Our Forest School Site

One of the major aspirations in our current Early years curriculum is for learning to be conducted outside. (EYFS)It recognises the potential benefits to the all round child, in a holistic approach addressing physical, emotional , creative and intellectual development. as research shows “children find lessons outdoors more relaxed more interesting and easier to understand” (Filer 2008). Teachers believe outdoor learning contributed to a more positive attitude from children towards learning and had a better impact on the relationship.(HOA) with this in mind I have devised an activity that will address many of  their needs and stays inside the governments objective for sustainable development.  “Sustainable development is based on the idea of ensuring a better quality of life for everyone now and for generations to come” (Filer,2008). It aims to support social progress, effective protection of the environment and use of natural resources.

As well as our court yards and garden at west hill we frequently like to get out and about in the community and local environment. We also have our own forest school site, to play, explore, grow vegetables and house poultry hatched within the setting. Below is some pictures of the site and some activities we do. I have also included my article which details educational benefits and the benefits to health and child well-being.

Last Halloween some of the parents and staff had a pumpkin carving competition.

Impacts of children’s environment, looking beyond initial assumptions. Author Ruth Garland. Published Plymouth University 2011


Recently in a article written by Cairns (http://hum.sagepub.com/content/55/7/799.short) . I was overwhelmed at how the aesthetic layout of young children’s provision impacted on parental choice. In the article parents were surveyed and shown pictures of what they believed would be a good environment for their children to be educated and cared for. The research which consisted of a case study method and combined questionnaires, observations and a literacy review, provided readers with the shocking reality of what I can only describe as misinformed, misguided individuals who enjoy the appeal of perfectly clean, and sterile looking establishments.  The research showed how parents choose the picture similar to A as preferable to picture similar to B.


Although no further evidence has backed up Cairns claims quite like this, it has been an issue of concern in the early year’s field for some time. Challenges have been made by practitioners working in the early year’s field there has been a shift in thinking as the forest school approach has been introduced in Britain. Nursery schools have long argued that young children can safely learn to use real tools much like they have in picture B as have the adventure playground movement in the 1950s and 1960s (Tovey, 2007). In this paper, I aim to discuss just how important the environment in which we care for our children is, and how as practitioners, we need to raise awareness in parents to look beyond their initial assumptions and focus on what the educational benefits are. Although both pictures offer children physical development, I will discuss how what may be perceived as a risky environment offers far more to children’s whole or holistic development, and how risk and risk taking should be a part of children’s lives. Practitioners are trusted to deliver high quality service to the young in there care and this means providing the right environment and sharing good practice with parents.


 In 2001 a new precedent was set in the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage, the recognition once again, turning to the children’s rights and needs for outside space. Greenman (1988) states “a learning environment is a living changing system. More than the physical space, it includes the way time is structured and the roles we are expected to play. It conditions how we feel, think and behave; and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives”. This is backed up by the recognition of child well-being encompassed in the  ‘Every Child Matters’ Green paper whose principles are used by all those working with children ( 2003). Child well-being is an integral part which looks to consider all aspects of children’s lives to improve their quality of life.  In September 2008 the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) came into effect. It appears to look more in-depth and made clear links with the importance of children’s overall well-being and physical development within the curriculum and six areas of learning than its 2001 QCA predecessor.  In the original document (QCA 2001) it acknowledges and cites “young children’s physical development is inseparable from all other aspects of development because they learn through being active and interactive”. These strategic guidelines to make early years practitioners more aware of children’s physical needs and its links has undoubtedly come so much further with continued research and training.  The 2008 EYFS appears to further recognise children’s needs to learn in many ways and acknowledges children learn best in an environment that meets all of their needs. This is known as the holistic approach, one that encompasses physical, mental, emotional and spiritual intelligence. In order that these goals are met and achieved children undoubtedly need outside space. It is the kind of outside space that we provide that we need to consider if it is to offer our children a holistic stimulating environment. There are many benefits for children in this holistic approach to learning. Children will be empowered to make their own decisions and judgments by the natural environment they are playing in. Instead of being told or guided by adults with their play they will use relevance from their own imagination; they will be able to explore and experiment without the constraints associated with an indoor environment (Tovey,2007)


