value of nurturing children’s imagination and story-telling skills. Forest School provides an inspiring environment for children to engage in make-believe play.

Pupil-led outcomes

It is hard to describe a typical Forest School session, as the activities and outcomes are ultimately up to each individual child. Usually the children are given some tasks and resources that they are able to take part in, however they can mould the task to reach an outcome of their choice. An example of this was a Year 2 child who came to me to talk about making stick people. She told me that she didn’t want to make a stick person, but wanted to make a letter ‘A’ for her name using sticks. We worked together to use a clove knot to tie the sticks together to form the letter, and she then collected leaves to decorate it. In this forest school session, this child used a suggested task as inspiration and made it her own to suit her desired outcomes. Allowing children this freedom builds their confidence and teaches them to think for themselves and problem-solve; valuable skills to take forward with them into their future.

Supported risk-taking

Another part of Forest School is the use of tools, which is not an essential part of Forest School learning, as some people think. However, if the children wish to use tools we teach them how to use them safely, correctly and how to look after them so that they are safe for other people to use. Some of the tools that the children will be able to use are; secateurs (they may use them to collect the sticks required for their stick people), bow saws (maybe to make a wooden frame of their natural weaving), palm drills, knives and fire strikers. Forest School provides us with a platform to educate children of all ages in the importance of health and safety. In the Forest School they are acutely aware, more so perhaps than in a classroom, of the risk of injury. This heightened sense of jeopardy allows us to teach these crucially important lessons.

Positive Mental Health

At the end of every Forest School session, the children are asked to give one word that describes how they are feeling after spending time in the forest. Responses have included: ‘adventurous’, ‘relaxed’, ‘happy’, ‘grateful’ and ‘proud’. These responses support the hundreds of studies which have been conducted to explain the positive impact the natural world has on our mental health. One session in the forest can change someone’s day, but regular sessions in the forest can change someone’s overall outlook on the world and how they deal with things; building confidence, courage and resilience. In a world that is ever-evolving and creating increasingly busy lifestyles for our young people, what more valuable lesson can we teach our children than this?

Sophie Charman

Head of Humanities, Forest School Leader and Year 4 Class teacher