Caroline Cole shares the healing she found from forest schools

inhale the smell of pine trees and damp earth deeply as I walk through the woods with my classmates, my heart beating wildly in anticipation as I hear the soft rustling of the leaves in the trees whilst the birds sing above. I grip hold of the rope tightly in my hands as I surrender to the environment, my sense of smell, hearing and touch heightened as my sense of sight is taken away. Blindfolded, I am led to a tree, which in greeting I hug tenderly. The tree responds, its energy and personal story now entwined with mine. In this moment of connection with nature, something stirs within me.

In this, the most poignant of memories of my schooldays, the thousands of hours sat in a classroom blur into one, insignificant and mundane compared to this outdoor sensory experience. Almost three decades on, I reflect on what this memory reveals about the value of outdoor educational experiences. A passage from Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder also comes to mind: “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.”

Finding forest school

On the birth of my son, I returned to nature. Strapped securely in a sling, Ewan and I walked endlessly in the local woods and fields. I introduced him to the trees, flowers, animals and ducks, exulting in a newfound freedom and rediscovery of nature. During this period, I found a forest school playgroup in beautiful semi-ancient woodland in the Peak District. My first visit to the site was like a homecoming. It also signalled the beginning of a new journey for our family. I breathed in the tranquil, nurturing and welcoming space, in an environment where I could truly be myself. Sitting close to the fire, my 6-month-old daughter nursing, I observed my 3-year-old son and the other preschool children playing contentedly amongst the trees. Many of the children were ‘in the zone’, using simple tools to make woodland crafts or sitting contemplatively by the fire.

Forest school training

When my daughter started forest school sessions at age 2, I worked alongside her as a parent volunteer. This later developed into a paid role as a forest school assistant, which I still hold today. My time at forest school has been a healing process for me, helping me work through aspects of my teacher training course that had been negative and stressful and had led to low self-esteem and a fear of assessment. In contrast, the highly positive experience of forest school led to my decision to train to be a Forest Schools Level 3 Practitioner. The training involved an initial five-day course, followed by one year’s consolidation of skills whilst developing a portfolio of evidence, culminating in a four-day assessment. I have recently completed and passed the assessment and now have to finish my portfolio before becoming fully qualified.

I found the training course truly inspirational. It was led by passionate, talented forest school trainers, who were excellent role models in how to interact with learners. The course taught me a lot about myself, including how I learn and the barriers to learning I have built up over the years, due to fear of the unknown and what I perceive I cannot do. The trainers reinstilled self-belief and confidence in my ability to work with children, after five years out as a full-time mother.

There are numerous positive impacts of forest school for both learner and practitioner. The learner-led ethos encourages learners to be creative and independent, as they develop emotional literacy alongside physical and practical skills and more appreciation of the natural world. Forest school offers space to roam freely, to play unobserved in a natural setting. These are endangered experiences in 21st-century Britain, as the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’, coined in 2005 by Richard Louv, demonstrates. Forest school partly fills this gap – one reason why it has grown as a movement so rapidly in the UK over the past decade.

Home education and forest school

When Ewan reached statutory school age, which in England is 5, we made the decision to home educate him. We discovered an excellent local home-education forest school group, which he attends every week. Ewan is totally at home in the woods, spending hours playing in the river, creating intricate channels for water to flow or dams to block woodland sprites. Our daughter Tessa is also excelling at forest school, very much a woodland nymph, having spent huge amounts of her life in the woods. We plan to home educate her too, once she leaves playgroup.

Forest school journey 

I have met various challenges on my forest school journey, but, like my blindfold walk as a child, it is about trusting myself and the environment I am in. Studying and working while bringing up young children is also a juggling game. It can be exhausting both emotionally and physically; the worst aspect for me has been missing my family when we are apart. Having a supportive husband, family and workplace is invaluable, as well as some time to nurture myself through yoga and walking.

Forest school utilises my love of being outdoors and being with children, in a nurturing space that has taught me to believe in myself. It is also a lot of fun and very rewarding. I have learnt to light a fire, use tools and put up a tarpaulin shelter – all things I was once fearful of doing. This ‘can do’ attitude and learning in small, achievable steps is modelled at forest schools and translates well back in the classroom, where students feel better equipped and more motivated to learn.

