Finding inspiration and inclusion in his school’s local woods.
Our school is lucky enough to have a small copse, about 70m by 10m, that is within the fenced school grounds and so is both easy to get to and provides a controllable environment that staff feel confident in and pupils secure in. Feeling relaxed is a good basis for some wonderful play and learning experiences for all concerned.
I have been leading forest school sessions for three years, taking a small group of KS1 and KS2 children with SEN out into the copse one morning a week for half a term. Using the wood gives the children a chance to let off steam, and space to avoid flash points or stresses. For example, in an indoor setting, if a child insists that everyone presses an imaginary button to enter a door, some will play along but others will become agitated; in the wood, though, there is space to walk around and avoid stress.
During forest school sessions our children have, amongst many other things, designed and built the school entry to the local scarecrow festival trail, hung on a branch like a sloth, created a stick and pan orchestra and “cooked” sausage sticks and gloopy soup. They have also re-enacted The Three Little Pigs, which was a big hit. Having had the story read outside, the children took turns to be the wolf, and build straw, stick and brick houses. They began to remember more and more lines from the story and speak or sign them a little more clearly. All pupils achieved well, with no pressure to “perform”.
Nature has designed the wood inclusively and all children find their own challenge, even if it’s simply being outside experiencing different weather conditions and getting muddy, wet or cold. The setting also allows for time alone or group work. It can provide artistic inspiration or present pupils with practical problems to solve.
Space for all
The wood can be a great leveller as well; two children may be many levels apart on scales or assessments but out in the wood they can share a Harry Potter game, find a common interest and communicate with a stick wand. The simple enjoyment of hanging from a tree branch provides physical stimulation that can be difficult to engender in the more structured environment of the PE hall.
Mixed ability outdoor activities also do much to stimulate social interaction. For example, when digging for dinosaur bones in the wood, all children have something to say or sign about dinosaurs; they can connect with each other, sharing their likes and dislikes, and get to know one another a little better.
Our classes have also enjoyed hiding in the woods pretending to be crashed aircrew during World War Two. The children were charged with working in small teams, thinking about and play-acting how to survive. They were also challenged to come up with descriptive language and time in the wood contributed to class literacy lessons through stories and poems.
Time spent in the woods can allow for deeper learning. Often a quietness descends on the wood as the children enter a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities. Such sessions act as training for the brain, encouraging better concentration when children return to their class.
Of course there are risks with activities such as this – and they must be carefully assessed – but the experiences and happy memories they provide can be priceless, especially for difficult-to-reach children. So, next time you are thinking about designing an outdoor play space, don’t forget to plant a tree and dig a hole too!
Andy Mulholland is an SEN Teaching Assistant and Forest School Practitioner at Headlands Primary School, York: