Molly Toal, Lancashire Wildlife Trust
The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside (otherwise known as LWT) have been running their Forest School Project in Manchester since 2015 and in Liverpool since 2017. Project officers work with urban schools for a year, delivering free Forest School sessions, offering accredited Level 3 Forest School Leadership training for teachers and installing outdoor classrooms, all thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
Forest School is a unique form of outdoor learning, with a play-based, child-led ethos that offers children regular opportunities to succeed and develop as people, through practical learning and hands-on activities in a natural setting. The children are allowed to take risks and explore, within a safe outdoor space and support from trained Forest School practitioners. Sessions are designed to stimulate each child’s imagination, creativity and desire to explore through activities involving natural materials such as green woodwork, shelter-building and natural art.
Each learner gets something different out of Forest School; it can improve confidence, behaviour, physical and social skills, emotional wellbeing, language and communication, concentration, knowledge and understanding of the world.
Now in our 5th year of the project, we have worked with many children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), in both mainstream and SEN schools, and have seen first-hand how nature and the Forest School ethos has helped these learners develop useful skills for wider life.
Being in nature offers practical, sensory experiences that are suited to the preferred learning styles of many SEN children. Sessions allow children to learn at their own pace, but follow a loose structure with opportunities for adult-introduced activities, free play, snacks and reflection, so learners know what to expect. Open-ended resources such as teddies, magnifying glasses, binoculars, muddy play items, hammocks and tarps are available each session for children to play and explore with. Forest School leaders do not plan specific objectives for the group, or stick to the national curriculum; rather they plan future activities by observing children’s interests and actions during sessions.
Children from Millstead Special Primary School in Liverpool attended forest school sessions for a full year in 2018. The groups were made up of children with mixed abilities and the learners had a range of needs, including autistic spectrum conditions (ASC), behavioural conditions and profound and multiple learning difficulties. The sessions took place in Everton Park Nature Garden, a wheelchair-accessible site next to the school.
School staff observed the children were calmer at Forest School compared to when they were in the classroom. The biggest change in them over the year was improvement in their communication and social skills.
Teacher Rachael Sharpe, who did her Forest School training through the project, said:
“Forest School fits in really well with what we do as a school by promoting independence, fine and gross motor skills and communication and social skills. For this cohort of ASC children, peer interaction is a challenge but we are seeing a big change – they’re learning how to play together through games at Forest School. Understanding the rules of a simple game can be difficult for these children, yet they’re learning and understanding because we’re outside and doing these activities with them regularly. As soon as we get to the woods, they’re suggesting games to play together, and communicating and interacting with adults and peers, which is fab. We get outside as much as possible now as it’s exactly what the children get the most out of.”
Observing other children in the group, teacher Hannah Housbey added: “It’s especially great to see our children with limited mobility confidently exploring the site without relying on an adult to push them in a chair or hold their hand. Some of our development targets are to improve their gross motor skills and for the children to be able to navigate over uneven terrain, which they are all doing at Forest School. Even those in the class who cannot walk are increasing their independence moving around the site on their own, climbing over logs or shuffling up and down the slopes in the woodland.”
In 2019, mainstream school Bedford Primary in Liverpool, joined the project and a small class of SEN children were picked to attend sessions for the full year. Aged from 6 to 11, the group had ASC, behavioural conditions, learning difficulties and mobility issues. The sessions took place in the school’s outdoor learning area, which was developed by staff and pupils with help from LWT.
When the children started Forest School, there were situations most found difficult. They would struggle with teamwork, sharing, understanding others, solving problems and showing patience – all skills essential in wider life. Over the months, the children began instigating their own group games, resolving issues amongst themselves and learning to share equipment. They congratulated each other when someone succeeded at a task and worked together in really creative and imaginative ways, for example building obstacle courses and creating puppet shows.
Laura Doherty, a teacher at Bedford Primary said: “The children have all grown in confidence and developed their teamwork and leadership skills. It has been wonderful to spend time outdoors together and learn more about the nature that lives just outside school.
As a teacher, it has been lovely to spend time with the children in an environment outside the classroom and nurture such a range of different talents and qualities.”
Feedback from parents was positive too: “My son suffers from Asperger’s. He wasn’t doing well in class; wasn’t talking or making friends. Once he started Forest School things started to change. Now he runs around with other children and wants to join in with activities.”
This article was first published in 2020 in Vol 125 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members.