The quiet observer 

In this process I am learning to observe as children play, to follow their lead and be flexible in my approach, only intervening when necessary. This has been a steep learning curve for me, different from conventional teaching. Allowing children to ‘simply be’ sits at the heart of forest schools, so vital in our children’s busy, scheduled, high-tech lives. Forest schools provide a setting that a few decades ago children would have experienced more spontaneously as they roamed in groups in local parks and woodlands.

Older children also need the opportunity to play. At my son’s forest school I observed two 12-year-old girls concocting some delicious-sounding, extravagant dishes, all made out of mud; an 11-year-old boy making and playing with a bow and arrow; and a small group splashing in the river and then climbing its banks. These young people were being given the space and time to play creatively, free from mobile phones, social media, scheduled classes and homework.

The good news is that more forest schools are sprouting up around the country, many in urban areas. An increasing number of preschools and schools now offer forest school programmes. Organisations such as the National Trust and Wildlife Trusts provide forest school taster sessions, and independent companies and charities also run programmes. If none of these are available to you, the forest school concept can still be integrated into your lives.

For me as a parent, home educator and childcare worker, the forest school ethos is a very workable, gentle and in many ways beautiful model to follow. Every day the inspirational process supports my lifelong learning and that of my children. I am confident it has also touched the lives of the dozens of preschool children I have worked with at playgroup forest school. It remains my sincerest hope that my own children and all the children I work with experience that same deep connection with nature I felt as a child.

How to get out more as a family

  • Dress appropriately for the weather. Be prepared with extra clothing or sun protection as necessary. Take on board the saying ‘There is no such thing as bad weather: only bad clothing.’ If your children are uncomfortable, they will shut down, unable to learn.
  • Ensure that your children are fed and hydrated. Take snacks and water with you. Once their basic needs are met, they will be able to enjoy themselves and create happy memories of their outdoor experiences.
  • You do not need to live near wilderness to experience the outdoors. Parks, gardens and the edges of play parks are rich resources too.
  • ‘Hook’ your children through a theme or interest you know will entice them, whatever that is.
  • Stick to simple. Allow your children to ‘be’, providing them space in nature to play without intervening. This may initially take time, but your children will soon unwind and will intuitively know how to play in a natural setting.
  • Model for your children your respect for and enjoyment in nature. Your children will follow your lead.
  • If you do not feel confident heading out alone, go with friends or meet new families through local outdoor groups and organisations.
  • Remind yourself of the many positives of being outdoors and make the effort to get out, even when you are tired or busy. Nature will revive and reward you all.
  • Most importantly, enjoy this time with your children: it is valuable and precious.

FIND OUT MORE 

Ideas, inspiration and resources

  • The Wild Network – www.thewildnetwork.com. Includes a Wild Time idea app.
  • The Wildlife Trusts Wildlife Watch groups – www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-watch 
  • Woodland Trust Nature Detectives – www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/naturedetectives 
  • National Trust – www.nationaltrust.org.uk
  • Chris Holland’s I Love My World: The Playful, Hands-on, Nature Connection Guidebook www.wholeland.org.uk 
  • Forest School Association – www.forestschoolassociation.org 
  • Forest Schools Education (training provider) – www.forestschools.com
  • Books The Wild City Book: Loads of Things to Do Outdoors in Towns and Cities by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks, Frances Lincoln
  • The Stick Book: Loads of Things You Can Make or Do with a Stick by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks, Frances Lincoln
  • Learning with Nature: A How-to Guide to Inspiring Children through Outdoor Games and Activities by Marina Robb, Victoria Mew and Anna Richardson, Green Books
  • The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, HarperCollins
  • Last Child in the Woods; Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, Atlantic Books
  • Play the Forest School Way by Peter Houghton and Jane Worroll, Watkins

Caroline Cole is mum to Ewan, aged 6, and Tessa, aged 3, and is a natural parenting writer. She loves going on outdoor adventures with her family and their Labrador, in the woods and mountains and further afield. www.stoneageparenting.com

First published in Issue 45 (Autumn 2016) of JUNO:

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