At Amity Amsterdam, we are very lucky to have not only a wonderful school building and great facilities, but also a beautiful and diverse woodland right on our doorstep which we can use as an outdoor classroom. We started developing this forested area in August, and so began Forest School, which so far has had the most fantastic response from the children.
Forest School is special because it presents a different kind of challenge to our students and, as a result, they play differently. The woodland resources they can play with are all natural, which prompts them to repurpose the things that they find. Sticks become wands and swords, the mud and water become paint, the trees and branches become climbing frames, and so on. There are endless possibilities!
Our woodland space is currently used by all of our Early Years classes. Each session is led by a teacher and a teaching assistant, and we normally go out once or twice a week. Our Forest School sessions usually begin with the children getting changed into their wellies and their waterproof clothes. We encourage them to do as much of this as possible by themselves and, even though it is tricky to begin with, even our youngest children can now get ready to go with little or no help at all! We then begin to make our way into the forest, playing running games or hide and seek on the way. One of the key ideas of being outside in the forest is that there is space and time for the children to not only learn in the great outdoors, but also to play and have fun in it! We may even spot one or two muddy puddles to splash in on the way...
When we get to the forest, we have two different areas; Base Camp and the Mud Kitchen. Each area offers something different and unique to the children, depending on what we’re going to learn that day. Base camp is full of long grass, slimy insects and trees that are good for building dens in. The mud kitchen has less grass, bigger trees to climb in, and lots of things to make mud potions and mud cakes with. When we have decided on an area to learn in that day we gather around on the logs and see who can remember the five forest school rules!
The forest is a great place to learn about risk. When we are in the forest classroom, we (the teachers) make real fires and use real saws and other tools, and nature presents its own risks too. That is why we have an easy to remember set of Forest School rules. The children enjoy learning and remembering these, and they are an important reminder in order to keep them safe but also help them make calculated risks and learn how to be in nature.
THE FOREST SCHOOL RULES
No picking or licking!
There are a number of different seeds, mushrooms and fungi that live in our forest. We are very honest and open with the children about how dangerous they can be, and that is the reason why we always start with this rule. We do not tamper with the natural environment or remove the things that grow in the forest that could potentially harm us, so it is very important to teach children about how to assess risk and manage it safely and responsibly. Forest School teachers do a risk assessment walk-through before taking the children out, so if there is anything that should definitely be avoided, they mark it clearly and visibly as a hazard so that everyone is safe.
No shaking or breaking!
This rule applies to the trees and plants that grow around us. Anything that is still growing from a plant, we have to be very gentle with. When we reach this rule, we talk about how the branches grow leaves that eat all of the lovely sunshine to help the plant grow, and how without them we would have no forest!
Stop, and come back!
Both the Mud kitchen and Base Camp areas of the forest have a red boundary around their edges which shows the children how far they can explore. When you reach this red line, and there is no teacher with you, it’s time to turn around.
We must always be caring towards our friends, the plants, the trees, the animals and the insects who live in the woods.
Always wear a hi-vis!
This helps us keep the children safe and together, and the adults wear them too so we can all be easily seen.
After we’ve all recited the rules, the children are free to go and explore. The magical thing about being outside is that there are no ’toys’, so the children have to use their imagination to play and learn. The activities vary depending on the age of the group; the older children may, for example, have the dexterity to tie sticks together and make a model. There is normally also an adult leading an activity with a tool; this might be using a saw, a hammer or maybe making a fire. As the children learn and play, we observe and assess them as if we were indoors. The forest is an extension of our classroom, and provides us as teachers with almost infinite possibilities to challenge their imagination and communication skills.
As the year progresses and we continue to develop the forest, we want more and more of the year groups to use it. We are hoping that by spring of next year, all of the students will come and use the forest for their learning. There are opportunities out there for every subject, and we are really looking forward to expanding and developing an environment that all of the teachers and students can enjoy and benefit from. We are also very much enjoying the challenges that the winter has brought, which includes getting very, very muddy of course!