Woodlands provide a rich and stimulating environment for learning. There are a wide variety of natural materials available for children to use. The environment is constantly changing in obvious or subtle ways depending on the time of year, time of day or weather conditions. There is stimulation for all of the senses such as the feel of the breeze on your cheek, or the sound of the birds singing, the feel of leaves crunching underfoot, the smell of the bluebells and the sight of the leaves swaying in the canopy. Woodlands also provide a calming environment where children are able to relax and enjoy themselves, making it easier for them to learn in the classroom later on.
Most children will naturally find ways to occupy themselves, and woodlands are an enabling environment allowing children to easily find something that interests them. Physically active children can play amongst the trees and shrubs or find something to climb. Inquisitive children can observe the rich environment and enjoy looking at minibeasts or birds or flora. Imaginative children can engage in role-play, using props they find in the woods, becoming something entirely different than a stick. Creative children can engage in creating artwork or structures with what they find around them. There are so many things to do in a woodland, and so many opportunities for collaboration that children engage with each other in negotiation and sustained shared thinking spontaneously. A woodland is an amazing communication friendly space.
I bring some resources into a woodland to inspire children to engage and reduce impact on the woodland, but I also encourage them to use natural resources they can find around them wherever practical.
Tools are brought so that children can have the opportunity to craft using natural resources, and to create more resources of a natural origin.
I bring tarpaulins so that children can learn to provide themselves with a quickly erected shelter in case of challenging weather conditions, and so that they can engage in imaginative play.
Wool, string and ropes so that we can do activities like weaving, shelter building etc. Children love the challenge of learning to tie knots and use string to create imaginative toys like fishing rods. I also like to show children how to make natural twine using plants found in the woods.
I bring modelling clay for children to engage in creative activities.
I bring books and ID charts for children to find out about what they can observe around them.
The use of the natural resources has to be managed with care however. If we use them with abandon, we may find that we exhaust the supply created by the woodland, and that could be catastrophic for species relying on those resources. Take the use of wood for fires for example. If I were to rely on a small woodland to provide me with all of my firewood, it would have large impact on the woodland. At one school we use a small area of about 1/3 acre. This can provide some wood so I can show the children how to collect standing dead wood occasionally, but if we were to use this for every fire, we would soon exhaust the supply, and end up taking down trees. For this reason I bring firewood and kindling with me to the site. I also limit the use of the woodland to one day per week, term time only. I can show the children how to make string from nettles, but if I were to make nettle string every time we wanted to use string, there would be no nettles left. It is important to only take what is sustainable, so that the woodland can continue without too much impact from my forest school activities. It is important to re-use what we have, and limit the harvesting of resources to a sustainable level.
Another aspect that needs to be managed is the footfall – the amount of time and people who are accessing the woods. If we overuse an area the footfall has a negative impact on the environment, causing bare earth to be exposed by the trampling of the field layer and some damage to shrubs. This could also impact on ground nesting birds and biodiversity. It is best to use an area sparingly and allow it time to recover before using again.
So I have to manage the amount of natural resources the children and I use during forest school so that we do not have a detrimental impact on the environment. However woodlands can also benefit from forest school activities.
One school I work with has a site which is fenced off which was planted around 15 years ago, then left and not managed in any way. I developed the site for forest school last year. The site was very overgrown with dog rose, some of which was cleared. There were also lots of young trees close together, which were thinned out slightly. This has allowed more light for other species to grow, promoting biodiversity. It has allowed the trees to spread their canopy more, allowing them to grow stronger and more healthily and it has allowed field level species to establish more easily. We have 2 bluebells!
On another site that I am developing to start in the Autumn term there is a lot of Himalayan Balsam, an annual invasive non-native species that grows in dense stands. Himalayan Balsam grows to about 10 feet tall and in close proximity to itself. It blocks out light and space for native species and suppresses them from growing. It is bad for biodiversity because stands of Himalayan Balsam tend to only contain Himalayan Balsam. It spreads quickly because it’s explosive seed pods spread seeds to up to 7 metres away and each plant can produce upto 800 seeds. Bees love Himalayan Balsam but may prefer it to other native species thus reducing the pollination work for other plants. Last week we had a Balsam Bash. We cleared a large area of the plant (July is a good time for this because the seed pods have not developed yet) allowing light and space encouraging other native species to grow. Good work from an ecological standpoint.
Woodlands also benefit from forest school in the long term because allowing children to connect with nature should make them care about nature for the rest of their lives. Children will become able to identify flora and fauna around them, increasing awareness and interest in nature and ecology. Being able to identify a species enables a person to be aware of its existence, thus enabling a person to care about its existence. In the long term we may have adults who are active in preserving and managing woodlands in the future, who then pass on their passion and commitment to future generations.