I recently enrolled my toddler in Forest School and it’s helped her development immensely. As someone new to the concept, I wanted to find out more. I interviewed the brilliant Kirsty Meekings, a Forest School Practioner in Southeast London, to find out just what it is about Forest School that makes it so special and is it for everyone?
What lead you to Forest School?
I really want children to experience being outside. Its my passion. I trained as a primary school teacher and when I had my own kids I became a childminder, so I could be at home with them while working. I live around the corner from Bostall Woods in Greater London and we’d be there a lot, whatever the season. I had a stack of waterproof onesies and a double buggy round those woods, come rain or shine! It was then I learned that slowing down is magic and going at the speed of the child makes all the difference. I was happier outside and once they started school in 2016 I didn’t want to go back to the classroom.
How did you get involved?
I’d heard of Forest School through early years groups and blogs. I’ve never been comfortable with the English education system getting children in school environments and testing them earlier and earlier. I took part in the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign in 2016, where we took our kids out of school for a day to protest high pressure testing for young children. British primary school children are the most tested in Europe. Not enough energy is spent on development, which is different for every child. Some are physical, others more verbal, for example. Sometimes you have half a class of six-year-olds who have never climbed a tree. I really wanted to encourage confidence outside instead and after hearing about it I felt Forest School would be brilliant for that.
How would you describe Forest School?
We focus on taking inspiration from the seasons, the weather and natural resources provided by the woodland environment for crafts, stories and activities. Regular attendance throughout the year builds connection to the space, forming a relationship between the environment and people in the group. It came to the UK in 1992 from Scandinavia, although outdoor learning always comes and goes in cycles. The first outdoor school in England was actually in Bostall Woods in 1905, mainly for children from the city with breathing difficulties.
What usually happens at a Forest School session?
We start with talking about what the weather is like and whether we’ve noticed changes in the environment. We take a mindful moment to breathe, look around and be quiet. Forest School is child lead, so I provide stimulus and craft and the kids do what they want – make dens, climb trees, go bug hunting. I’m there to facilitate and supervise with tools, making swings, anything. Then we’ll have hot chocolate, regroup and talk about what everyone did and learnt. I once had a six and 11-year-old come who had no idea what to do when they arrived. They eventually went off and made a beautiful, intricate nest in the fork of a tree. They talked me through what they’d put in it. Because they chose what to do, they created something fascinating.
How did you train to become a Forest School Practitioner?
There are different levels of qualification. I did a Level 3 qualification, where I learnt theory and practical skills, like fire lighting and cooking with fire, and lots of coursework. We put up den shelters, learnt how to use tools safely, studied flora and fauna and the theorists behind them. We then had to run a pilot programme of six sessions, which was an amazing experience. It was a fantastic nine months and people with various backgrounds were studying with me.
How can it benefit children?
Parents fear children getting hurt and it’s stopping them from enjoying experiences. Our programmes are a chance for kids to take risks and assess the risks themselves. Giving them a chance to climb a tree and ask questions like, ‘Is this strong enough to hold my weight? Is it dead or alive? Will I get stuck?’, gives them confidence in their own instincts. We avoid saying ‘be careful’ because what does that mean? You’re up a tree regardless! Instead, we ask them, ‘How do you feel up there? Do you feel safe?’ I teach children about ‘uh oh’ feelings – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. They can apply this to all sorts of things in life – from crossing the road to stranger danger. We’re not always going to be there for our kids, so let’s give them strong risk analysis skills.
What are the benefits of Forest School?
We’re losing the skills of identifying plants and now Apple and Blackberry are immediately associated with mobile phones! David Attenborough said, ‘You can’t care for a world you haven’t experienced’ and I think that ethos is so important. If a child finds a pile of stones, you can link them to the geology of the area, for example. We’ve dug out natural clay from the earth and sculpted faces out of it. Fresh air and green space are also so good for our physical and mental health. We absorb Mycobacterium Vaccae from the soil through our skin, which triggers a release of serotonin – the ‘happy hormone’. This is essential for kids.
Are schools embracing this way of learning?
Some schools are incorporating Forest Schools into their curriculum. I am a practitioner at two schools that have designated Forest School areas. There is currently a campaign going for schools to increase the nature premium, like they do with sports, for example.
How can we incorporate the Forest School way into our everyday lives?
Start slowly. There are kids who’ve been brought up to ‘keep clean’ and don’t like bugs, for example, so don’t expect too much right away. Go at the child’s pace. Stop, slow down and notice things. Allow time to climb trees and jump in puddles. Bring plenty of snacks and water and go out in all weathers. If you won’t want to go out in the rain, you’ll never leave the house!
Kirsty’s Top Tips on… What to Wear
Cold Weather, look for…
– Longer tops to tuck into trousers
– A scarf and hat
– Tights or thermals under trousers
– Waterproof outer layers
– Trousers tucked into socks
– Fleece-lined snow boots
– Wellies – hopeless for warmth and slippery
– Gloves – can get in the way of exploring
Warm Weather, look for…
– Arms and legs should still be protected (from scratches, bites and sun)
– Long sleeve cotton tops, leggings and thin pairs of trousers
– A hat for when in the sun
– Anything brand new and expensive!
– Second hand is best for outdoor clothes, as they’ll get dirty and are for seasonal use.