To drive a vision forward you have to believe in the concept you are promoting. When you start to lose that faith in that concept so does the passion and drive to promote it within your work.
Whenever I find myself reminiscing about my childhood with people of a similar age, we reflect on the opportunities we had as children to wander off alone and explore with our friends. Not a grown-up in sight. We would be out first thing with jam butties in our backpacks, and not come back until tea time. Our days were spent exploring woodlands, building sites; parks and playing out in the street, testing those boundaries and taking risks. Unfortunately today these opportunities are a rarity for children and I wonder what their memories of the outdoors will be when they are older?
Therefore, my sessions are designed with this in mind, especially for my older children. I have created a space whereby children have the opportunity to engage with their peers, in a safe confined space without the interference of an adult within their play. Our sessions are designed to teach children one of the most fundamental life skills – how to be human. Not many children get the opportunity nowadays to spend 6 hours a day completely immersed in nature with the opportunity to engage in child-led play. Play in its purest sense is what the children who come to us get to experience. These playful moments are what teach children a whole range of complex skills and support the development of their executive functions and cognitive development. Our social relationships help us to develop a sense of belonging and I believe children do not get enough opportunities nowadays to develop these skills due to their overstructured lives.
What we do provide is a range of open-ended loose parts for the children to engage with, and if they do want us to build, construct or guide an activity then we will. They learn to problem-solve, turn-take, negotiate, be imaginative, have disagreements and resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and collaborate. Essential life skills. I wholeheartedly believe that the educators are there to provide strategies that support children’s emotional literacy skills, and if children want some guidance and to participate in the activities we have on offer, then it should be their choice to do so. However, when we tell parents that they have had a great day, that they have just played with their friends, the words ‘just played’ seem so meaningless. It does not convey the intricate skills they are developing in their journey to becoming human and their journey to understanding themselves.
When I did my Forest School Training 10 years ago, I was at a point in my life where I hoped it would change the course of my professional life. It was one of the only courses I have ever done that stirred up something inside me and gave me such passion and drive for this approach to education. However, over the past ten years, it appears to have to become ‘lost in translation’; and something I once felt so passionate about, year on year began to become something I have lost faith in. Forest School has become a ‘buzz word’ for many settings and the original ethos is being diluted. I’ve seen many settings on social media whereby their nursery back yards have a fire pit and a range of ‘forest school’ activities on offer for the children. However, although they are outdoors, I personally do not feel that it is a natural environment in its purest form or that it provides enough opportunities for children to engage in risky play. It is outdoor learning, and there is nothing wrong with this, but what it is not is a ‘forest school’. Furthermore, when children are taken out of their settings and taken to a different location, they step into that place for the first time with such awe and wonderment, that children should have the same feeling I had when I initially did my training. This feeling I believe stemmed from the social relationships I had formed within the woodland and an awakening of my own awe and wonder. This shared experience with others is what makes the training have such an impact. Also, I don’t think the forest should be used as an extension of a school’s curriculum and assessment-driven process. I think it needs to be free of that. The countless times I have seen practitioners ask for advice about how to plan sessions to fit into some topic or theme that they are learning, then becomes a teacher’s agenda and not a child’s. I’ve also delivered sessions for schools whereby children are excluded from coming if they have been disruptive in class. It has then become a token economy that only good children can access when in fact, it is the children who are disruptive that need it the most. Forest School should not be used as a reward or punishment at any time. The terminology ‘school’ also does not sit well with me. It implies that we are an educational establishment following the same governing rules that children must be taught specific skills. For our home educated children, what we provide is an experience that enables children to engage in active learning that is led by children’s own curiosity. Our approach is guided by the most influential theorists of our time Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Frobel and adopts a more constructivist approach to education. (A reaction to didactic approaches such as behaviourism and programmed instruction, constructivism states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. Knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment) Therefore, the terminology ‘school’ does not fit in with my values because it is not what we are.
From observing children over the past ten years I’ve come to realize that the one thing they need the most when they are with us is freedom. Freedom to run, freedom to explore with their friends and the freedom to do this without an adult interfering in their play. This is where one of my initial conflicts with forest school came from as there is an expectation that children must produce tangible evidence of their time with us. Or, children need to be brought away from their play to engage in an adult’s agenda and learn new skills. Schools would come to us and children would be grouped together and made to participate in the activities that were on offer so that they had something to take back to school. Teachers had to validate the financial cost of the program by the number of activities and skills the children were learning each week and which part of the school curriculum it fitted into.
It felt like an assessment had been brought into the forest because the teachers had to be able to tick boxes and have measurable outcomes. The one thing I had believed in so much was now conflicting with my own personal views with how children should be allowed to learn. I believe that the forest is not an extension of the classroom, but a place where children immerse themselves and become interconnected within it. If children do not see it in its purest sense, then how will their own imaginations unfold within it? How do they learn to truly see it? And when you minimise the number of activities on offer, children then begin to be more creative with what the forest has provided.
The most fundamental skill that young children should learn when they are in the forest, is how to develop their emotional intelligence and their connection to the natural world. This combination is what enables children to know what their values are, to develop ideas, reflect on their frustrations of self-directed learning and assimilate information that will hopefully set them up for life. What it is is play in its natural sense. It is the combination of Nature and Nurture that my business is set up to promote – not a school in a forest. I went to university last year to study curriculum and psychology and to really unpick my business, its vision, and values and move forward with an approach that fits with what I firmly believe in. It brings together pedagogy, psychology, and sociology which is the Nurture aspect of my business with the benefits that a fully Nature immersive experience has on children’s wellbeing. What we are is a nature-based setting that delivers The N2N Approach.
With fully immersive nature settings now becoming more prevalent across the country, the spectrum of Forest School becomes quite vast. When a setting can go into their back gardens and call it ‘Forest School’, to a setting that is outdoors all day, every day; all year round, and it is still classed as a ‘Forest School’, then the approach becomes diluted and the underpinning principles end up fitting into a settings way of working, not the other way around. Over the past three years, we have studied how the natural environment can be used as an approach to support children with additional needs, we have looked at our teaching methods and adapted them to reflect my values around children’s self-directed play and we have looked at how nature-based settings promote gender equality within early years. We have broken down every aspect of what we do to create an approach that truly reflects everything I believe in which is the power of human and nature connection combined. And in 20 years’ time, it is my hope that our children’s memories will be of the time they spent exploring and taking risks with their friends, and not an adult present in their memories, just as it was in my generation.