I don’t mind admitting that I am one of the older members of staff at The Nest Nursery, and I’m not a nursery practitioner, I am the Business Administrator for one of our settings although I do have a childcare qualification and grown up children of my own so I have experience of parenting and the education system from early years through to university.
I worked for many years at a Children’s Centre associated with the first of The Nest Nursery settings and this is where I first heard about Forest School. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it was to see these small children all togged up, whatever the weather, to go on their weekly walk to Forest School, and how I wish my children had been able to experience such sessions. Fortunately for my family we began going on camping holidays when the children were young (something I never thought I would do!), and I highly recommend this type of holiday to anyone, once your tent is pitched and everything is set up you can take stock of what’s around you, and generally that’s going to involve fields, beaches, forests, and dark, dark skies at night giving a great glimpse of the stars. However, that’s another topic altogether!!!!
In these times of risk aversion, testing at school from an early age, technology (I’m not knocking it, technology has its place), and generally wrapping children up in cotton wool, how amazing must the Forest School experience be for these youngsters! I can guarantee that every week the staff and children would arrive back at nursery with rosy cheeks and bubbling with excitement about what they had seen and done – all documented so I was often lucky enough to see the photos which adorn the nursery walls.
The idea that the great outdoors is an excellent place to learn lots of different skills, and to be absorbing this knowledge without realising you are ‘learning’ is not a new concept in the UK, but the practice of Forest Schools has its roots in Scandinavia where for many years they have recognised the importance of children having contact with nature. How often do our children get to explore a forest, smell the different scents of a forest on a hot Summer day or after it has rained, lie on the grass watching the clouds go by? How often do you do these things? Forest Schools provide the children with the opportunities to explore, be independent learners full of curiosity, awe and wonder. Each time we enter the forest (or the park or even our own garden) it will have changed, whether it is the changes of the seasons bringing new life, shooting bulbs or the changes of the tree leaves. A tree may have been felled, a new nest may have been built no two sessions are ever the same.
The Nest Nursery has four settings, none of which are anywhere near a ‘forest’, we do however have the great outdoors right outside our front doors and Forest School trained practitioners! One of our settings is lucky enough to be very close to a nature reserve; the other settings have access to local parks and a reservoir and one has its very own secret garden in the planning. The Nest Nursery places a strong emphasis on learning and discovery through outdoor play, enabling children to explore, be creative and learn to appreciate the natural world at their own pace, so to be able to offer Forest School sessions is a wonderful additional benefit for the children and staff.
We offer the Forest School experience to children from aged 3 (pre-school year) and with access to a variety of environments the experience for the children at each setting is very different. The session starts with getting ready into appropriate clothing for the season/weather, this in itself can be a challenging for some children so provides a learning opportunity before we have stepped out of the door. Children are reminded about road safety then we are off with a healthy snack in our bag to enjoy on our break!
As practitioners, we may have an idea of what we might ‘learn’ during a session, however experience has proven how quickly that can change, this is the magic of following the children’s lead and their emerging interests, sessions can lead to very magical moments.
One of our most memorable sessions recently involved the children exploring the forest looking for our Fairy, Tilly (she was being mischievous playing hide and seek). The practitioners were hoping this may lead to finding some mini-beasts but we actually had a very different experience. Whilst searching the area they came across a ball of wool tangled up in the branches. The children were very curious; where had it come from and what was it doing there? After much deliberation, they chose to untangle the wool from the tree to have a closer look. This proved very challenging, the children were pulling, twisting and creating even more knots until one child said “this isn’t working, we need a plan and we have to work together”. Soon they negotiated and developed their roles with some children focusing on the knots, some clearing away some debris and others collecting sticks (as this is what they wanted to do to help in their own way).
The discovery of a ball of wool led to the most amazing opportunity for learning. Once the wool was free the children started to use it in creative ways, expressing their ideas and thoughts, working together or individually. Some wrapped the wool around sticks, some were determined to make a knot, others joined sticks together with the wool and created a bridge for Tilly our Fairy. The levels of engagement and focus were incredible to observe. A simple ball of wool provided endless and unlimited opportunities with no end product. For the practitioners who were lucky enough to be part of this, we were just filled with joy, the joy that comes from working with children when adults learn to expect the unexpected.
Your child doesn’t have to attend a nursery to enjoy a Forest School type of experience. As adults, we sometimes need to rediscover our inner child and leave behind the stresses and strains of modern life. Take time to visit the park and really ‘see’ the environment, let your child lead you on an adventure, remember what it was like to try to climb a tree, or pick up leaves and conkers or fir cones and be creative with them. Even your back garden can provide opportunities to discover nature, look at the flowers, watch the birds, bees and butterflies and how your child reacts to them, make mud pies and jump in puddles. If you don’t have a garden or a park nearby then maybe a walk around your local area could also provide some of these opportunities – be curious wherever you go with your child, you never know what wonderful experiences may unfold!