Category

Gardening

Outdoor learning and Forest School – a breath of fresh air!

By | Education, environment, fun for children, Gardening, Playing, Uncategorized
by Kirsty Keep
Head Mistress, Lancing College Preparatory School at Hove

Schools and nurseries are increasingly taking learning outside, whether by using their own outdoor space as an open-air classroom or by tackling traditional ‘woodland activities’ in natural areas or ones specifically designed for the purpose. But where do the origins of Forest School lie and how do our schools and nurseries embrace that philosophy in 2020?

The longstanding Scandinavian passion for nature is known as friluftsliv which translates as ‘open-air living’. As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen described friluftsliv as the value to spiritual and physical wellbeing achieved by spending time outside in remote locations. So-called ‘nature schools’ began to appear in Denmark as early as the 1950s and grew in number in the 1970s when the demand for childcare rose dramatically to meet the needs of mothers returning to work while their children were very young. These early schools developed a kindergarten system that provided children with the opportunities to learn and develop in natural environments and outdoor settings. They were modelled on the work of Friedrich Fröbel, a 19th century German pedagogue and a student of Pestalozzi. Fröbel recognised that each child has unique needs and capabilities and it is no surprise that this has laid the foundation for modern early years education offered today.

These days, for our youngest children, outdoor locations tend, generally speaking, not to be particularly remote but they offer experiences that are a world away from lessons within the walls of a classroom or learning through play indoors.

School trips and visits have always given children a taste of the world beyond school but outdoor learning at school is a way of using natural resources to learn about nature. It also offers some welcome respite from the plethora of electronic resources for recreation and learning that immerse today’s children, who are born ‘digital natives’ unlike their parents, grandparents and teachers who have had to acquire digital awareness or in some cases had digital awareness thrust upon them!

Many schools and nurseries have their own garden areas where children can literally get ‘hands-on’ experience, planting seeds, watering and weeding and seeing the fruits of their endeavours grow as the seasons change. Ponds and science gardens give a myriad of opportunities for children of all ages to try their hand at pond-dipping, recording the diversity of insects and bugs visiting the gardens and operating weather stations.

However, whatever fabulous facilities a school or nursery may have on site, the possibilities for taking learning outdoors at school are endless, only limited by imagination! They can range from outdoor maths, for example counting the right angles around the school buildings and campus, creating art from nature, using twigs and leaves to make temporary pieces of art that are not only cost-free but also recyclable. Young children studying history, for example, can see for themselves just how rapidly the Great Fire of London spread by creating their own model Tudor houses from cardboard boxes, packing them into a fire pit and watching them burn. Carefully supervised by staff armed with fire extinguishers, this activity can also act as a Health & Safety lesson as to what to do in the event of a fire!

Forest School is a more sustained, long-term process which aims through positive outdoor experiences to encourage and inspire children to love the world around them. For preschool children, Forest School nurtures their sense of wonder and their curiosity about the world outside, closely entwined with the ideals of free-flow play and learning from play that underpin the child-centred learning ethos and areas that lie at the heart of the Early Years Foundation Stage which runs from birth to five years of age. Away from their school or nursery, they have adventures in natural habitats such as woods, rivers and streams, ponds and beaches. Supervised with the lightest of touches by staff, the children have the freedom to discover what fascinates them in nature and to respond spontaneously to the environment they are exploring.

Forest School is for young children of all ages; it helps babies to expand their sensory awareness, for example by feeling plants and mosses in woodland or digging up shells and pebbles on a beach. Toddlers try their hands at making camps out of logs and branches and have their first go at climbing trees or making a tyre swing. Three year olds build on their problem-solving skills by arranging logs to form a bridge to get over a stream.

For older children, there is a huge range of practical activities including bushcraft, fire-lighting, knifecraft, such as whittling and carving, how to tie knots and build shelters. Naturalist skills such as identifying plants, animal tracks and signs are eagerly embraced and children enjoy learning how to forage safely and sustainably and how to prepare and cook wild food. Who would have thought under eights would get excited by the prospect of nettle tea?

Outdoor explorers learn soft skills too that nurture critical thinking skills and teamwork. They develop empathy and sympathy with their peers and learn how to work as a team to solve problems, honing their communication and negotiation skills. The children learn to recognise and assess risks for themselves and to make choices to ensure their group’s safety. They grow in confidence and self-esteem through these hands-on experiences.

It is also an excellent way to introduce conservation activities and the ‘leave no trace’ philosophy that we should preserve wild places and leave nature as unchanged by our presence as possible, so that future generations can enjoy it too.

