Are Forest School’s a Beneficial Addition to the Foundation Phase?
In the past decade there has been a growing interest in Forest schools within Britain. Originating in
Scandinavia, Forest Schools are closely associated with the Danish early years programme. Inspired by the ideas of Froebel, (who believe that doing was an essential part of education, with a strong emphasis on nature), nursery schools in Denmark have traditionally favoured play, movement and fresh air (Stigsgaard, 1978, cited in Williams-Siegfredson, 2005).
The forest school concept was brought to Britain in 1995 when a group from Bridgewater College made a study tour to Denmark and experienced the benefits of forest schools themselves. When they returned to the UK they looked at how forest schools could be applied in their own early years setting and from this starting point the concept of forest schools has spread across the UK. ‘Wales has used forest schools with a wider range of client groups and woodland settings, since 2000, there are now 30 active forest schools putting Wales at the heart of this innovative approach.’ Borradaile, (2006)
The growing interest in forest schools may be linked to the decline in children’s outdoor play. Bilton (2002) found that the importance of an outdoor education has declined: ‘real learning was what happened in the classroom, while the outdoor environment was only used for physical education and to provide children with an opportunity to let off steam.’ Rickinson et al (2004, as cited in Davis, Rea, Waite, 2006) also noted that there has been ‘growing concern that opportunities for outdoor learning by children have decreased substantially in recent years. ‘Contact with the outdoors is often limited for many children in modern society, and the vital experience of using the outdoors and being comfortable in nature is lost.’ (O’Brien and Murray, 2005) It is only since the beginning of the twenty-first century, that teachers of young children have been specifically encouraged to make use of the learning opportunities provided by both indoor and outdoor contexts (Department for Education and Skills [DFES], 2007; Welsh Assembly Government, 2007).
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Ritchie, 2009 stated that the government’s 2006 Learning outside of the classroom manifesto gave teachers more encouragement to get involved.
As Maynard & Waters (2007) note, the outdoor environment can provide children with numerous developmental and educational advantages. ‘Playing outside provides opportunities for children to use all their senses to experience wonder and enchantment… there should be a flow of play between inside and outside.’ (Itscotland, (N.D).
Taylor et al, 1998 has found that children who play in natural environments undertake more diverse, creative and imaginative play.’ ‘The historical tradition of play as expounded by Froebel, MacMillan and Isaacs presents a strong case for the value of outdoor learning in early childhood settings.’ (As cited by Davis, Rea and Waite, 2006).
In forest Schools children learn and develop through child initiated activities; this allows children to take ownership of their learning. Children play in the woodland environment looking closely at nature and climbing trees.
Psychological research has shown that student’s senses are stimulated by nature. The Steiner Waldorf approach places nature, rhythm of earth and life cycles at its core. Children play without adult interference and learn through their senses. (Oldfield, 2009, as cited in Knight, 2009)This is very close in ethos to forest schools with its emphasis on environment and natural tools and its child led approach. Like forest schools Steiner Waldorf’s approach to education is designed to support the spiritual and physical growth of the child. Children are encouraged to take risks outside in their play, just as they are in Forest School. There is no doubt that Steiner Waldorf and Forest schools are closely linked, the only difference is that Steiner Waldorf also includes domestic and indoor elements. His approach is also based on the philosophies of Froebel and Pestalozzi. Froebel pioneered play as learning and outdoor play as central to this. His development of the use of objects made from natural materials links to Montessori. Montessori also believed in using natural materials to enhance sensory experience for children. Montessori at first glance may not seem to link to Forest school but through her work she demonstrated the importance of repetition. She stated that children need to repeat tasks in order to learn the concepts embedded within them. In Forest schools children are given chance to repeat tasks as it is how the neural pathways in the brain are created and mylanised. (Knight, 2009)
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The Reggio Emilia approach to education is another early year’s approach that links closely to Forest Schools. Like Forest schools, it values individuality and personal development and encourages creativity. The children initiate ideas with adults facilitating and encouraging children’s learning, just as with the Steiner Waldorf approach. However this approach is not about natural materials and outdoor environments, what links it to Forest Schools is how it places the child at the centre, and the importance that this approach places on listening and observing. Like Forest Schools it is the children’s ideas that drive what occurs and not a prescribed curriculum. (as cited in Knight, 2009)
There are several key aspects to Forest Schools that differentiate it from other outdoor education activities. Forest schools provide children with opportunity to work in a stimulating outdoor environment that encourages independent active learning. Murray and O’Brien, (2005)state that ‘forest schools provide children with regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands on learning in a woodland environment.’ Learning in the woodlands can have many benefits; it allows children to develop an understanding of the world around them using raw materials such as wood, leaves and dirt to learn. ‘This is fundamental as woodlands provide environmentally sustainable building materials and many other products essential to daily life.’ (Forest education initiative, 2007).
