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13 November 2014

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You are in: Birmingham > Nature > Nature Features > Forest Schools

Nick sawing a piece of wood

Nick shows a girl how to use a saw

Forest Schools

If you go down to the woods today, you might just find kids making camp fires, chopping wood, climbing trees and discovering a whole new way of life...

Not so long ago most kids played outside, climbed trees and did all sorts of activities that now-a-days are frowned upon. But the tide may be about to change.

Forest Schools is all about bringing kids into contact with the outdoors and letting them have a go at activities they might not ordinarily do - or be allowed to do.

Boy hammering

A boy uses forest tools

Nick Wale is an enthusiastic Forest Schools leader and is keen to share the knowledge he's learnt over the years.

"I've always had a passion for all things outdoors, with fond childhood memories of weekends and holidays exploring local hedgerows and woodlands and further a field the mountains of north Wales and the coast," said Nick.

"Observing wildlife; pond dipping, birdwatching, looking after injured animals and birds, climbing trees, making dens, getting lost and finding my way home again - all gave me a passion for the outdoors.

"Even now, my summers are often spent outdoors be it in wild places or at gatherings, cooking on open fires and sleeping outdoors, meeting new people, sharing stories, playing music, learning new skills… I find these experiences inspire me when I return to the city."

Pioneering Forest Schools

Nick was at the forefront of Forest Schools in Birmingham. In 2004 the Birmingham Forest Education Iniative (FEI) asked if he'd be interested in training as a Forest Schools Leader and asked him to lead Birmingham's first Forest Schools pilot project.

Girl playing a drum

Girl playing a drum

At the time Nick was managing the grounds of Springfield Environmental Education Centre for children with special needs; a 16acre nature reserve.

This is where he'd learnt many of the skills - tree-felling, hedgelaying, habitat management, green woodwork, gardening, vegetable production, art in nature and of course working with children in the outdoors.

Nick had also been going into schools and advising on the development of their grounds. The Storywood at Perry Common Junior and Infants School was a neglected piece of ground that was turned into an oasis of trees and a fantastic wildflower meadow.

Nick said: "The Storywood was really the first official Forest School in Birmingham and is still actively used today for Forest Schools, environmental education and outdoor learning. At its peak as many as 400 children visit a week!"

Forest Schools Birmingham

Following the success of the pilot at The Storywood and a simultaneous programme run at Springfield (which is still going today) Nick branched out as a freelance and set up Forest Schools Birmingham with his partner Afric Crossan.

Nick and a boy fence making

Nick shows a boy how to make a fence

Nick continued: "Interest in Forest Schools and outdoor learning has grown considerably in the last few years and we have had to diversify to cope with the demand.

"We now employ freelance practitioners and artists to deliver programmes with us; ranging from Forest schools, Wild in the Woods after school/weekend programs, woodland taster days for schools, craft sessions, school grounds development, gardening projects, sculptures, willow work, parent groups, corporate days and social forestry.

"It's difficult to explain a typical Forest School session without experiencing one, but our mission statement goes something like 'a journey of self discovery and awareness in the outdoors'. "

A journey of self discovery

"We try to achieve the following," said Nick. "Learning fire safety using small campfires to cook and make drinks on, shelter and den building, green woodworking, tool use, games and storytelling.

"And for those who are regulars, we do knots and ropework, craft making, art in nature, identifying and trying wild foods and identifying flora and fauna. All of these things encourage a positive relationships and emotional literacy."

A girl carves with a knife

A girl carving

Forest Schools are not about teachers and adults telling children what to do and how to do it. It's about them discovering things for themselves.

"It's child led learning aimed at developing amongst other things their confidence and encouraging an empathy with nature," said Nick.

"These activities we do are said to improve gross and fine motor skills, encourage independence and assess risk taking awareness, as well as improving their knowledge of, and confidence in the natural environment."

Health and Safety regulations often mean children are prohibited from certain activities these days, and activities that were classed as 'normal childhood activities' 20 years ago, are no longer permitted.  So how do the children react to being told they can learn to start a camp fire, cut things with knives, chop wood etc?

"With disbelief!" said Nick.

"Kids love this experience, but are often hesitant or even scared at first until they are shown how to keep themselves safe outdoors through experience, nurture and confidence building."

Adult life skills

Nick continuted: "They're taught to assess their own risk, taking an important skill for their adult lives.

A boy takes a break in the wood

Taking a break from activities

"The children are taught how to be safe around a small campfire. We are passionate about this experience for our children in the belief that it helps to demystify fire; over time they become familiar and comfortable around fire and act as stewards to newcomers ensuring they know all the safety rules, usually any initial enthusiasm for fire becomes a healthy respect which is often passed down to family members in turn.

"Children are also taught safe techniques for using adult size woodland tools, from secateurs to bow saws. They are often used in pairs which encourages communication, cooperation and respect - it is rewarding to see the pride on a child's face when they have just cut through a log or felled a small tree!"

Looking to the future

Like any project, the future of Forest Schools depends on funding.

"One of our biggest supporters is the Kingstanding Education Action Zone (RAIK) who currently fund six days a week Forest Schools delivery," said Nick.

"Other supporters are the Birmingham City Council Study Support Development Team, Kingstanding Extended Provision, and even the schools themselves."

Girl firing a bow and arrow

Firing a bow and arrow

It is hoped by March '09 a new site will be added to the Forest Schools list.

Lifford Lane Lakeside Centre in Cotteridge is owned by Birmingham City Council. It was once used for environmental education but fell into disuse.

The site is being cleared and made ready for use as a Forest School - this is being done in conjunciton with BCC Parks Nature and Events, FEI Cluster Group, Friends of Kings Norton local Nature Reserve, Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust and the Birmingham Ranger Service.

It is hoped that once developed, the Lifford Lane site will become the flagship Forest School site for Birmingham, giving more children the opportunity to take part in these activities.

For more information on Forest Schools see the Forest Schools website.

last updated: 24/02/2009 at 17:28
created: 23/02/2009

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