Above all, it’s fun – children can get messy, get wet, climb higher and develop a love of outdoor life. They explore the natural world around them using magnifying glasses, saws, spades and buckets. This brings their learning to life and helps to create an understanding of the balance of nature and resources.

The Lancing College family includes its two Prep Schools located in Hove and Worthing, and located on the edge of the College’s 550 acre estate, a Day Nursery which opened in September 2019 and offers day care all-year round for children aged two months and over. All three provide wonderful opportunities for children to take their learning outdoors and are prime examples of nursery school pioneer Margaret McMillan’s assertion made in the mid-1920s “The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky!”

Outdoor learning

By | Education, environment, fun for children, Gardening
by Sian Cattaneo
Head of Brighton Girls

Increasingly, schools are recognising that their curriculum needs to be more relevant to real life experiences and help pupils develop skills that will be helpful beyond their classroom experience. In nurseries and primary schools, this is incredibly important as teachers and nursery leaders endeavour to engage pupils in learning and make it enjoyable and relevant. In recent years the development of the Forest School curriculum has shown that these additional experiences significantly enrich the curriculum and helps many pupils to be more engaged in their learning. At our school we have seen the introduction of Wild Beach School as another ‘local’ resource which is proving to be a great opportunity to venture beyond the classroom.

So, why is outdoor learning valuable in an increasingly busy and over-stretched curriculum? Cynics might say that it is just a ‘gimmick’ that doesn’t really have any educational value apart from children getting some ‘more fresh air’. With such a pressure on schools to create a rounded and relevant curriculum, teachers are acutely aware that time and relevance is precious and are focussed on priorities in terms of educational outcomes. These sessions are about making the most of natural resources, offering a range of new and potentially challenging experiences and developing personal skills and qualities.

Schools are recognising that while the content of the curriculum is essential, an information based approach is less relevant and that pupils needs to be able to problem solve, respond to change and be flexible and adaptable. Technology, particularly in a mobile form, allows us to have information at our fingertips, the key question is how you use that knowledge to manage the challenges you face.

Many of us acknowledge that much of what we learnt at school didn’t really have any relevance to real life situations and that it seemed purely about information gathering. Outdoor learning takes this a step further in pupils getting more ‘hands on’ in a real life context (harder to replicate in a classroom!) and focuses on the learning outcomes and applying them rather than just gaining knowledge.

It could be argued that as a society we have become much more risk adverse and this is having a significant impact on future generations. Many schools use outdoor learning as a way of introducing risk taking in a managed way and in doing so, help pupils to build independence, resilience and problem solving. Roald Dahl once observed “the more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves”. This is undoubtedly what adults would want for any young person; the ability to take more personal responsibility and show initiative and self-sufficiency.

High quality outdoor learning experiences allow children to identify and assess risks more independently. Whether it be using a hammer for building a shelter in all types of weather or learning how to start a fire from scratch, these allow pupils to learn how to respond and negotiate their way around real life situations. We have frequently observed that often pupils are far more resilient than adults in the face of bad weather and will have more of a ‘can do’ attitude. We certainly all recognise that opportunities to get in the ‘great outdoors’ must be an important part of a children education. Not only will it give them a better understanding and appreciation of nature but also help them to understand the environmental challenges facing their generation. The process must begin from a young age if we are to change the culture of our society and to understand the human responsibility for nature.

At a time when children’s inactivity and time inside is causing real concerns, an element of the curriculum that runs alongside the physical education programme is being seen as invaluable. Outdoor learning, by the very nature of the tasks is often collaborative learning and is focussed on problem solving, showing initiative and teamwork. Open ended tasks enable children to lead their own learning and not always be directed by adults. It is also our observation that children who may sometimes find the classroom environment somewhat challenging respond well to the ‘freedom’ of the outdoor setting and often find success and receive positive feedback. Outdoor learning often develops different skills and consequently different children may take the lead, which can have huge benefits for self-esteem. Outdoor learning also lends itself to developing children’s natural curiosity and patience, as well as gross and fine motor skills. There is increasing evidence that working outside also has a huge benefit for physical and mental health.

We strongly believe that we increasingly need to look at the curriculum in a different way, to make it more about open ended learning and help children develop the skills that will be valuable in the future, rather than always be concerned about subject content. We are fortunate to have so many wonderful resources locally that we are able to make the learning experience so rich and vibrant and something we hope will make a positive lasting impression on children.

Sian Cattaneo is the Head of Brighton Girls, the only girls Prep in the heart of Brighton & Hove.
For any enquiries please contact 01273 280200 www.brightongirls.gdst.net, admissions@brightongirls.gdst.net