Outdoor Learning in Norway

Forest kindergarten 

I came across this you tube video on Juliet Robertson’s blog  ‘I’m a teacher get me out of here’. I couldn’t resist posting it here – because this story is a really good way of explaining what nature nurture actually means. (Sadly the link is blocked from my work computer but have tried it from home and it works there)

Anybody that wants to keep up with outdoor learning could do worse than checking Juliet’s blog. For  instance the story of Marcus the Lamb had escaped me completely till I recently checked her blog – had to laugh although its not really a funny story especially for the teacher involved.

Also the woodland trust have recently published an outdoor learning pack for primary teachers based on a programme run in West Lothian that looks very useful

woodland-trust-outdoor-learning-pack1

Forest school – Nature Nurture

 
All our own work
All our own work

Over the last year I have been training as a forest school leader with the forest school training company. As chair of the East Lothian Forest education Initiative and a keen fan of the forest school concept I felt I ought to experience it for myself. It has been a great experience.

I had helped out a couple of times at  the Saltoun primary pilot project which was delivered by Karin Chipulina – you can see the video the school made on her web blog – but I have never really done any work that involved working directly with school children over a sustained period of time. Altough I have taught woodland craft / conservation skills in my spare time for a number of years mostly to adults and older children – I never really have time to get to know the people I have worked with other than on a very superficial basis – so forest school was a completely new experience.

The concept itself came from Sweden where it developed in response to parent demand following some early pioneering work. Basically the concept seeks to use the nurturing qualities of the outdoor environment to support personal, social and emotional learning through play. Research has consistently shown that quality outdoor environments are stress relieving for all age groups, and for children there are advantages in terms of motor skills development, reduced infections, as well as for confidence and self esteem.

The training is a mixture of taught and practical sessions – including the delivery of a forest school programme of a minimum of six sessions usually delivered over six weeks.

Whitecraig primary kindly let me work with one of their classes for my practical programme, under the supervision of the class teacher.

Here is a link to the session plans I developed with the teacher.  whitecraig-session-plans

I have to say that the first time I met the kids in the class i was completely out of my comfort zone – there is something about the scrutiny of five and six year olds that is more unnerving than the professionals and managers I am more familiar with. Leaving comfort zones was also an issue for the class teacher, who admitted to me, that for the first few sessions, the lack of walls in our outdoor classroom caused her some anxiety.

I learnt a lot from the class about the practical application of the forest school concept and a lot from th teacher about the management of a class – how to make sure that they were listening and understanding what was being said. Most of all I had a glimpse of how powerful the outdoors can be as a learning environment for children. It was a privilege to work with the class who were very well behaved – attentive and receptive of new experiences. It was a joy to see their personalities coming out during the course of the eight weeks, and to see them using the experience to grow. The boys who were physically over confident but learnt to understand and respect the boundaries that were placed on them in the outdoors. The quite ones who given the right moment were willing to step into the limelight – the boy with a real talent for expressing himself artistically. The bright girl that always sought the teachers attention in the classroom fading into the background in the outdoors. The girl that struggled with direct adult attention, but was confident amongst her peers with practical tasks. The boy that visibly grew when given direct praise. It was never difficult to engage these kids in what we were doing – they were always up for it – that wasn’t the cleverly designed sessions – it was being outdoors.

From their reactions and feedback I think the children enjoyed the sessions. The parents that came along every week as helpers I think also got something out of it despite the poor weather – it always seemed to be raining on a tuesday morning. The teacher said that the kids always looked forward to the forest school sessions and brought a lot of what they did outdoors into the rest of thier school week – and it was always a quiet and relaxed class in the afternoon after the morning forest school session. I was impressed with one part of the teachers feedback when she observed that she felt the class had developed a group identity and settled as a class more quickly than she thought would have happened without the sessions – it was a P1 / P2 composite class and the session took place in October.

Walking to the forest school site
Walking to the forest school site
 Trust games - no peeking  

Forest school and kindergartens

Trust game

fire-pic

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.