Written by Jay Ramsey, 2011
Forest School represented an ideal vehicle for me to develop my real passion for learning outdoors and enabling children to access, experience, and enjoy all that nature has to offer right on their doorsteps. I recognize that I was coming to the course with a lot of ideals: Forest school would give children freedom and space to be themselves, it would allow truly child led play to occur which would increase learning, confidence, and self esteem, as well as social skills and language development. Children would become aware of and inspired by nature as well as learning how to respect and look after it. Parent helpers would see their children behaving in different ways and come to view Narroways as an abundant, free resource within their community that they could take ownership of, and feel comfortable using outside Nursery hours. Children would grow up having positive experiences there, and thus value it as adults generating an ethos of stewardship which would then be passed on down through future generations.
Although I had high hopes and expectations for Forest Schools in general and the course in particular I also had a lot of apprehension and fear. The task seemed too big, the hazards too many, and the risks too high. The job of convincing the head teacher (let alone the parents or governors) that Narroways is a suitable site and could be safe in spite of; sex and drug litter being found; evidence of people sleeping rough in the area; very steep banks; plentiful dog mess; and an abundance of eyelevel thorny branches, was not easy. In expressing my own concerns at the start I almost bought about cancellation of the whole project.
The course really helped in this regard. Firstly by encouraging me to re-examine my relationship to risk enabling me to see the learning opportunities possible in many risky situations, and also highlighting the potential detrimental effects of not allowing children to experience risk and thus miss out on developing their own judgements and risk assessment abilities. Secondly the course systematically broke down all the hazards into their smaller more manageable parts, showing how each component could be thoroughly assessed and planned for. This did not eliminate the risks but showed how to minimize their potential consequences. This whole process was a lot of work and on one hand seemed very over the top for what is essentially a very simple exercise of taking a small group of children off-site. Upon returning to Nursery from my first Forest School Session I felt a great sense of relief that none of the potential catastrophes had happened and a dawning awareness that actually this was a very straightforward process. On the other hand this detailed and comprehensive risk management process greatly increased my confidence, reducing my anxiety over ‘what ifs?’ and developing my competence in convincing others of the project’s feasibility. It is this confidence that has enabled Forest School @ Narroways to go ahead. Planning for the worst (although initially time consuming and daunting) demonstrates in a very practical sense just how possible Forest School is. This has been an important lesson for me and one which I can apply in many other circumstances.
The process of setting up and running Forest School Sessions at Narroways has greatly increased my involvement in the community: developing both my and the children’s relationships beyond the nursery setting. Ten Parent Helpers have attended sessions so far, many on a regular basis. As our relationships develop so too does their confidence and contributions to the children’s learning in the form of sensitive support, detailed observations and ideas for future sessions. The children too get to know each other’s parents and in some cases siblings: much talk is around family, developing a sense of self and belonging. A governor has attended with her child and we have an invaluable Adult Volunteer who helps weekly but is neither parent nor governor. I have strengthened ties with the City Farm and Boiling Wells Youth Project and formed very positive links with Narroways Millennium Green Trust – attending their meetings, using their wealth of knowledge, and giving feedback on the progress of the project. All these beneficial relationships formed through the process of running regular learning sessions outside of the nursery setting, not only enrich my own life and practice, but also raise the profile of the nursery within the community and of early year’s education as a whole.
Running regular sessions with minimal predetermined resources has enhanced my understanding of the power of play based child led learning. Time and again I have observed intense effort and hard work taking place but it was not felt as such: being self chosen and largely self directed play. I have had to reassess my role as teacher: letting go of predetermined outcomes and becoming a facilitator of experiences and opportunities. I am curbing my tendency to rush in and fill the uncertain spaces and am instead learning the balance of adult support and child led, treading the fine line of promoting choice, allowing freedom to; play; take risks; make mistakes; experience success; develop confidence and learn spontaneously. This line has the twin dangers of, on the one side, over regulation and control of the sessions by adults which protects the children but inhibits their learning, and on the other side play becoming unfocused and socially detrimental to some members of the group and even physically unsafe. Walking this line is what I perceive to be one of my main challenges as an educator, not just within Forest School but also my wider practice as a whole: How to support without suffocating, how to promote self determination and responsibility within limits that the children can handle. Through my experience of the sessions as well as the record of observations, assessments, evaluations and planning, I can see how Forest School is helping me walk this line with more confidence and competence.
Jay Ramsey, 2011