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Some experiences such as discovering shadows and discovering mini beasts can only happen outdoors’ Ouvry (2003).
This is something I observed in my time at Forest School, a child found an interesting insect when collecting leaves. Nobody knew what this insect was and the child took great delight in using the species identification chart to find out what the insect was.
One of the key features of forest schools that set it apart from other outdoor education is that children attend on a regular basis over an extended period of time. This allows children to become used to the woodland environment; this encourages them to develop confidence which improves their learning experience.
Forest schools cater for all ages and abilities. ‘It is particularly useful in tackling learning and social inclusion issues, and behavioural difficulties and language differences.’ Borradaile, L (2006).
Pavey, (2006), carried out a study on forest schools and inclusion and found that Forest School can meet the needs of pupils with complex and severe learning difficulties and disabilities. Thomas Bennett College’s Forest School found that ‘dealing with the demands of the outdoors and taking part in camping activities are increasingly being shown to benefit children who have special educational needs.’ (As cited in Ritchie, 2009).
Forest schools provide teachers with the opportunity to see the ‘whole child’, rather than only the classroom portion. This enables particular strengths to be identified and built on back in the classroom. Teachers are able to see the children enjoying themselves and developing skills. A lot of teachers are surprised by some of the things that children are able to do, as they have not seen it in the classroom context. One head teacher stated ‘When I visited Forest School I did not anticipate J to demonstrate the characteristics he did. J is all ‘into bother’ in school, here I found him working together with his peers, problem solving, and then taking a lead in working out the sizes and lengths of timber required to build the shelter. Leadership skills I would not have expected of him.’ (As cited in Borradaile, 2006) According to Jan white ‘a rich and varied learning environment supports children’s learning and development. It gives children the confidence to explore and learn in a safe and secure, yet challenging indoor and outdoor space.’ Feeling safe and secure is important, many theorists such as Maslow state that if children don’t feel safe then learning can’t occur.
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Due to concerns about danger and liability many opportunities for outdoor learning have been reduced. Borradaile, (2006) states that children need to be able to take risks within a ‘safe’ environment. ‘Risk taking is an important part of pupils’ development’ (Ritchie, 2009).
Understanding risk and how to cope with risk such as lighting and putting out fires, (children are made aware of fire circle safety over a few sessions before fires are lit) is an important part of the Forest School ethos and process. Howes 2005, (As cited in O’Brien and Murray 2006) found that on a celebration day at Forest School where parents and siblings were invited only the children who had been to forest school sessions observed the fire safety rules. When in my placement children played a naming game, where they had to move around the fire circle to sit by children who they had named, this was a fun way to learn about the fire safety area, children were reminded to walk/ skip outside the circle and not within it.
One teacher found that once children had eaten something and settled in front of the fire, they were happy to listen to a story even though they were children who didn’t usually listen to anyone.’ This fits into the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
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Maslow in his hierarchy of needs states that it is fundamental that children’s basic needs are met before any higher learning can take place, in a forest schools context that means that children need to be warm so need correct clothing provided to them. They also need food and drink so should be provided with healthy snacks and meals and hydrated with water and warm drinks. ‘Children also need to feel safe both physically and emotionally.’ (Archimedes training ltd, 2009) Forest schools encourage children to feel safe physically by establishing safety zones and areas. Children are set small achievable tasks which encourage positive emotional development.
