How outdoor learning supports all!

Joanna Hinson - Forest School Leader

"If you have ever spent any time in a Nursery playground you will see how reluctant mark-makers are happy to chalk on the floor, that those with little interest in number want to join in counting jumps/comparing how far a toy car travels, and how watching a butterfly flit about draws more awe and wonder of the world than any book."

Joanna Hinson - Forest School Leader

Hello, my name is Joanna Hinson 🙂 I have been a Forest School Leader for eight years. In my previous school it was very much intertwined with Early Years provision. Our EYFS department had 2 Nursery Classes and 3 Reception Classes and we tried to get all classes outside for a set of six sessions twice a year. These were split between myself and another Forest School Leader and we loved doing it!

The children responded to being outside with excitement and enthusiasm. Although we were in leafy South East London we were often the providing the children with their first real contact with nature and freedom outdoors. Many children did not have a back garden, lots were usually reticent to get dirty, and many were wary of bugs! By the end of the school year they were always mud monsters, happy to collect woodlice, and desperate to go into the woods!

Currently I am the dedicated Forest School Leader at a Primary School near Canterbury in Kent, where we try to get every year group outside from Reception Classes through to Year 6. During the pandemic this has been weekly for all 14 classes, moving forward it will remain ALL classes but stretched across the school year, 3 times a year for each. We also support two SEND classes who join in whenever they can.

Why Focus On This And Not The Classroom?

If you have ever spent any time in a Nursery playground you will see how reluctant mark-makers are happy to chalk on the floor, that those with little interest in number want to join in counting jumps/comparing how far a toy car travels, and how watching a butterfly flit about draws more awe and wonder of the world than any book.

There is a growing quantity of evidenced research into how children thrive in Forest School, that backs up what we all see, and the research covers all areas of development:

“A Forest environment was found to have a positive effect on 4-5 year olds speech development when compared to a classroom environment” Richardson & Murray, 2017

“Adding natural materials to a pre-school outdoor area was found to improve self-regulation focus, and socialisation”

Brussoni et al, 2017

“In Michigan, USA, school sites with a greater proportion of landscape covered by trees as opposed to lawn, were associated with better academic performances in State wide tests”

Matsouka, 2010

For our school it’s because we see how happy and healthy it makes our pupils, how they develop as learners outside and how that transfers back into their classrooms.

The Forest School Approach

The strength of this approach comes from following the children’s interests, allowing them to build curiosity and seek their own ways of exploring further.

The Forest School Association gives a brilliant explanation on their website:

Forest School is a child-centred inspirational learning process, that offers opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. It is a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting.’

Children will always have adult support but choose to investigate and examine in their own way. For some this is to ask 100 questions, observing and listening carefully, for others it is to touch and feel, predict, and deduce. Forest school provides the resources, and the children use them.

This provision may be information cards to help identify butterflies – or it may be a huge natural puddle of mud! Choosing the correct tool for exploration might mean using a rake for leaves, binoculars to track a bird, or an adult’s hand when trying something new.

How Outdoors Helps Indoors

For our youngest participants Forest School frequently means discovering things for the first time! The 4- & 5-year-olds bring role play into the setting more than any other year group, mostly because it is how they make sense of the world. They love to use sticks as wands or spoons, as horses or swords, as characters (think Stickman) and drumsticks. I have found that there is no end to what a stick can represent.

Siren films beautifully illustrate this in ‘The Log Guitar’ clip below.

Children use their sessions in a multitude of different ways. Most love joining in with woodcraft, especially if we have a project or purpose to create something specific. However, just having a go at something they see as an adult activity brings joy. The children are always supervised to ensure safety but are encouraged to risk assess for themselves. Part of the routine at sessions is to repeat the safety rules, the children are very good at remembering these, as well as spotting and discussing danger.

It can still be a little daunting to introduce woodwork with EYFS children, but I highly recommend it! I have had 3-yr-olds either end of a bow saw like the one in this clip:

No Forest School?

Forest School allows resilience, determination, problem-solving, persistence, courage, repetition, and communication to develop, and means children transfer improved listening skills, boosted self-esteem, and an open attitude to learning back into their everyday lessons. But you may well not have access to one!

The pedagogy of time, space, support, and following the lead of the child, is something that you can implement anywhere. It isn’t a case of ignoring the curriculum, it’s about taking time out during the week to explore nature with the children and letting them take ownership of their own learning. Somehow the criteria required to ‘prove learning’ will get covered! The Where? Why? When? What? that children ask all the time will ensure the required knowledge is explained, and observation will show the ‘How?’.

As our pupils love of learning has grown our school has started to extend Outdoor Learning beyond Forest School. The plan is not to replace it but to work alongside it, making the most of our natural resources and tapping into a great way to learn while acknowledging wellbeing and nature. We have introduced ‘Small Parts Play’ into break Times, currently the playground has plenty of tyres to explore and enjoy, and a limited amount of guttering that is very popular during wet weather!

What Next?

We are slowly introducing more items, like sheeting for dens and are looking for resources all the time. The EY Community is fabulous at repurposing and making the most of outdoors, but I also know that different settings have different strengths, regardless of facilities or funds. This clip shows some of the learning possible just through a pile of free tyres. Yes free! Garages pay to have them taken away so are very willing to ‘donate’ them.

Much of this will be obvious to those of you working with under fives. You are brilliant at making everything into a learning opportunity.

All I would add is it’s worth getting a staff member trained as a Forest School Leader, it will help them adapt your setting, whatever it’s limitations.

The Outdoor Learning that the EYFS provides will be enhanced and extended into new directions, and both staff and children will benefit.

I wish you luck with all you do!

The Early Years Clip Library

There are hundreds of videos available in the clip library that look at quality outdoor learning for young children. Whether it's in a forest school setting, an outdoor nursery or a school play ground, you'll be sure to find useful clips to support training and practice with your team.

Visit the clip library →