These days, Tuesdays always have an edge on the rest of the week. There is an air of palpable anticipation amongst the children. Tuesday afternoons are all about Forest School.
The brilliance of Forest School is that the simplicity, the lack of planning, the absence of target setting, expectation generating and statistical outcome from this weekly experience has actually begun to harvest, in only a few short weeks, an unexpected yield of child-led, autonomous and self initiated achievements. Our ‘forest’ is nothing more than a tiny pocket of un-landscaped woodland but somehow, each week, a small group of pre-school children manage to dig their awe and wonder out of the mud and the tangled branches and play out adventures within the secret pathways and hideouts. For two hours they belong to this natural habitat as much as the worms, spiders and snails and the friendly robin they have befriended there.
As we trundled there last week, in our wellies and our waterproofs, even the damp cold drizzle of a February afternoon generated enthusiasm. The children knew that the mud would be ”squidgy”, that there would be puddles. They knew that the rain would bring the mini-beasts creeping to the surface of the ground. Their conversation along that short walk planned for bug-hunts; they requested we take magnifying glasses for this purpose. Two children asked to take saucepans and wooden spoons to “bake” mud pies in the mud kitchen we up-cycled from four bread crates the week before; others had no plans beyond running and jumping and exploring. Each child’s experience is unique, each child’s learning is guided by them. They become purposeful and imaginative: explorers and scientists.
“Forest School is magic”, said one child, “I am so excited” (Cole aged 4).
The beauty, and the “magic” of this weekly experience is that ultimately it is never the same. Yes, it is a familiar space – it feels like it stays sleeping in our absence; wakes up to join us when we return. When we approach it, the familiarity is comforting, there is a sense that it is ‘waiting’ for the children to creep in with their wellington boots and their buckets and their joyful anticipation. Each week the children search for the familiarity and notice any changes instantly. It might be a bulb pushing its roots through the soil, or a dried puddle with cracked soil that last week had been full enough to splash and jump in; fallen leaves or some tracks across the ground from an animal living there… “What could it be?”, “I wonder where it lives?” asked Era (age 4). And there are always, always new treasures to find:
“look there are two worms living under this mud, lets cover them back up, they don’t like light” (Amelia aged 4).
“I really like leaves, I’m touching this leaf but I won’t pull it off the tree or it will die”. (William aged 3)
The weather places different and new challenges on a weekly basis: running up and down a muddy bank is an entirely different experience when it has been raining than when it has been dry. Who can think of a better way to learn how to manage and calculate risk than by running really fast down a muddy slope without landing on your bottom in the puddle at the foot? I watched them last week, first of all inching down slowly, until eventually, after they had judged it and learned how to balance, leaping down it with tribal calls and jumping two feet first into the puddle laughing.
It was indeed ‘magic’.
Forest School excites imagination. Here, role- play isn’t confined to a wooden surround, some laminated ‘key words’ and an array of toys pretending to represent real life. At Forest School it actually is real, it is alive and thrusting imaginative opportunities towards your senses with every step. The children are interacting with reality while they are playing out a complex imaginative discourse with their friends. A broken wooden rowing boat ‘moored’ within the woodland has provided a limitless source of imaginative play: “I am Captain Hook; you must walk the plank” (Charlie aged 4) – this was enough of a prompt for them all to practice their jumping skills, within purposeful play We have had pirates searching for buried treasure (stones, leaves, worms, sticks, bulbs with roots that provided a spontaneous discussion about germination), these have evoked questioning, problem solving, challenges. We have bought their discoveries back into the classroom to examine, research and question further. We have had fishermen, farmers, princesses and wicked queens. Familiar stories have been played and acted out here. The children have made sense of story-sequencing, they have demonstrated recall. We have had builders and engineers working out the best way to make a mud-kitchen from nothing; they have worked as a team to dig and collect the mud to fill up the kitchen. They quickly learned the difference in skill to dig dry and wet mud; they learned that the “rocky patches” presented them with difficulties when they were digging there. The mud kitchen has invited chefs and customers, and further language skills have been developed. The children have played out the roles of real people within their community and learned the reality of effective teamwork.
“I love the mud-kitchen the best and looking for worms” says Amelia (age 4). “I like putting my welly-boots on with all my friends, it’s more fun being outside”.
The children have developed a concept of ‘working hard’ at Forest School and observed the effects of hard work on their bodies: “I am hot and sweaty after digging, I need a drink” (Amelia aged 3). “Jumping makes my legs tired” (Isobel aged 3). But Forest School isn’t all about hard work and noisy role play. It has also become a place of quiet contemplation, a centring and grounding environment with a huge scope for mindfulness. I have observed children deep in thought there. Awe and wonder doesn’t always require vocalisation; it is visible in their eyes, reflected in their faces. Whilst some children may choose to be active and physically embrace the environment, others explore quietly and on their own making sense of their world autonomously. “I like exploring”, said Max aged 3, and the cognitive development quietly being played out when Max explores, laying on his stomach on the ground, magnifying glass pressed to his eye, is nothing short of amazing. There is something very joyful about spending time in a natural environment and this joy can’t always be explained in words: “I just love it” (Max aged 3). Learning at this age is a whole-body, holistic and sensory experience. Surely there is no better way to explore texture than by stroking leaves on trees, sticking your fingers into wet mud, leaning against knobby tree-trunks, having a worm wiggle across the palm of your hand or feel rain splash on to your face – and then be able to share this joy with friends? The vocabulary yield from just relaxing into this natural and kinaesthetic experience has been enormous, but the mindfulness opportunity has been limitless. The simplicity and ‘togetherness’ of enjoying a hot-chocolate while sitting on a circle of tree stumps as a reward for their ‘hard work’ each week is, for some, the best and most perfect aspect of Forest School. This weekly ritual, this outdoor ‘plenary session’ of warming our hands around a hot drink and having a group conversation about each child’s session ‘outcome’ generates a palpable satisfaction amongst both children and adults. The sighs of contentment, the relaxed little faces, the chocolate moustaches – all bind the children together as a group as they share their experiences, with little need for prompting or questioning from us. “Hot chocolate is my favourite part” says William (aged 3). He said this whilst reflecting on how he discovered three leaves that “were all different” and laughing about how his boot fell off when he was running. He doesn’t know (or care) how much learning his own observations demonstrated to me, he just enthusiastically embraced how much he loved it. “After playing I look forward to the hot chocolate it warms my hands,” says Max (aged 3). Max and William are reflecting and evaluating in a relevant and logical context. The beauty of ‘stepping back’ and allowing the children to access Forest School autonomously has enabled each of them to embrace the experience in their own way, trailing their own uniquely relevant adventure. However, I have noticed that there are always moments when they opt into a collaborative and mutually accessible experience. This week, one by one, each child climbed into the broken boat and unanimously started singing “row, row, row your boat”. This prompted a raucous singing session of adults and children together; the boat became our ‘camp fire’. The singing was noisy and joyful; it was collaborative and happy and fun. It was spontaneous. For a few magical moments a spirit of togetherness resonated across the whole woodland space and it was led by the children: the adults were invited in but the children owned that experience confidently and soulfully. Max (3) announced to his mother at home, “I like the boat with everybody in it”.
“We are all singing together, it’s a party, we love it here”, Amelia (3).
(Parental consent was received for all photos within this blog).