Fast tracking the development of forest schools / kindergartens in the Support from the Start target area is an early initiative within the test site. Over the next two years £80,000 will be invested to support the development of this approach with schools and nurseries. Most of this will be used to train teachers and other school staff as ‘forest school leaders’.
How is this relevant to tackling health inequality?
Experience of of forest school in Scandinavian countries as well as south of the Scottish border has highlighted that this approach to outdoor learning can have a significant impact on health and learning. The Early Years Framework has recognised this experience and the research evidence, by highlighting forest school and kindergartens as areas of priority for development. East Lothian has been developing forest school over the last two years with the first programme taking place at Saltoun Primary and followed by programmes at Preston Lodge High school, Cockenzie nursery and Law Primary, but the test site is an opportunity to have a more strategic approach to developing this approach for East Lothian children.
At a recent meeting of East Lothian head teachers I was asked to give a brief presentation about the developments around forest school and the plans for training forest school leaders that are currently in place. I started the presentation by asking the heads to take part in a quick piece of research. They were asked to close their eyes and think of a pleasant or happy childhood memory, after a minute or so I then asked them to raise their hand if the memory was associated with the outdoors – all but one of the head teachers present raised their hands. Its not the first time that I have asked groups to take part in this exercise and every time the response is the same – when asked to think of a pleasant or happy childhood memory the majority of people will bring to mind memories that are associated with being outdoors. And yet it seems that children are sending less and less time in natural environments, and most of a child’s school experience will be in-doors.
Forest school involves a regular and sustained involvement with a woodland ecosystem as an environment for learning. The focus is on creating the conditions for achievement through small achievable tasks. A well run forest school will aim to develop in a way that allows as much of the learning experiences as possible to be child led. Forest school also introduces responsible risk taking, this means that children are taught to recognise and mange risk rather than avoid it. For example, fire is frequently a feature and focal point of forest school, but is only introduced when the children have demonstrated the behaviours and knowledge needed to manage the risk, inherent with fire, safely. Communicating thoughts and feelings are key skills within a forest school, both to interprete and process the experience and to achieve all the steps in a group task like building a den. It is my belief, and the available evidence points to this sort of approach having an impact on self esteem and confidence, and this is why we think that fast tracking the development of forest schools with the Support from the Start communities can have an impact on health inequality.
However, one thing I can safely predict is that the children that are involved in forest shool will experience it as fun. Maybe when they reflect on a happy childhood memory as adults, time spent outdoors at forest school will be there for them.