With other critical areas, such as the state of the world’s global problems, in 1999 the government embarked on a document, A Better Quality of life (Defra, 1999) to address this with its policy for sustainability in education. This highlights how practitioners and teachers can both tackle the physical needs of children and adapt planning to work on the ethics of the sustainability plan and achieve curriculum goals working outside with natural resources. This is hoped to create a better quality of life for all now and for future generations (Filer, 2008).This is both holistic and encompasses heuristic play. With this in mind surely we should be moving away from purpose built plastic, rubber or manufactured materials and utilise what the natural environment can provide, as seen in picture ‘A’. Research found that in the early seventies the perception of what we should be giving our children to play with and how they should play had a fundamental flaw in children’s holistic development (Lindon, 2008). Goldschmiied (Lindon,2008) study of children in England and Italy showed that an our reliance on commercially made plastic toys had flooded our homes and nurseries. She sought to change these perceptions and introduced the treasure basket to stress the importance of materials that support all of children’s five senses. Goldschmiied also introduced the concept of a sixth sense, this idea draws on “children’s sensitivity to their own bodily movement and recognition of what physical skills feel like when they are used” (lindon.2008:11). Although the media may still influence what children wish to have as toys, education can lead to challenge this, adapting children’s thoughts of what is fun and achievable with natural play resources in rich stimulating environments. With the endorsement from the EYFS to get children outside we can move so much further than a treasure basket within at setting. This transition though needs thought and consideration, as utilising natural resources bring with it a degree of risk.


 Environments for children has always been an issue of concern and debate right back since 1921 when McMillan first critically addressed the subject by creating what she perceived was the idyllic nursery school. Her consideration of health and promotion of accessible outside provision McMillian brought forward the idea that health is meeting all physical needs (Dryden et al 2008). In the 1950,s and 60,s Britain saw a loss in outside provision but appears now to have realised its effects and pushed forward the importance taking account McMillian’s original ideas along with many acknowledgements of other great pioneers. Rousseau sought to point out, how children are active learners who acquire knowledge and develop though doing. He was a great believer in freedom and not restricting movement in young children’s lives (Pound, 2005:7). Freedom is something also promoted in the Children act 1989 where in article 31 children have a right to play (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/contents) . Maria Montesorri talks about the role of the adult allowing freedom stating “the child can only be free when the adult becomes an acute observer. Any action of the adult that is not a response to the children’s observed behavior limits the child’s freedom”(Pound, 2005:30).  Montesorri also pointed out the importance of the prepared environment, promoting holistic and heuristic experiences where children can learn and explore though their senses (Pound,2005). With this in mind we can see overwhelming evidences to support the new early year’s curriculum and how the environment plays a key ingredient in how children learn. Predetermined equipment and toys limit the senses and limit imaginative and creative play. Returning back to picture B we can understand how far away from the respected pioneers ideas play areas have become. The original term children’s garden or kindergarden came from Froebal and pioneer who believed a rich environment would be a place where children develop in harmony with nature. Froebal very much endorsed a holistic approach to learning (Tovey,2007).


Surrounding the holistic approach we understand then to the need for outside play and experiences, how children’s physical needs our met and from this the idea that these experiences meet some of our innate emotional well-being and then drives the intellectual development from motivation and exploration. Montessori linked the development of intelligence through movement, particularly though the movement of the hand (Pound,2005) whilst Ouvry (2001:) states “ outside is not just a physical space, it is also an emotional space where children can stop and share, breath in the wonder of nature and find spiritual refreshment. Physically children learn about themselves and their environment and seek to explore learning though first hand experiences; given opportunities their interests and concentration will match their motivation. Psychologist such as Bruner and Piaget document that movement is ‘thought in action’, children experience the world through their senses which in turn leads to “thoughts or the memory of those things in their heads as pictures, concepts or symbols” (Ovury, 2003:12). However all to often what we are allowing our children to play with has become restricted. As we know children love to play with sticks but how often do we see children running round with sticks in today’s society? It is adult concepts that determine what in the natural environment we deem fit for children to play with. Children are becoming aware that adults fear them playing with some materials so opt out of playing with them. Holistic development then becomes limited. Settings are becoming increasingly concerned with safety and children lack risk taking opportunities points out Ofsted in many of its inspection reports (http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Ofsted-home/Inspection-reports). Even with the EYFS stating children should take part in risk taking opportunities there shows evidence to suggest this is limited.


There is in no doubt that legislation such as health and safety law has resulted in huge implications for child care and education settings nationally with research conducted by the OCED (an international organisation helping governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalised economy) showing the impacts on provision and the misunderstood and interpretation of such laws (http://www.playengland.org.uk/?originx_9890vo_38527345561633w28u_200871614p).


