The government’s recent publication of their 25-year environment plan held strong ambitions for land and sea, and at its helm was a desire to encourage the next generation to gain a passion for their environment. Giving children exciting outdoor educational experiences and helping them to explore and discover the natural world has always been an important part of our work at Cheshire Wildlife Trust and we have been delivering Forest Schools across Cheshire over the last five years.
Forest School is an inspirational form of environmental education that offers children regular opportunities to learn and develop new skills through activities and free play in a woodland environment. At Cheshire Wildlife Trust we offer regular Forest Schools for families at weekends as well as dedicated sessions for school groups.
Unlike a school day a Forest School session has no fixed schedule – one day we might be building dens out of fallen branches before hunting for mini-beasts, whereas the next session might cover lighting fires safely, and telling stories. Most aspects of the school curriculum can be covered outside and we like to make sure they are – including making art projects using natural materials the children are tasked with collecting, through to trying their hand at outdoor cookery.
We have been inundated with positive feedback from parents and teachers about the difference attending our sessions has made, from increasing a child’s confidence and social skills, improving their behaviour and even aiding their concentration when back in their usual lessons. When children attend regularly we can often see their interest in nature and their general confidence grow ourselves.
We know contact with nature is good for children because it makes them happier, healthier and more creative and, for some, it can be life-changing. Our Heritage Lottery Fund funded ‘Wildkids’ project, based at our Swettenham Meadows and The Quinta Nature Reserve, was in direct response to the problem of the increasingly sedentary lifestyles children have today.
Research by Play England in 2007 suggested that children now spend significantly less time playing outdoors than their parents did. According to this research only 21% of children play outside every day, whereas 71% of adults did so during their childhood. Children in many cases have lost an important connection with nature which has affected their wellbeing, as well as their knowledge and understanding of the natural world. These changes have had a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of children and have led to a rise in what some people call ‘nature deficit disorder’.
Evaluation by Liverpool John Moores University of our sessions has found that Forest School is extremely beneficial in terms of increasing children’s physical activity levels and decreasing sedentary behaviour. Children exceeded NHS physical activity guidelines three-fold, more than they would by doing PE at school.
Cheshire Wildlife Trust works largely with primary school children living in the areas of Ellesmere Port, Crewe and Warrington where they can often have little access to green spaces and the countryside. When children are coming from a school with only a tarmac yard in Crewe, the Forest School is a completely new experience for them and as a result can have a great benefit and impact. One eight year old child had never been to a woodland before, so by immersing such children in a forest for six weekly sessions, we are opening a whole new world to them and turning back the clock to a time when children spent hours of long summer holidays and weekends outside in nature.
My own personal motivation for wanting to deliver Forest Schools is linked closely to my childhood. I grew up in rural Cheshire, and exploring the woodlands and fields surrounding my home was a large part of my free time. If the weather was fine, you wouldn’t see me between breakfast and tea. I feel that my early introduction to the natural world of frogs spawn, damming streams, making dens and picking wild blackberries has had a huge influence on who I am today; and my chosen career in environmental education. It’s because of my upbringing that I strive to give children growing up today similar opportunities, even if it’s just one day a week through Forest School.
At Cheshire Wildlife Trust we strongly believe that by immersing young children in their natural surroundings through Forest School, we can enable them to become individuals who care and take action to protect our natural heritage – they are the nature conservationists of the future.
Header Image: ©Alison Hitchens
About the Author: Nick Rowles is People & Wildlife Officer for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. In this role Nick raises the awareness of children regarding wildlife conservation and the natural world, through visits to Cheshire Wildlife Trust and outreach work at schools and nature reserves. He delivers fun and inspirational outdoor education with school groups in Cheshire through his role as Forest School leader.