Council area: Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council
Forest School contact: Julia Henderson
Main Forest School contact email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
School website address: http://www.mossleynurseryschool.com/
Year of Forest School accreditation: 2016
Background: All our staff were trained by NIFSA in 2016. We all wanted to develop our outdoor learning skills and saw this as a great opportunity. We are all passionate about getting our pupils outside as often as possible.
Forest School setting: We have a wonderful setting at our school. We have our very own dedicated forest school site. It has a large greenhouse, circle of seats, muddy areas, mud kitchen, sand area, water butt and much more.
Evaluation: At Mossley Nursery School, we decided to embark on the Forest Schools journey following a good practice visit by myself visit to Alfreton Nursery School and Little Explorers Outdoor preschool in Derby in July 2014. Both preschools had access to a wild site, both very different but equally exposing the children to a program of hands-on, exploratory experiences unique to the outdoors. Following my dissemination of my experience, I shared my enthusiasm with colleagues in staff development. This is where we designated an area within our grounds in September 2014. The area was fenced in March 2015 and the ground was left to go to seed. Our very first sessions included simply taking the children up in May and June 2015, to experience walking, running, lying and playing with the long grass!
I then visited an outdoor preschool, Highway Farm Activity Centre in Cornwall in July 2015 to gain some further ideas regarding early years practice and site development. As whole school staff, we had recognised the need for further training and the need to build confidence in embracing the outdoors. As part of our extended schools program, outdoor learning had been highlighted and 6 sessions with Brian Poots, a qualified Forest School Leader, had been organised.
On our first session in the forest site, affectionately named 'The Wee Wood', it was wet and cold. The children needed to suit up in order to make them more comfortable. Some children felt unusual in their wet weather gear and did not seem to be used to being outdoors in adverse weather. In particular, one little girl seemed upset and made it known that she wanted to go back inside. It seemed to be a steady domino effect with a handful of children who seemed to be unhappy that we would go outside on a cold, damp day.
We persevered and on reflection following the session, we came to the conclusion that these children that were highlighted, were the children that needed more of these experiences. They needed to see what the outdoors could offer in terms of enjoyment, stimulation and health benefits. The particular child mentioned previously, suffers with severe asthma and spends much time inside in a central heated environment. We were aware of this fact, so we were able to keep a very close eye on her to ensure that she was fit to remain in the wood. We also concluded that some of the unfamiliarity came from the new suits, new changing routine for us and being in the new surroundings of the wood. Before the next session, we talked with the children to remind them that we would be going and to remember warm clothes, we also had chance to try a different way of changing. This had a big impact and meant that the children were more relaxed and mentally prepared for the experience.
As the sessions then progressed, and the children became more aware of a structure and routine, they started to explore more. As we work in pre-school, in our day-to-day practice, we are used to a mix of free play and some more focused, adult led starting points. We changed our sessions to mirror this. There would be a forest welcome in the circle, setting boundaries, reminding rules, introducing learning experiences that they may want to try, and free exploration of the wood. The children responded very well. We then had children that were more engaged and free to explore the area. Some headed to imaginative type play, pretending the woodland is an extension of the home, creating stew, soup, dinner, making plates from log slices, mixing and experimenting. We had the problem solvers who were digging, building, fixing things; we had the explorers who had to find 'things', bugs, creatures, stones, and interesting sticks. The adult was more able to respond to the children's learning because we knew the children were more relaxed. We were also starting to observe that the children who were 'freezing', 'bored' or 'needed the toilet', were far more engaged and actually starting to enjoy themselves.
We had a visit in the crisp, frozen months. The children were well wrapped up. We immediately noticed that everything was white. The change in the wood was breathtaking. During this visit, the children could see frozen spiders webs, frost crystals and the most exciting thing was that the wild flower beds had filled up with water and created a frozen pond! The ice was thick and the children had lots of amazement feeling the ice and one of the youngest children in the nursery wanted to 'skate' on it. He tested the ice with his foot, and it seemed strong. I supported him whilst he stood on the ice in his wellies. "It feels slippery!" 2 other children then stood on it. It held their weight for around 5 seconds before cracking and their shoes dropped a couple of inches into the mud underneath. Their faces were priceless.
A particularly great session was session 2 of den building. The first session, the children were unsure of the strategies of fixing and wanted the adults to do it for them. The adults modeled and led the children for the session. By the follow up session several weeks later, the children took over. We had shy children who were confident to work as a leader. A very shy boy in my class planned and laid out his tarpaulin before collecting his canes and fixing them. He was then able to show the others how we could fix another sheet onto it. They had a purpose too. They were talking and telling each other what it would be. One of the dens became a train to Barry's amusements in Portrush and they needed tickets, which were obviously leaves collected. The most amazing discovery was that the cold child, was no longer complaining. She was too busy.
They now love it when we are going to The Wee Wood and always want to know if they are having a campfire snack because the toast tastes nicer! We have been fortunate in the last few weeks to experience the sunshine and heat in the wood. Everything is growing and looks different. Buttercups were mixed into the stew, the dandelions clocks were picked and blown and the children, for once, had to add water to the muck to make mud!! There have been strawberries in the poly tunnel to water, birds to feed and also birds to watch. The icing on the cake was releasing butterflies that we had nurtured into our secret wood and watching them fly and land in our little haven.
As a team, we have felt that visits to the forest site have provided us with a different dimension to our teaching. We have also noticed that some of our more able children that are used to lots of adult interaction and over stimulation have been the ones who have struggled to explore freely and needed lots of support. They have maybe had the most difficult journey but maybe have made the most progress over the year. The most noticeable thing is that if you have a relaxed, confident and happy team of adults leading the sessions, the children take the lead from you and learn how to enjoy the outdoor time. We are definitely looking forward to nurturing these skills with the 78 new children beginning in September t his year and to delivering our planned programme of activities. It has been a very rewarding journey.
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