We now see evidence to challenge and redirect information back to practitioners to re-evaluate the notion of law suits and risks. A growing concern on our society to overprotect our children had raised “discussions about the balance between safety, risk, and opportunities for children to play and develop” (Boyesen,Cited in Sandseter 1997) have emerged in the last decade.  This had led to seemingly influenced changes in our current guidance. The changes made in the 2008 EYFS show the recognition for risk in children’s lives and shortly later, in 2008, the Government published its Play Strategy, an integral part of the ten year children’s plan.  We have to remember though that it is still the interpretation of the individuals that influence the construction of any provision. In viewing Ofsted reports, many point out how many early years provision are over protecting children within their play and within the environment (http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Ofsted-home/Inspection-reports). Practitioners clearly are unclear of the boundaries and levels between appropriate risks and those deemed unmanageable. On the contrary though some reports undermine professional judgment and make judgments stating safety is not considered (Brooks,2007). This is worrying as so many early years settings rely on Ofsted for good reports and hence the fear, are we doing what we consider good in the eyes of an inspector, or what we know is in the best interest of the child. There is, however, this growing concern that practitioners have regarding their accountability if an accident occurs. This most certainly impacts on what is provided in an environment or when outside or on trips. In a media discussion (BBC radio 2, 2010) teachers and practitioners stressed how fear of losing their job, or the schools fear in being sued has dramatically affected their practice. The amount of paperwork involved in allowing outside play and making trips was another area addressed and teachers emphasised this often impacted on their planning.  Media reports that schools and local authorities are being sued now more than ever has clearly lead to the misinterpretation of Health and safety laws. Schools and settings becoming so safety conscious in their policies make me question whether it is for the good and benefit of the children or, in place to protect them from outrageous law suits and compensation claims(Samuel,2010). “The second largest union, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, now advises its members to avoid taking part in school trips because ‘society no longer appears to accept the concept of a genuine accident’”(Brook, 2006). We see profound risk aversion in our western culture. I see the only way forward again is to highlight the need for risk to parents and sharing our findings, educating them and when asking for consent parents acknowledge there may be an element of risk. Schools delivery in their policies  may be restricted as children enter them fall within their catchment area; where as parents often have a choice of early year’s providers within their area. Therefore early years provisions are in a better position to place the importance on the environment and its recognition to the importance to the great outside and to risk in their policies. By pointing this out and educating parents when their children are young not only gives parents choice and the recognition of its importance, it may also result in impacting parents throughout their lives and through their child’s school lives. When parents sign up to an early years provision, practitioners are best equipped in allowing parents to understand why their policies are in place, why the environment has to have an element of risk and the value this has for the child. Lindon (2003) points out it is during the early years, when children are most likely to listen to words of warning and advise on behaving sensibly and how to behave safely when opportunities offer a degree of risk. The EYFS states children should “Show understanding of the need for safety when tackling new challenges” (DfES,2008). In order for children to show an understanding then there becomes the need for opportunity. Practitioners have the duty to explain the early year’s framework to parent’s, this gives a great opportunity to explain how these goals are met implemented and their importance.


  So why after 30 years of restricting children’ play opportunities due to cultural, social and economic factors is there the realisation of benefits in challenging, self directed play experiences and appropriate play provision. Perhaps from evidence suggesting children lack qualities such as social skills, to make responsible decisions in later life (Sandseter,2009), perhaps the evidence confirming our children’s health and health related problems like obesity or the overwhelming evidence that children themselves want and need experiences which involve a degree of risk (Ball, 2002). The department for children, schools and families recently published ‘Play England’, a document aimed at local authorities responsible for providing public play areas,  those who design them and those responsible for children’s welfare in all settings to consider the benefits of risky play in children’s lives and how to manage appropriate risks.  The health and safety executive Barry Baker endorses this document stating “its application of risk-benefit assessments is a sensible approach to the health and safety management of play provision” (Ball et al,2008). 

Sandseter’s (2009) study of children’s expressions of exhilaration and fear in risky play in Norway conclusively states the benefits of risky play for young children and explores the developmental elements which both improve children’s quality of life and the abilities for future welfare. Further benefits for future welfare are endorsed by Gill (2007) who focuses on the longer-term benefits of risk encounter. He states “Children build their character and personality through facing up to adverse circumstances where there is the possibility of loss or injury” (Gill,2007). Some advocate that the predominant character traits nurtured are adventurousness and entrepreneurialism (Jones, 2007) Children learn by pushing boundaries which extends their limits and encourages them to question why, where, when and how. People learn to access and manage risk by encountering it coming to understand the balance to be achieved between the positive and negative outcomes of their actions (Moss, Petrie, 2002). Again, understanding actions and consequences is part of the EYFS curriculum guidance for the under sixes, so opportunities for this needs to be delivered early on. It’s about children learning to enjoy their play with a ‘can do’ attitude rather than a ‘can’t do’ one. Having a positive attitude will encourage self worth and resilience leading to a happier more fulfilling life. Lindon (1999) agrees and points out that throught play, particularly risky play children learn resilience and self-reliance.


