Ahead of our next Forest School Leader Training in March, I sat down with one of our trainers, Gemma Hindi to find out more about Forest School and the outcomes trainees can expect from the course.
Gemma discovered her passion for outdoor learning while still at school, and working in nurseries and garden centres. She came to see environmental education as a way of combining these two interests. Going on to study an undergraduate degree in Sociology and Philosophy, followed by a Masters in Environment, Science and Society, Gemma now has over 15 years of experience in outdoor learning, with 10 of those as a Forest School practitioner and Trainer.
‘My specific interest is people and nature connection’, Gemma tells me, ‘how people engage with nature, how they interact, how the outdoors environment is used and understood by the public.’
'I first came across forest school when I was an environmental education volunteer in a Sussex nature reserve. It was a very new thing – no-one had heard of Forest School at that point!’ Soon after, Gemma was undertaking her own Forest School training.
But what makes Forest School unique? There are 3 key characteristics: 'the child-led element, the idea of being in an environment that is not the usual and the regularity of the sessions’. Gemma stresses that Forest School is not about a ‘one-off school trip’, but about regular sessions, and encouraging children to develop outdoor skills over time. She also emphasises the importance of tasks being ‘80% achievable, but 20% challenging’: pitching tasks at this level allows children to feel that they have achieved but leaves room for them to push themselves.
Of course, not all children grow up by a forest, and adapting these activities to an urban environment is an essential part of modern Forest School. It comes down to a society-wide perception of risk: ‘even if a child is grows up next to an amazing woodland, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually accessing it, or allowed to experience it in the ways we assume they would.
'For city dwellers, growing up entirely within a built environment, discovering and becoming comfortable in natural spaces is even more important.'
Gemma has seen countless benefits for children attending Forest School. Working outside is known to be hugely beneficial to children’s mental health, not to mention the obvious physical benefits of outdoor exercise. Forest School also allows them to interact with adults in a way they might not have experienced before, boost their confidence and self esteem, and even develop a love of learning that may have been missing from their school life.
‘It’s just like when you learn a new language. You’re learning the language of the outdoors. Once you learn the name of the trees and see what you can use each for… you see the outdoor world in a different way. Your local park isn’t just somewhere to play football in, it’s actually somewhere you can explore, and look at the natural elements as well.’
Forest School is absolutely meant to be exciting and fun. A typical first session will start with a game to explore the site – ‘a lot of children aren’t allowed to get dirty, so making them comfortable is important!’ - whittling skewers, building a fire, toasting apples and climbing trees. But these activities are underpinned by structure and control. A skilled practitioner will be able to present these activities that could be seen as risky in a managed way, while preserving the sense of spontaneity and fun.
And of course, this is not dissimilar to what Trainee Forest School Leaders can expect from our courses: ‘There’s no point teaching something to children when you haven’t gone through it yourself!’.
Our training emphasises the creation of a 'Forest School community', where participants learn from each other as much as from her. 'It's a great session for anyone really, coming from any background. Whether you're a teacher, and you know about managing children but you want the skills aspect, or if you're an outdoor practitioner already, and you don't have the behavioural management or the teaching aspect'. The course will cover every aspect of Forest School practice: selecting sites, outdoor school, teaching skills, outdoor education theory: 'it's everything I love in one week!'
Gemma says that being a Forest School Practitioner is an ongoing process, and having a network of other practitioners to check in with is an absolute necessity. Gemma and our experienced team are there to support you throughout the training programme. This is really important as you take your first steps in your forest school journey
There are still spaces available on our first Forest School Leader Training course of the year, which will start on March 4 in Stave Hill Ecology Park. It is a five stage training programme taking place over nine months: after an initial week of guided learning, participants will develop their own Forest School portfolio of evidence, deliver six Forest School sessions in their own setting, complete an outdoor first aid course, and finish with four days of practical assessment.