Inner cities 'perfect' for Forest School
Inner cities offer the perfect opportunity for children to experience forest school, despite the obvious lack of natural woodland, according to Chris Dee, director of Forest School Learning Initiative.
“Some of our most rewarding projects are working with city schools in deprived neighbourhoods to create an inspiring outdoor learning experience for their children. And, needless to say, very few of these schools can lay their hands easily on large areas of unspoilt woodland!
“But with flexibility and a creative approach, we believe any school anywhere can give children and young people opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self-esteem in a hands-on natural environment.”
A two-year project to run weekly forest school sessions with a primary school in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is a typical example: teaching staff here report that the children show improved language skills, greater self-confidence as well as a dramatic improvement in physical skills. There has been a wider impact on families, too, with many children now going to the park with their parents – because the children themselves want to - where they had not before.
There were many challenges to overcome, as Chris explained: “The children rarely accessed the outdoor spaces locally, as the parks are perceived to be high risk, with rubbish, dogs, and people who may be a threat. Another important consideration was that going outdoors is simply not part of the local culture, and most of the children would only visit nearby shops as their outdoor experience.”
Chris worked closely with the school to brief teaching staff and parents, trained two staff as Forest School Leaders, and provided mentoring and practical support. Having identified an area in a local park as suitable, and working closely with park rangers to risk assess and agree a way of working, the next challenge was getting the children there!
Chris commented: “The children have to walk through a number of minor streets and across a very busy main road. But with careful management and a strict routine that children and adults follow to manage the hazards along the way, the children are now safe and confident crossing the roads, and are themselves risk-aware.”
There were further challenges in the park itself, as Chris explained: “The hazards identified have been dog faeces, drug litter and rubbish. The children have a set routine that, if a dog enters the area, they do ‘X factor’: this means standing still, crossing their arms and looking away, which ensures the dog ignores the child and goes away. Most people in the area respect the children being there and control their dogs.”
The success of this project and all urban forest schools relies on local knowledge and a good relationships with local parks staff. These public spaces are full of a wide range of natural materials, and additional materials can also be taken in to support and sustain the area. Detailed health and safety management enables positive risk management of the area, with children being empowered to manage risks, too. Health and safety routines and management strategies are also essential to the positive and facilitative nature of forest school to enable child-led learning and to enable adults to play a positive and supportive role.
Chris added: “The changes in the children have been fantastic, and it just goes to show that inner cities – where children have the least opportunity to play and learn in the outdoors and connect with nature - can provide the perfect opportunity to embrace the values of forest school.”
Photo(top): Not many forest schools can boast London's 'Gherkin' building in the background!
Photo (bottom): Learning how to walk safely to forest school