 This then undoubtedly shows the relevance of the holistic approach. As movement increases heart rate and circulation and in turn arousal performance increases (Filer,2008) and if we are to consider emotional wellbeing being linked to educational achievements we need to look at providing stimulating educational opportunities that children enjoy. (Stine, 1997 cited in Sandseter) implies children both seek out and prefer play that combines physical risk-taking activities and where their physical strength is tested. The emotions raised in such play raises emotions of fear and exhilaration, either together or apart. Society as a whole may need to think how by over protecting our children maybe damaging and re think what is ‘healthy play’. Bell points out how parents need to accept risks in outdoor play (Bell, 2005) and the OCED (http://www.playengland.org.uk/?originx_9890vo_38527345561633w28u_200871614p) shows how departments can manage risk with an understanding that children desire to explore limits and try new experiences. Sensible management of risk has to be the answer in allowing children to learn without completely restricting experiences. This is achievable, and looking at how we can achieve this we can look at influences further a field and where it works.


One of the largest influences currently operating in Britain is the forest school approach. Originally derived from the Netherlands in the 1980’s, its philosophy is to equip children through education to encourage an appreciation of the natural world (Howles,2006). This inevitably encompasses the sustainability plan and allows children to experiences new challenges and risks. We see a huge rise taking off here. Both early years practitioners and teachers can now access free forest school training, (Forest Education Initiation, 2009) enabling them to incorporate this into practice. This is highly commended by Ofsted who support this for education purposes and sustainable development (www.ofsted.gov.uk). The idea of the benefits for our children has been endorsed by Bell, her Majesty’s chief inspector for schools whom states “outdoor education enables children to respond to challenges” and helps them to manage risks (Bell, 2005). Its approach underline the importance of “environments which broaden children’s first hand experiences and provide opportunities of learning in a real context” points out Tovey (2007). If every setting can use a least some forest school approaches and if Ofsted endorse its philosophy, hopefully we will see less environments with spongy rubbery surfaces and one purpose equipment. Although the pictures featured in this paper may be extremely different, the identification of what is of better value by all practitioners will hopefully change children’s environments throughout our society. If as practitioners we nurture and value our natural environment, we transcend this message down to the children in are care, and hopefully if parents spend time watching their children play and look at an environment though their eyes, they will value the spaces that at first didn’t appeal to their eye.

Here we can see a raise in expectations of what children are able to do, given appropriate guidance, and confirm the importance of a view of children as competent which the forest approach sets out to do. There is an understanding that there are more hazards as natural play spaces are more varied than traditional play areas however “ in general children learn to take more care and responsibility for their safety” points out Gill (2007:32). In the German city of Freiburg public playgrounds make extensive use of slopes, logs, boulders, plants and other natural features making them look more like bomb sites than playgrounds, yet accident rates have not increased ( Harrop,2005).


Parents however naturally want their children to be free from harm and to play in safety. If accidents occur we naturally want to find fault or blame someone. Creating a balance of what parents want and what practitioners deem essential for children will inevitably have to find compromise. Practitioners may educate parents in to their way of thinking but parent’s choice of restriction has to be taken seriously and sensitively with respect of their views. ‘Would we take our own children swimming in the sea, most probably yes most would and do, however how comfortable would we feel if our school choose this activity’? It becomes a trust issue, we can’t expect parents to leave their children and spend all day in fear. We have to gain trust and explain risks and precautions. Conversations with parents help them understand the need and process (Lindon, 2003:55).

With so much evidence promoting outside play and how this impacts on all other areas we can see how the enabling environment is a vital component in children’s lives. From allowing challenging spaces and carefully thought out provision to increase motivation and exploration children can learn though play at the same time as using their bodies for physical promotion. Teachers and Practitioners a like need to think carefully how they can take their lesson plan outside while still achieving curriculum outcomes and recognise they are also addressing all aspects of well-being. In their every day practice using the ‘Working with Parents in Partnership’ taken from “Every Child Matters”(DfES 2003) framework, Practitioners need to show parents the benefits of taking lessons outside and address the issue of play and risk. As with all good government initiatives, unless parents understand the principles and reasons, they may not be able or seek to change experiences for their children. Whilst schools and all organisations try to promote development and outdoor play, it will be that of parent’s attitudes towards where they play that will heavenly influence and impact on their children. We can only hope that all targets and outlined guidance will have an effect on our children. From where we  play to how we play with consideration to its impacts one thing stands out; it does appear that the government are considering implications for today’s society looking further to consider the future benefits and educational changes, government commitment towards a sustainable future, surely outcomes for our children will improve. It may take a while as a whole nation’s thoughts and ideas are re-addressing what is best for our children. From how we educate, teacher and parents attitudes, governments aim to provide unique outside provision assessable to children in schools and communities one thing is clear, if we take time to look and observe what children benefit from playing outside and how they play, the enjoyment it brings we can only support these practitioners that stand up for what they believe and not what parents wish to see, and hope these new enabling environments prove to combat problems created by restricting environments.


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