Forest schools and practical risk education

Forest Schools

Based on an article by Jenny McWhirter in Safety Education, Autumn, 2007

In education we hear a lot about learning by doing, but when it comes to safety and risk education we are sometimes a little unsure how to put this into practice, especially for the youngest children in our communities. Many members of the LASER Alliance provide 10-11 year olds with a chance to develop some strategies for managing risk in everyday situations Outward bound activities and the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme offer young people the chance to develop their skills in recognising hazards, assessing and managing risk in a variety of unfamiliar settings. But what about the youngest children in the education system? Traditionally, instinctively, do we do everything we can to keep them safe, discourage them from taking risks and perhaps as a result, inhibit the learning which might come from those missed opportunities?

In 2007 Jenny McWhirter, RoSPA's risk education adviser, visited Sunny Brow nursery school in Middleton where 3-4 year olds learn about risk outdoors through a Forest School. In Denmark, where the idea originated, Forest Schools are an integral part of all pre-school education. Children spend extended periods outdoors in all weathers, getting to know the environment and using it as a platform for learning a variety of social and practical skills. The aim is to provide opportunities for 'positive experiences and participation in engaging, motivating and achievable tasks and activities in a woodland environment, helping to develop personal and social and emotional skills'.

Sunny Brow Nursery School is based in a large Victorian house set in its own grounds but surrounded by the trappings of a modern urban environment. The school already makes good use of the gardens, but an area of overgrown woodland has now become one of its greatest assets. The site is bounded by a high fence enclosing the school grounds and a narrow stream at the foot of a steep bank. On the far side of the stream is a golf course. Narrow, muddy, paths twist their way between low growing brambles, shrubs and mature trees. The paths are far from smooth, with tree stumps, bricks and other debris from older buildings on the site poking through. Apart from clearing brambles to make the paths and lopping off eye level branches, very little has been done to 'improve' the area with conspicuous safety measures. The stream is not fenced off and the rubble has not been removed. Yet Janet Cook, the teacher who initiated the project at Sunny Brow believed she had fewer accidents in her forest school than she sees on conventional playgrounds for nursery age children.

Part of the reason for this is the routines established with the children before they go out into the 'forest'. These include safety signals – A hand in the air means 'stop and listen to me' a whistle means 'stop what you are doing and come to me'. A rucksack containing a first aid kit, a walkie-talkie, a mobile phone, a change of clothes and a hygiene kit is always to hand. There is also a high ratio of adults to children and clear boundaries for managing behaviour. Discipline is good and the children are offered a range of activities to keep them busy (and warm!). On the day we visited children were using magnifying lenses to examine the early signs of spring on the ground, in the trees and in the water. They were also learning to make willow flowers with a local artist-in-residence. But if the sights and sounds of the forest distracted the children they were able to go off and explore, play and discover the forest for themselves. Time flew by and a whole morning passed quickly for the children and the adults.

Janet explained that the children benefit in many ways from the experience. The greatest effects can be seen in their confidence, self esteem and communication skills. They also take responsibility for their own safety – Janet gave the example of a girl who asked to wash her hands because she has touched a fungus growing under a tree and of a boy who ran on a slippery path, tripped over a tree stump, got up, brushed himself down, told himself loudly that he was not supposed to run there today, and carried on with his game - as if nothing had happened.

Alongside curriculum planning, risk assessment is an important part of Janet's preparation. She found the Level 2 GNVQ course Forest School Assistant Practitioner excellent preparation for this role. Before each visit to the forest Janet inspects the area and then shares what she has found with the children, explaining, for example, that because of the recent rain the paths are slippery, and then discussing with the children what they need to do to be safe. As Janet explains, the children are taking risks, without being at risk.

The forest school at Sunny Brow was in full use throughout the school year. Children and staff go out in all weathers, except very high winds where the risk from falling branches is high. If it rains they shelter under a tarpaulin strung between two birch trees. A heavy frost turns the forest into a new, fairyland like place. Janet says, the summer months bring fresh hazards which they can prepare for and as the children swap their cagouls for sunhats, fresh growth in the brambles and nettles will be controlled just enough to keep the paths clear.

Forest schools can exemplify Principles 2,3,6,8,9, and 10 of 10 principles for effective safety education.

If you would like to know more about Forest Schools, opportunities for training and how to join in with this exciting approach, visit the Institute of Outdoor learning website and contact the Forest Schools Association.

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