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A Reflective Diary - by Mark Adkins

Posted by FSLI on July 1, 2017

This 'Reflective Diary' by Mark Adkins is a fascinating read, we hope you enjoy it...

My journey training as a Forest School leader has had numerous positive impacts on myself and the children in my care.

Here are some of my highlights:

One of the challenges within my primary school setting is attendance – my year 5 class in particular has struggled to meet the targets set by the government/Ofsted. As a trial, I decided to see if FS could have an impact on children A,B & C coming into school. Bearing in mind, it was the middle of winter I asked if they guys would turn up to school at 8:30 to help Mr A (me) set up and prepare forest school (with the added lure of hot chocolate!).

Child A had motivation issues & hardly ever arrived on time, however he attended our forest school sessions on a regular basis. In fact he was the first to turn up!

Child B has a disruptive home life with social services supporting the family, he struggled to detach himself from mum in the mornings & would often complain of feeling sick. During FS, he became punctual & attended on a regular basis. His dad even remarked that when he went to get child B up in the morning, he would already be up and ready to go!

Child C, was historically a very poor attender – she attended FS regularly at the start but tailed off towards the end – not her choice but for “family reasons” out of her control.

In all 3 individuals, I observed how the FS ethos and values provided them with an opportunity where they could feel safe, build a positive relationship with an adult, learn to collaborate with each other, engage enthusiastically in activities whilst learning new skills and build their self-esteem. Also, incidental learning would often break out; talking about wildlife or how the weather was effecting the environment. It was a definite success.

As part of my FS training I have planned and delivered 10 sessions to two year 5 and reception classes – this has also provided me with some interesting insights and comparisons from my day to day environment as a classroom teacher.

Teaching FS with reception has been really rewarding – I observed how natural their impulsion was to explore and inquire at this early age. They had no problem with the freedom of open ended tasks, unlike the older KS2 pupils who were more conditioned to follow specific objectives with particular outcomes.

I also observed that children who were perceived as being quiet and reserved became confident and vocal within FS. One afternoon, I had a parent approach and tell me how delighted she was with how vocal her son had become through FS.

Another child, who regularly displayed disruptive and defiant behaviour in the classroom really excelled in the FS sessions – her engagement with the outdoors and the activities was fascinating. In fact, one day – whilst cooking – she suddenly exclaimed, “This is the best day ever!” Over time, she built healthy relationships with the supporting adults and developed a love for the outside.

Another example of the positive influence of forest school was with a child who had ASD – he began fearful of rain, fire, cold & nettles. However, as the weeks went by he grew in his confidence and his resilience to overcome his anxieties. By the end he was singing songs, asking for water to play with, identifying nettles so he could avoid them and cooking marsh mallows over a fire!

As mentioned earlier, I have also taught two year 5 classes which have had equally interesting observations, here are a few:

Although the year 5 pupils were excited by the prospect of FS, they were also slightly unsure of the “open” times for exploring and enquiring by themselves. I think this is due to being conditioned to observe a specific learning objective with a “right” or “wrong” approach and outcome. Moving from this linear experience to a more independent, intrinsically motivated activity was a bit of a shock for some. But, through the sessions with regular encouragement, these “open” ended times became really important for the children. I remember on one occasion where a group were called to take part in making a mallet and none of them wanted to because they had dug a hole and were excavating interesting stones out of the mud (treasure in their eyes). Others loved to use the time to role play, build camps or go searching for bugs. All of the children then became confident at sharing their experiences or findings during “Basecamp” moments.

I also noticed the difference in confidence – within most classroom lessons children are grouped by levels of ability and although no one is explicitly told which ability (top, middle or bottom) they’re in, they all deduct it! This can have a negative impact of self-esteem, if a child has to spend most their time in a “bottom” set – often feeling like they’re behind or unable to think to the same level as peers, they can start to withdraw or display negative behaviour. FS turns all these constructs of education on their head – all are on a level playing field, there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way just perhaps an easier or better way to approach a problem (shared by the peers themselves). There is a choice to work collaboratively on an activity and a choice as to how big or small that group can be – but most choose into working with others to get things done.

It has been my experience that FS does do what it says on the tin – it does have a holistic impact & the children grow in their self-esteem over regular and sustained sessions… as one child quoted “Forest School has been life changing!”