One of the major strengths of Forest Schools is its ability to deliver ‘significant learning outcomes relevant to the whole breadth of the curriculum.’ (Borradaile, 2006) It fits well with the recent curriculum framework for Foundation Phase for Wales (Welsh Assembly Government, 2007) which, place a particular emphasis on learning through play in stimulating indoor and outdoor contexts. Personal and social development is a fundamental aspect of the foundation phase curriculum and forest schools can be really beneficial as they help to nurture the whole child. It provides children with a safe and secure environment, in which children can express their fears and re live anxious experiences. ‘They can take risks and make mistakes and try new things out and make sense of relationships.’ (DFES, N.D) Forest schools can promote development in six other key areas that all link to the Foundation Phase curriculum;
The first area is confidence. Confidence is crucial to children’s future learning and sense of well being. I believe that well being is essential in becoming an effective learner as it helps young children to embrace change and feel positive about who they are. Baumeister et al (2003) note that, ‘those with high self-confidence tend to be more resilient and more persistent in the face of difficulty.’ Increased self confidence is linked to positive ‘learning dispositions,’ which, it is maintained, enable children to be ‘ready, willing and able to engage profitably with learning’ (Claxton & Carr, 2004, p. 87).
According to Bandura (1997, as cited in Mooney, 2000),individuals who have a strong belief in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges rather than threats; are more likely to become interested and engrossed in these tasks; set themselves challenging goals; and are more resilient in recovering from any failure – all important learning dispositions. The best way for this to be encouraged is through small achievable tasks, such as with Forest schools, this allows children to experience success so that they are not ‘set up to fail.’ (WAG, 2008) One example of this is Anthony ‘when he first attended forest school he clung to adults’ hand, but by the fifth session he began to explore the forest more freely. This shows he had found the confidence to try out new things.’ (O’ Brien and Murray) This was something observed in my Forest School session, some children were initially reluctant to try out new things but with encouragement from Forest school practitioners they began to tackle new activities such as putting up shelters or climbing trees and balancing on ropes. This shows me how beneficial Forest Schools can be for children’s confidence.
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The second area is social skills. This is characterised by an increased awareness of the consequences of actions on others and by taking part in co- operative play. When I went to my Forest School session I experienced this first hand. One child decided to dig the ground for buried treasure. He was struggling so another child started to help him, it ended up with three children all taking it in turns to use the tool to dig the earth, they engaged in this activity for the whole of their forest school session. They made up an adventure together and decided they were digging for a dragons egg each adding their own dimensions to their story. This leads to the third area language and communication
As shown by the example above Forest school can promote spontaneous talk. Children are often excited about their new experiences in the forest and chat excitedly to parents, teachers and their peers. ‘Esta is a naturally sociable child, but forest school enabled her to interact with older pupils which improved her vocabulary she was able to transfer this back to the classroom environment.’ (O’Brien and Murray, 2006) forest school is a different and unfamiliar environment; it provides opportunities for children to learn new descriptive words such as names of trees etc. Children also start to make up stories using materials and ideas from their surroundings. Activities such as feeling trees and leaves allow children to develop linguistically as they describe what they are feeling and the appearance of twigs. I saw this when I went to Forest school a child said to Ben that the tree was ‘a bit like a vampire with the blood on it.’ Ben did not have a clue what the child was on about and started to tell him that it was not like a vampire but the child persevered and went on to explain that the sap on the tree was like blood because it was the trees blood. This exchange showed me how beneficial the forest school experience could be.
The fourth area is motivation and concentration. The Learning outside the classroom manifesto states that ‘education outside can motivate pupils and bring learning to life.’ Motivation can improve a child’s ability to focus on specific tasks and to concentrate for longer periods of time. Bredekemp et al (1992) suggests that ‘activities that are based on children’s interests provide motivation for learning.’ Dewey also believed that ‘the child’s own instinct and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education’ (as cited in Mooney, C (2000)).
