How does forest school nurture connection between participants and the woodland environment?

This year I will turn 40. Most people my age do not know how to light a fire. They could probably identify the difference between a conifer and a deciduous tree, and name some, but they could probably not identify most. This week I went with my son’s class on a school trip to the local park. The teacher’s wanted them to map the park and then use some printouts from the internet to ID 7 trees. Because it is January, they had suggested looking at the confers only.

I asked if it would be ok if I took the kids in my group round and just had a general chat about tree ID. An hour later we came back with handfuls of acorns, walnut shells, beech leaves, London Plane bark and a holly leaf without spikes. They found a few hawthorn berries they could take and we peeled off some silver birch paper. This is a park which they have probably been coming to for their whole lives, and today they saw it in a whole new light.

The whole experience made me sad from start to finish and was entirely endemic of my 16 years of education. It was a tick box exercise so that someone could prove the OFSTED that they spent time in nature. In order to have a meaningful connection to your local park or nature space, it requires some knowledge about it. When you tell someone an interesting fact about what they are looking at, I will never stop enjoying the look of awe and wonder in their eyes.

How do we make sure that everyone respects the woods?

Education, conservation, experience and access. We are sadly losing so much of our precious green space. If you live in an inner city, you have extremely big challenges in accessing those places. If you live in a suburban or rural area, you can probably see more woods and wildlife, but it is mostly private and you are not allowed to go in.

Ownership of our countryside is a big step towards feeling like you want to respect and protect it. There are some wonderful organisations like the woodland trust, the National trust and the wildlife trust and they persevere in continuing to ensure that Joe average can go to lovely outdoor settings.

Finding ways to engage more people are the challenges faced by those organisations. Open days, volunteer days and courses are some of the ways in which they connect with people. If is generally found that if young people enter into a partnership and invest their time in their local green space, there is less incidence of vandalism and antisocial behaviour.

Local government play a large role in the condition of the natural spaces. Investment in personnel to maintain and look after parks has been getting lower and lower in Bristol. At St. Andrew’s park, we have been told that they are going to shut the toilets and that bins will have to be emptied by volunteers. I think that there would be a good take up if they asked for volunteers to help with planting or pruning of the plants in the park, but this has never happened. 

  • What is it about the way that we deliver our activities that makes mud, rain etc. ok?

Next week I am taking three Australians on a guided walk of Welsh waterfalls. They have already contacted me regarding their concerns about British weather. We do get a significant amount of rainfall in the UK. But it is rarely monsoon style. It tends to be scattered showers and so long as your participants are wearing good outdoor clothing, one can plan sessions which take account of the conditions.

This week at my adult forest school we had planned to bring knives and do some whittling. The day before it was around -2. Sitting around with frozen hands trying to maintain good control of a very sharp knife was not a good idea. We, instead, decided to involve the group in gathering a lot of birch bark and birch brash to get a good fire going. We used a billhook to split logs for kindling. No one talked of getting cold, because we designed activities to get people moving about.

Rain is ok so long as you have a task to focus on. Wind presents more problems than rain. Wind can make fires difficult and make participants very cold, very quickly. Wind proof gear is essential, especially for older generation participants who struggle more to maintain their core temperature. But in high winds forest school is usually cancelled.

Snow can be magical. The biggest problem with this type of weather is keeping hands and feet warm.  Children can become so engrossed in building snow sculptures that they don’t realise how cold their hands are.

  • How do we encourage people to enjoy nature?

Education, conservation and observation. I am yet to find a person who “hates nature”. I think that by allowing people access to their local nature, and maybe pointing out some aspects of flora or fauna to them, they develop a natural curiosity about the world around them.

I took my forest school group into their local park which they had probably been coming to since they were babies and they were fascinated by understanding more about all the trees and plants around them. We also found evidence of the mammals which live there and they took the pine cones home to show their class teacher.

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