Community and Forest School

Written by Jay Ramsey, 2014

“I had my first four all at home but when I came here I had the rest at hospital” I look up from where I am working with Someya to the group of women in animated discussion a few feet away. Listening to mums discussing their birthing stories I feel a glow and smile rising inside myself, as the husband of a midwife, birth stories (in all their detail) are not new to me and having been present at my daughter’s birth I understand the need for people to share and express these often life changing and sometimes traumatic experiences. What causes me to smile with a deep sense of excitement, humility and optimism is the fact that these mums are having this spontaneous discussion at forest school, obviously comfortable with each other’s company, my male presence, and with their immediate surroundings. These women are still relative strangers to me and to each other, although all local they hail from many different parts of the planet and we only met each other a few short weeks ago at the beginning of the nursery term. I feel the beginnings of acceptance; I feel part of something, part of a community, the community, my community, our community.

Much has been written about the benefits of regular forest school experiences on children’s self-esteem, learning and development. Indeed it is only through our parents understanding of these benefits that we are able to run Forest School sessions at all as we need support from our parents to keep the children safe by the roads on the half-hour walk to and from the site. This article will instead focus on the many and sometimes unexpected benefits we have found of running Forest School sessions on a site within walking distance of our setting.

“It is nice here” says one of the mums looking around approvingly “it is like the bush, I can relax” This is a sentiment shared by most who come to our Forest School sessions at Narroways.

Narroways – much used by dog walkers, wildlife lovers and party goers alike. This patch of old railway wasteland was protected by members of the local community from property development back in the 1990’s and has received so much love, care, and attention that although it lacks the grandeur of fully mature woodland it is becoming an official Nature Reserve and provides countless opportunities for children to explore and discover whilst feeling that they are in the wild.

The Narroways Millennium Green Trust (a group of volunteers formed from the community to look after the site) are delighted that local children are using the site to learn about nature. Because we go on regular days we tend to meet the same local people also enjoying the area, a rapport develops and they are keen to share their appreciation of Narroways with us. Birdwatchers have stopped and shown the children the different birds and taught them to listen for the distinctive songs, flora enthusiasts have shown us hidden herbs and interesting plants, people share tales of the animals they have seen. Somebody sleeping rough told us his name and stories of cold nights under the stars and selling the Big Issue in the city. A young couple camping were so taken with the children and the idea of FS that they joined us for almost an entire session.

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The walk through St Werburgh’s to get to Narroways from Nursery is just as rich with interests and interactions; we get to know gardens and their people; cars and where they usually park; builders and the extensions they are working on. The children remember and exclaim with enthusiasm, comparing their memories with how it is now. Signs are examined and re-examined as recognition grows, numbers are identified and compared to experience. All the usual benefits of taking the children off site apply when doing Forest School in your community but with the added learning that happens (just like with a story) when children are able to repeat and revisit an experience over and over, enhancing, expanding, articulating and embedding their knowledge with each subtle variation.

It had been raining when we set out but now the sun is breaking through making the autumn leaves appear to glow and causing the packed brown earth at base camp to gently steam. The bird song rings clearly out above the roar of the M32, so distant it could be the sea. However, most conversations stop as trains periodically thunder by heard but unseen down the embankment on the other side of the dense hedge and chain-link fence.

fs2These trains remain a continual source of excitement for some of the children throughout their year of forest school visits just as they do when they rumble past the nursery playground not half a mile away.

We often stop on the bridge over the track or up on the hill and study our maps, looking at the landmarks and tracing our route. Some parents point out their houses, or places of work, or buildings on Bristol’s skyline that they have helped build. We watch the trains pass the nursery, guessing which way they will go at the points, waving at the driver and passengers as they power past below us often getting a toot in return.

Sometimes we stand at the top of the hill having arranged with the other half of the class still at nursery to come outside to the front. We wave our flags and shout to them and they wave their flags and shout back.

We can see them made small by distance and dulled by haze. We can hear their shouts reaching us over the hum of the city in the pauses between our shouts to them, in the lulls between the gusts of wind. These experiments with light, sound, distance and time are all rooted in the relevant and the familiar; further strengthening the children’s links between themselves their experiences and their surroundings. They get to hear their friends and see their nursery, see and feel how far they have come and how high they have climbed, how long it has taken them. The children remaining at Nursery get to see where it is they go when they go to Forest School. The following week the groups have changed places and we repeat the exercise.

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Enlisting parental volunteers was initially one of our biggest challenges with Forest School but it also gives us our greatest rewards. Most who come to one or two sessions quickly become reliable year-long supporters. It increases our adult: child ratio to one: two. Making the journey safer but also increasing the number of adult ears ready to hear the children’s voices and adult eyes able to see their actions, greatly increasing our observations and developing understanding of the children’s interests and personalities. It enables parents to spend time with the children, each other and myself away from the busyness of their own lives and the often hectic nature of drop-off and collection times at Nursery. There is time to talk, explore, support and relax, time to get to know each other as well as our natural surroundings. We bond, we have fun; especially it seems, when faced with adverse weather conditions. The adults are challenged to overcome their conditioning but the children move naturally through the elements. We witness their excitement as the path becomes a rushing stream with wellie filling puddles. As the year progresses parents’ confidence increases, they realize that they don’t need specialist training or any equipment (beyond good clothing) to have a fun and fulfilling time with their children out in nature. It is for free and they don’t even need transport to get there as it is already within the heart of their community. Many parents don’t previously realise that Narroways is there or that it is a public space. We had one student teacher who lived two streets away but did not know it existed. One mum who drove her obese son to Nursery did not believe that he could walk that far. She was amazed when he did and that he actually enjoyed it. He enjoyed it so much that he begged for her to come too. After weeks of this she reluctantly came and was so blown away by the transformation in her son that the whole family started going there at the weekends. Or another excited mum returning after the summer holidays with stories of picking carrier bags full of the fruit that we had seen developing in the last sessions of the summer term, describing how her children knew which trees to look for and the joy of picking fruit on a sunny day with members of the community all around and there being more than enough for everyone to share.

This for me is the ideal scenario where families feel able to use the natural spaces within their community at the weekends or during the holidays independently of Nursery or Forest School. It becomes a golden haven for them throughout their lives that they respect and care for. The children use it as they become young adults and maybe even bring their own children there in turn. It is cherished and protected by the community and it nurtures the community in return.

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I think the ultimate benefit from running FS within our community comes from the increase in visibility: we are making our children more visible to the community and the community more visible to our children.

The children are fascinated by the different gardens that they see on their walk through the footpaths and backstreets. Whether it is the youngsters who rent a shared house with a ragged garden full of ever-changing sculptures created from found objects that spill over onto the path or the old age pensioners a few doors down whose garden is immaculate gravel with cat-shaped flower pots. Each week the children stop excitedly, talking about what they can see, commenting on the changes, articulating questions. The gardens become friends and the owners become friendlier. I believe this increase in visibility or exposure leads to an increase in learning, in interactions, in understanding, in awareness, in compassion, these knock on effects feed and build on each other like a positive feedback loop spiralling up; leading, in my belief, to an increased sense of belonging or in other words an increased sense of community.

By taking the children into the community every week I am testing out the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. From the softening of postures and open smiles as people stop to greet us on our way. From the watching behind net curtains to the waving through the window to the opening of doors and stepping out to talk to us and share their stories, from the offers of help and sharing of time and knowledge, I am also realizing that it works both ways – that children lift a community.

My thoughts are interrupted by shouts of “Its green!” we cross the now dry main road outside nursery at the pelican crossing and go back to class to see our friends, get changed, and head home.

Jay Ramsey, 2014

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