Pyle, 2002 argues that ‘when experiential contact with nature, is diminished, negative impacts spread out to every cultural level. Children may lose many physical, emotional and intellectual opportunities such as climbing trees and exploring hidden spaces.’ ‘Jodie was described as not achieving her level in school partly due to attitude, not prepared to have a go.’ During early sessions in forest school she was giggly and silly and worked only when closely supervised. However at the three day summer school she was keen to finish a shelter and concentrated well on making axe, clay and bow drill.’ This shows that forest schools can overcome barriers to learning and help children to become involved in their learning process. In areas of social deprivation where there are multiple family problems and a pervasive atmosphere of failure forest schools can really help to build and strengthen positive attitudes to health, lifestyle and learning.
Forest school also improves a child’s physical skills. The outdoor environment allows children to move freely. This is important as it enhances children’s physical development, such as their agility, coordination and stamina. In addition, the opportunity to move enables children to develop control over their bodies (Cleave & Brown, 1991).
Goddard Blythe, 2004 state that having sufficient controls over their bodies will enable children to stay still and pay attention. It can also help with fine motor skills, for example children are shown how to use tools effectively to build shelters, and are shown how to tie different types of knots. Developing fine motor skills allows children to be able to hold a pen efficiently and write effectively back in the classroom. One example of how forest schools can improve physical skills is Douglas when he first attended a forest school he was reluctant when it came to physical experiences but by his fifth session he was enjoying climbing trees.’ (As cited in O’Brien and Murray, 2006).
This was something I saw myself in my forest school sessions. At the beginning of the day James attempted to climb the tree but struggled and gave up, by the end of the day he had managed to climb right to the top and was calling to everyone to look at what he had done.’ This shows me that Forest schools can be very beneficial to children, not only for their physical skills but for their self esteem.
It also promotes knowledge and understanding of the world. This is characterised by respect for the environment and an interest in their natural surroundings. Through repeated visits to the forest school site, children learn about different species of trees and mini beasts. Although this acquisition of new knowledge is promoted by the practitioner, much of the learning is through child initiated exploration. Forest school encourages ownership and pride in the local environment a forest school practitioner said to me that some children are so proud of what they accomplish that they take their parents to the site after hours.
Some parents and teachers were sceptical about the benefits of Forest Schools and believed that the children should be doing real lessons such as maths and English, however Forest Schools can promote mathematical development. When collecting firewood children will be told to find different lengths and thicknesses of twigs to start the fire, this allows them to practice their mathematical skills as they add and subtract different twigs to try and assess their thickness and dryness. Children also use problem solving skills such as when erecting a shelter or building dens or sorting wood into different piles etc. ‘There is new research evidence proving that outdoor learning improves academic achievement- the combination of confidence, high motivation, enjoyment and fresh air seem to be important ingredients for raising achievement. (Alavery as cited in Borradaline, 2006) Children are given an opportunity to excel at something fostering a new love of learning and raising achievement across the curriculum.
Indeed, it could be argued that Forest School provides early childhood practitioners with an innovative example of how these goals might be achieved in appropriate and meaningful ways. Forest school is a beneficial addition to the foundation phase; it offers a different approach to curriculum delivery. It can accommodate a range of learning styles, such as kinaesthetic, linguistic, interpersonal and mathematical. It is particularly successful with kinaesthetic learners, who are often put off by classroom based learning which is dominantly visual and auditory and struggle within the classroom environment. When I went to forest schools I found that the activities were more kinaesthetic based, this allowed children who struggled in schools to have a chance to be good at something. Bridgewater College Forest School (as cited in Maynard, 2007) claimed that the principle purpose of Forest Schools is to tailor an educational curriculum to a child’s preferred learning style rather than vice versa.’ This is an important concept and is something that should be incorporated within and outside the classroom.
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